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WNBA rising star Michaela Onyenwere says she prides herself on being more than just a basketball player.
Onyenwere, who earned rookie of the year last season with the New York Liberty, took that to heart as she recently partnered with Mobil 1 and its “Tune Up” program to help out the local community in the Big Apple.
“Community is really important, giving back is really important. I have a platform as an athlete, and I’d be doing a disservice to not only myself but also the people around me who’ve done so much for me,” Onyenwere told Fox News Digital. “I’m able to have so many experiences through basketball that I wouldn’t have without it. New York has become my home and embraced me in so many ways, so why not give back to the community that has done so much to me?”
Michaela Onyenwere sits on the new renovated court in New York City (Wynne Hendry)
Onyenwere is lending her voice and leadership in New York City to the program, which, along with nonprofit partner Project Backboard, completed a newly renovated basketball court last week at McCaffrey Playground in Manhattan, about nine blocks from Madison Square Garden.
In addition to fixing the playing surface at the court, local artist Andrea Bergart created a custom court design, which is full of vibrant colors that can hopefully provide an attractive outdoor space for local girls and boys to play the game they love.
Ariel view of the renovated court at McCaffrey Playground in Manhattan (Artwork: Andrea Bergart, Photo: Ross Dahmen)
Closer view of the court from above (Artwork: Andrea Bergart, Photo: Ross Dahmen)
Onyenwere says she wants to represent basketball players in New York City who wish to give back to their local community.
“Yeah, I think it’s just me being a voice kind of for the community. It’s not that far from where we stay, where we play. So I can be a representation of, like, basketball players here [who] want to give back to the community … and so when that partnership came, I was on board with that to be able to create new courts,” Onyenwere said.
Michaela Onyenwere (Wynne Hendry)
“In New York, basketball courts, especially outdoor courts, mean so much to the culture. And so to be able to be a part of a partnership where we’re refurbishing one and specifically that I’m able to be a representation of that. I think that’s just like so, so cool and that partnership is just great,” she added.
New York has become a new home for Onyenwere, who was drafted No. 6 overall by the Liberty in the first round of the 2021 WNBA Draft. Onyenwere admitted the big city was loud and a bit overwhelming when she first arrived, but she later stepped out of her comfort zone and got to know the local community firsthand.
Now, Onyenwere says she doesn’t want to leave.
“I’ve only been to New York prior to this probably like one or two times, and it was a very short stint. And then just to see the community come together with our games. It was the first year we made the playoffs since 2017. And then obviously with me winning rookie of the year, I was embraced, I felt like one of their own,” she said.
Michaela Onyenwere of the New York Liberty, winner of the 2021 Kia WNBA Rookie of the Year poses with her trophy on Nov. 17, 2021, at Snipes in Brooklyn. (Jennifer Pottheiser/NBAE via Getty Images)
Onyenwere described a time when a woman came up to her nearly in tears while the athlete was doing a rookie of the year ceremony after last season. The woman said her 4-year-old niece was a huge fan of Onyenwere, had watched her all the time and wanted a picture.
Onyenwere said she signed autographs and took pictures, with the memory still clear in her brain months later.
“You never think that you have that big of an impact on people’s lives until you see a little girl who … looks to me like who she wants to be when she’s older,” Onyenwere said.
“I can still vividly remember just the excitement that she had for her niece,” Onyenwere added. “If she’s getting into this at 4 years old, like imagine how much impact we’re doing across New York, across the country, across the WNBA. That was just a really exciting moment for me to experience.”
Onyenwere started 29 games for the Liberty last season, averaging 8.6 points and 2.9 rebounds per game to clinch the team’s first playoff berth since 2017. She shot 40.1% from the field.
Michaela Onyenwere of the New York Liberty drives against the Washington Mystics on Sept. 17, 2021, at Barclays Center in Brooklyn. (Steven Freeman/NBAE via Getty Images)
Onyenwere played college basketball with the UCLA Bruins after growing up in Colorado, where she mainly played on indoor courts. While the shift in culture after moving to New York City was definitely different, she said it showed her how important outdoor courts are to the people there.
The court renovation at McCaffrey Playground aims to strengthen the community, improve safety and encourage multi-generational play. The renovation was completed about a week ago and announced Thursday following a delay due to weather.
It was the third refurbished court as part of Mobil 1’s Tune Up program, which helps to improve community basketball courts across the nation. Mobil 1 is the official motor oil of the WNBA and NBA.
NBA champion Channing Frye previously unveiled a refurbished gym at the historic Merrick House in Cleveland, Ohio, and in March, three-time NBA All-Star Karl-Anthony Towns helped redesign a 2K Foundations Court at the Sojourner Truth Academy in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
Onyenwere expressed excitement for her team’s upcoming season, which kicks off against the Connecticut Sun on Saturday. New York has new leadership this year under head coach Sandy Brondello, who previously served as the coach of the Phoenix Mercury.
“I’m so excited. We’re trying to figure out where we all fit, but I know just within the last two weeks of us being here in training camp, I already see the trajectory going upward,” Onyenwere said. “I’m so excited that Sandy is here. I think everyone has bought in.”
“Connecticut is a great team, a well-disciplined team, a well-coached team, so I’m not saying everything is going to go perfectly,” she added. “But I want everything and all the work that we’ve put in so far to come to fruition for people to see the work we’ve put in, for fans to be really excited about what we have working. I’m really excited for year two, excited to help my team in any way I can.”
Onyenwere says she wants to be more versatile and a better three-point shooter this season after shooting 32.7% from behind the arc last year.
“Just add more things into my game that will eventually translate to being able to help my team,” she told Fox News Digital on Wednesday morning. “Our season opener is literally in like three days, which is crazy to me.”
With her career just blossoming in the WNBA, Onyenwere says she hopes to do more for the local community in New York City in the future. She noted that starting as a youngster, the basketball court is where she has felt “the most comfortable and most strength.”
Michaela Onyenwere (Wynne Hendry)
“I would love to. I’ve only lived here … for a year and a few months. It’s become my home, and it would be remiss for me not to,” she added.