July 17, 2023
Ohemaa Nyanin is the New York Liberty’s ‘Ms. Make-it-Happen’
How the assistant GM became the New York Liberty's backbone
When Sabrina Ionescu first met the front office and staff of the New York Liberty following being drafted in April of 2020, she didn’t know that she’d see a familiar face. It was a familiar face that Ionescu remembers from her days in Colorado Springs while trying out for USA Basketball’s U16 and U17 teams. It was the person who would drive her and her teenage teammates to and from the airport in Colorado was now also a part of her WNBA team.
“‘Wait, you are part of this organization?’” Ionescu recalled to The Next about when she first realized that Liberty assistant general manager Ohemaa Nyanin was a part of the franchise. “Like I was very confused, so I had no idea.”
Seeing Nyanin provided Ionescu with some much needed comfort as she was not only about to embark on a rookie season as a professional, but she was about to begin her professional career during one of the most unprecedented situations in professional sports history, a season inside a bubble in Florida during a global pandemic.
It was reassuring for Ionescu to know that someone who she knew cared about her as a person rather than just a basketball player was going to also be a part of this journey as well. At the time, Nyanin was just in her second year with the franchise following the team’s last of two seasons playing at the Westchester County Center. That bubble season — which amounted to the team’s worst record in franchise history (2-20) — represented a turning point for both Nyanin, general manager Jonathan Kolb and the Liberty when it came to their goals individually and collectively.
Without a lot of hands on deck down in Brandenton, Florida and the losing season the team had, Nyanin noticed that players wanted to come and be a part of the Liberty. She realized that the way in which she worked and provided for the athletes and staff really had an impact. And years following the bubble experience, Nyanin’s approach has led to free agent superstars signing with the Liberty, and made it incredibly difficult for other players to have to say goodbye to the franchise when they are traded.
“One thing I think I’m proud of is people want to be here,” Kolb said back in January during Jonquel Jones’ introductory press conference. “This isn’t fantasy basketball, there’s real people on the side of these transactions. They matter and they want to be here.”
And that’s true. The New York Liberty have become a destination franchise following a period when players wouldn’t take their offer sheets seriously. What has been Nyanin’s role in all of this and how has her rise in New York’s front office refined the vision of the franchise?
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How Nyanin’s background shaped the Liberty
Prior to coming to New York, Nyanin spent four years as the Women’s National Team assistant director at USA Basketball. She was in lockstep alongside former director Carol Callan and was responsible for coordinating the logistics on all of the team’s competitions. That meant leading the youth U16, U17 and U19 teams to different international competitions, such as the Pan American Games and the World University Games and coordinating all of the travel and administrative organization for the senior national team. She, Callan and a group of volunteers grinded through both the 2016 Olympics in Rio and then two years later at the World Cup in Tenerife.
But in addition to managing the competitions themselves, Nyanin fielded the applications for the young athletes who came into Colorado Springs to show the selection committee what they could do in addition to interacting with the invitees. In her four years involved in the USA Basketball ecosystem, she came across future WNBA players, parents of the athletes and their college coaches.
But after four years of dedicated work and traveling around the world, Nyanin needed a deep breath and a chance to recharge. But not long after she left USA Basketball and Colorado Springs, she got a call from Katie Smith, the head coach of the Liberty at the time. She explained that the team had recently hired a new GM in Kolb and the team needed a manager of basketball operations, which was quite similar to what she had previously done with Team USA. Nyanin was the first person Smith thought of. Meanwhile, Kolb got another recommendation from Renee’ Brown, a former executive at the league office who spent 16 years on the USA Basketball selection committee.
Once Kolb and Nyanin connected on the phone for the first time, it was clear that Nyanin’s experience working with athletes at different stages of their careers would allow her to help him build the Liberty organization back up again after years of uncertainty and underinvestment. She would come into the WNBA with relationships with some of the best young players in the country.
“She’s had to kind of not adapt but figure out in a way how to communicate effectively with high level athletes at different stages of their careers, from teen years into adulthood,” Kolb said. “And that in it of itself is a real skill, and so that’s really what drew me to her.”
After that first phone call, Nyanin left feeling empowered, but she was cautiously optimistic. What happened to taking some time to breathe? But shortly following that first phone call, she was offered the job.
While in her first few years on the job as director of basketball operations she was responsible yet again for a lot of the logistical matters that allow a WNBA team to function, Kolb quickly realized that her value wasn’t just in her consistency and attention to detail. Nyanin set a standard in the organization regarding how people around the team needed to look out for each other and just take a moment and care.
“She has this really empathetic ability to check and be like ‘hey,’” Kolb said. “It almost serves as a hard reset, a necessary hard reset. I think that just shows her empathy and also her awareness level of like ‘wait a minute, I need to check on this person.’”
She knew when to comfort former Liberty guard DiDi Richards last season when she was dealing with injury or when the young player was missing home. Richards was another player that Nyanin met when she was a teenager while at USA Basketball trials.
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And for Ionescu, Nyanin served as her “hype” woman back when she was dealing with pressures from other players and the media while she played through her ankle injury back in 2021. “She kind of was always that hype man and knew what I was capable of when I was able to get healthy,” she said. “Just that reassurance that I’m back to where she knew I was going to be and believed in me is something that I’m very grateful for.”
This emotional intelligence is a gift that Nyanin uses in also making sure that international players feel welcomed and appreciated in addition to domestic ones. Prior to her work with USA Basketball, she worked in the NGO space and got two degrees: her bachelors in international relations (IR), foreign language and communications Media and her masters in justice and public policy. She noted that IR was in her blood as her father was an economist for the World Bank and she lived in five different countries growing up.
While she isn’t directly working on public policy or international economics, her IR education helps her when interacting with and forming relationships with some of the best athletes around the world. The Liberty have four players on roster this season who were born and raised in countries outside of the US. They are tied with the Minnesota Lynx for having the most international players across the league. Having a lot of international players on roster and within the organization is something that Nyanin takes a ton of pride in.
The phrase “people are a product of experiences,” is one that she often comes back to when interacting with and helping the athletes and coaches within the organization.
“A lot of the people that I work with, a lot of the people that I serve, a lot of the people that I kind of come into communication with are all coming from different spaces and experiences,” she said. ”Understanding diversity in thought in addition to addition in experiences are what can make for a magical collective experience in this world.”
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Standards that are like Disneyland
Speaking of magic, let’s flash back to the bubble season. While Kolb and Nyanin were understaffed, their hands on deck approached showed both of them exactly how they wanted their organization to function: just like Disneyland. Kolb remembered the two of them scrambling around the IMG Academy getting players bikes and golf carts and making sure that all the players had to worry about was the basketball.
What does that mean exactly? It means making sure that for players like Jones and Han Xu, their beds in their apartments are long and wide enough to address their long 6’6 and 6’11 frames. It means meeting Betnijah Laney late at night right after she arrived back in the United States after playing overseas. It means making sure that Breanna Stewart, her wife Marta and their daughter Ruby were settled and had everything they needed in their new New York home.
“I think a lot of people are always chasing that next good experience,” Nyanin said. “And so if you’re able to create a community, where you don’t have to ask for anything or everything is kind of given to you in the way that you want to receive it, then you want to stay. When you go to Disneyland, you expect magic and when you get there, you receive the magic.”
And that expectation of magic has dovetailed into how the franchise has been able to successfully land free agents. Following the bubble season, the Liberty have convinced players like Laney, Stefanie Dolson, Jones, Stewart and Courtney Vandersloot to be willing to breathe in that magic and make it a part of their everyday lives.
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What the future holds
When Laney was asked what this team would be without Nyanin around, her immediate response was “chaotic.” Nyanin gives the team, including the players and coaches, structure. She always reminds the group of when players have to be ready to travel or at a team event. Most practices end with her announcements.
When assistant coach Roneeka Hodges was asked about what the team would be like without Nyanin, she didn’t even want to think about that possibility. Her eyebrows rose upon being asked the question. “My eyebrow went up because as soon as you said it, I thought about the person who makes things go,” she said. “And when I think of O, I think of Ms. make-it happen. She’s a jack of all trades.”
While Nyanin has the reputation as the logistical guru and the glue that holds all of the parts of the puzzle together, Kolb wants to make sure that she’s growing and moving away from a lot of the responsibilities associated with being the director of operations but rather that of an assistant general manager. While Nyanin was promoted to AGM last season, her transition into more of the responsibilities of the role began this offseason during New York’s historic free agency period.
While in the past Kolb had relied upon Nyainin to provide a personality background check on different free agents and draftees, Kolb didn’t want her to be behind the scenes anymore. He wanted her to be front and center and in the room and building relationships with players and their agents. And in January, the world saw her.
“She needs to be a general manager in this league,” Kolb said. “Full stop, it needs to happen, and that’s her goal.”
But for now, while that remains her long-term goal, her short-term goal revolves around the phrases in her professional life colliding in a meaningful way.
Like with Ionescu and Richards, Nyanin has known Breanna Stewart since she was a much younger person. She wasn’t a teenager but rather was a sophomore in college. Nyanin was there at USA Basketball when Stewart won her only silver medal in the 2015 Pan American games in Toronto. Nyanin still remembers her disappointment. She still remembers when she first met Stewart’s parents. So less than eight years later, seeing them all in New York in Barclays Center for the first time this past February was surreal.
“I’ve seen her in her youth not kind of attaining the goal that she wants to, and so this, me being in my role today, now all I want to see is her win another championship with the New York Liberty across her chest.”
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Written by Jackie Powell
Jackie Powell covers the New York Liberty and runs social media and engagement strategy for The Next. She also has covered women's basketball for Bleacher Report and her work has appeared in Sports Illustrated, Harper's Bazaar and SLAM. She also self identifies as a Lady Gaga stan, is a connoisseur of pop music and is a mental health advocate.