It all started with a qualifying camp and an Uber.
In September 2019, former UCLA forward Michaela Onyenwere patiently waited for her Uber to depart for a training camp before the 2019 FIBA AmeriCup. The camp also consisted of the 2019-2020 USA Basketball Women’s National Team.
As Onyenwere was about to mentally start the first step of her game day routine, the Uber driver informed her that they were waiting on one more person: Onyenwere’s future Phoenix Mercury teammate Diana Taurasi.
When the standout Bruin heard the one-of-a-kind last name, her natural inner fan came out.
“It started off as a really nerve-racking experience but once she got in her seat, she looked at me and said I know you, you go to UCLA,” Onyenwere said.
The budding 20-year-old WNBA prospect was left in complete astonishment after hearing Taurasi already knew who she was. Onyenwere remembers telling herself to act cool and not awkward. The new Mercury addition was reminded of this moment while she was going through her iPhone trying to find pictures to post on social media to congratulate the league’s only athlete to reach 10,000 points on August 3, 2023.
From B-team to Barclays
Onyenwere had a late start to sports due to attending a private school without sports. Once sports was available to the Colorado native, she had some trial and error experiences with swimming, track and field and basketball. Basketball would be the one to stick at the age of 11.
“I tried out for the team and I actually made the B-team and we won the B-team championship,” Onyenwere said. “That’s where my love for basketball really started. I was a very introductory raw talent. Once I was in high school, I made varsity and then my sophomore year I knew I could really go far with basketball then came the college looks junior year.”
In Aurora, Colorado, oftentimes, Onyenwere was not surrounded by people that look like her. But this never bothered her. Instead, she took her own unwalked path to her goals with the assistance of her family and Nigerian community. She would go on to be the first women’s basketball player from Colorado to be drafted in the first round.
Her father Peter Onyenwere has been her No. 1 supporter since the day Michaela decided to commit herself to basketball. Peter’s Instagram account resembles a Michaela shrine filled with admiration and praise for his only daughter.
The patriarch of the Onyenwere family has a shrine of his own with his gold medal at its nucleus from the 1979 Imo State Sports Festival held in his home country, Owerri, Nigeria. Peter competed as a sprinter in the festival as well as in the 1980 and 1984 Olympics.
“He knows what it means to win at the highest level,” Michaela said. “So, having his advice and experience has been great for me. He has always been present in my life. His Instagram is filled with pictures of me that I jokingly wish he’d delete but I wouldn’t trade the support for anything.”
Her father’s athletic genes were passed down to Michaela and each of her siblings: U.K., Zach and Patrick have all excelled in basketball, football and baseball while staying connected by wearing the No. 12.
After spending thousands of hours in the gym, Michaela finally heard the words by WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert, “With the sixth pick in the 2021 WNBA Draft the New York Liberty select Michaela Onyenwere from UCLA.”
“Before the draft, I never took a step back to be proud of myself,” Michaela said. “The draft was the moment I was really able to say to myself that I really did that, you deserve to be here. You have put hours into this and you are finally being recognized. The entire night, I just could not stop smiling.”
Onyenwere did not look at earning a roster spot on a WNBA team as the end of the road. She knew she needed to excel in the role. The McDonald’s All-American not only excelled but created a new standard for her rookie class.
The newest rookie in the Big Apple did not have time to bask in her drafted glory, within two days she was on a cross country flight having to live up to the hype. The 6-foot guard said she was very intentional with ensuring her success.
“Usually rookies come into the league and they are not sure where they fit in,” Michaela said. “There are obvious learning curves that come along with going from collegiate athletics to being a professional basketball player but I tried my best to be confident and remind myself that I was drafted for a reason. I knew I needed to come, show up, be consistent and do the things asked of me.”
Michaela met and exceeded her rookie expectation debuting with 18 points and five rebounds and rounding the year off as the 2021 WNBA Rookie of the Year. In between putting her foot on the gas early and driving full speed through the finish line she led the rookies in her class in points per game, total field goals made and total minutes.
The blossoming rookie’s sophomore campaign did not come with a road map and hit a few New York potholes.
“The WNBA was the first time I faced adversity,” Michaela said “I went from playing a lot to not so much. I had to check myself and ask myself about how I was going to respond. Adversity is always going to happen as a professional. I learned a lot about myself and I had to figure out what kind of professional I was going to be.”
The number of times Michaela would hear her name ring through the speakers of Barclays Center while being announced in the starting line-up went down to only once compared to 29 in 2022 due to a severe ankle injury.
“My second year was very hard for me,” Michaela said. “As an athlete, you expect so much of yourself. I had to depend on praying and talking to myself. I knew these first drops of adversity could not be the reason why I stopped going.”
Onyenwere’s mantra during her second year included telling herself although she was not getting the minutes and recognition she may have wanted, she had to remember her role may be smaller but it is not less important.
The 4-D memory album
Playing with the Mercury has unlocked more than a new level of competitor in Onyenwere. Her time in The Valley has allowed her to have a front row seat to some of the W’s monumental moments that have made the world cry and also rejoice.
“The first moment that pops into my head is the team being initially introduced to the fans and our names (Onyenwere and Brittney Griner) being called alongside each other. I had already been with her for about three weeks before practicing but it still really hit me because last year even though I was not on this team, the league was really missing BG and it caused a really big void. I felt it deeply. To have her here and back was so much bigger than basketball.”
Onyenwere’s ten minute Uber route grew into a full circle moment worth 10,000 points. As the first meeting of the two occurred when Onyenwere was 20-years-old and now with Taurasi looking to her 20th season in a Mercury jersey, the two are connected by more than numbers but life changing experiences.
“To see DT be the player she is today is simply remarkable,” Onyenwere said. “To be her teammate even months into the season is still surreal. I hope myself and my teammates never take that for granted.”
Onyenwere went from being one of three African-Americans in her early education classes to growing up to play in a league that is 80% African-American where she takes on the responsibility of being role model head on.
“I am so honored and blessed to be in the WNBA,” Michaela said. “There’s no other place I would rather be. There’s only 144 of us and I am forever grateful to have this chance and to be here.”
A rookie’s guide: On & off the court
While preparing to take her first step onto a WNBA court, Michaela also put deep thought into what shoe she was going to step into the tunnel with for her first set of walk-in pictures. She remembers seeing most NBA and WNBA players wearing sporty clothing, so she naturally followed suit.
Now, she wants to do things the Michaela way.
“I feel like with clothes, you have to get out of your comfort zone to a certain degree but still do things that feel like yourself,” Michaela said. “I love being able to show that you can do both. You can be a hooper, sweat a lot, get physical, be aggressive on the court but then after the game be in heels or a cute skirt. You can do both and that duality I think is so imperative for female athletes.”
The Mercury forward explained she expresses herself for little girls looking up to her but also because in today’s times, she believes an athlete’s personal brand speaks before they can speak for themselves. She believes there is importance in showing markets other sides of herself.
Not only does Michaela show up for herself everyday, she also shows up for Mercury rookie Kadi Sissoko drafted in the 2022 WNBA Draft from USC.
The former PAC-12 foes have grown an organic friendship the old school way: common interests.
Mentally, fostering relationships for Sissoko was no longer at the forefront of her mind after it began to become cloudy with stress over making and staying on the team. She said she was focused on impacting the team on the floor.
Through her battles on and off the court, Sissoko’s friendship with Michaela came as easy as brunch on a Sunday, one of the duo’s favorite activities to do together.
“Right away, we just connected,” Sissoko said. “She was the first one to take me under her wing. We connect outside of basketball and I can always rely on her for emotional support.”
The two peas in a pod enjoy using social media to find different places to dine at on road trips while looking good doing it with a girls’ trip to the mall before or after.
Luckily for the pair, they get to spend extensive bonding time together because Sissoko does not have a driver license. This is not an obstacle for Onyenwere, instead, it is an excuse for them to “vibe out” to their favorite songs together on the way to games.
“I love when we get in the car and see each other’s outfit for the first time,” Sissoko said. “We never talk to each other about our outfits before the games so, when we get that first reveal, we always hype each other up. Our outfits always seem to coordinate in some way unintentionally.’
WNBA veterans Betnijah Laney and Natasha Howard helped demonstrate to Michaela how to mentor rookies with a friendly and nurturing approach.
Sissoko says the best piece of advice Michaela has given her is to let the simple mistakes roll off her back and focus on big picture moments.
“When I was a rookie, there would be times where I messed up three times in a row,” Michaela said. “I was always extended grace and it made me feel more comfortable to learn and make those mistakes. I try to be easy with Kadi while also maintaining a certain standard.”
Michaela is confident in the fact of rookies being the future of the WNBA as long as they follow this piece of advice.
“You can not worry about the limited number of spaces available on a WNBA team,” Michaela said. “You can not be successful if you are driven by fear. If you’re in the league, you’re in it for a reason and you must optimize the time given to you.”
No matter if it is a 5-month-long season, 10,000 points or simply enjoying her 20-somethings, Onyenwere came to Phoenix for basketball but flourished because of the sisterhood.