Notre Dame's shooting star: Arike Ogunbowale's journey filled with big shots, big moments
SOUTH BEND — Some tall tales are also true.
Like this one, about a shot. The shot before those shots — before the back-to-back buzzer-beaters that landed the Notre Dame women’s basketball team a national title, that made a Nigerian name trend nationally on Twitter in the United States, that secured the cover of Sports Illustrated and a spot on “Dancing with the Stars.”
The shot before any of the 651 field goals she sank during her first three seasons at Notre Dame.
Before Kobe Bryant knew her name. Before little girls shouted it after sinking baskets in the driveway.
This shot dropped on May 12, 2015, at Divine Savior Holy Angels High School in Milwaukee. The administration organized an all-school assembly to unveil its new gym, with the main event being a basketball game between the faculty and students.
To prevent any unfair advantages, Arike Ogunbowale — the school’s all-time leading scorer who had just led the Dashers to a Wisconsin state championship in her senior season — was relegated to the role of referee.
But first, Arike was asked to make a layup. Just a layup. It was only fitting, after all, that the 5-foot-8 Notre Dame signee should be the first to take — and make — a shot in the new gym. She had certainly earned the honor.
But instead, Ogunbowale made the moment a whole lot bigger.
“No moment was ever too big for her,” said Scott Witt, Ogunbowale’s head coach for her first three seasons at the school. “In fact, the bigger the moment, the better.”
So Arike ditched the layup, because where’s the fun in that? Sporting a referee uniform’s black-and-white zebra stripes, she backed up to the opposing three-point line, turned and started walking. When she hit half court, Arike hesitated. She took two dribbles and two steps, then a deep breath, and shot.
“And what does she do?” said the Dashers’ current head coach, Jeff Worzella. “It was amazing. She takes a half-court shot and hits it, nothing but net.”
Three years and at least two equally improbable shots later, Ogunbowale arrived at Gate 1 of the Joyce Center on a blue, bedazzled Razor scooter on a sunny Wednesday in the spring.
She scooted through the door, around the corner and into the Notre Dame’s women’s basketball office — where every inch of every counter is adorned with a trophy, most accompanied by the dangling remains of a nylon net.
The newest addition, of course, was displayed on the front desk, right next to a potted plant. The words “NATIONAL CHAMPION” were printed in gold across the bottom; the net Arike recently splashed into early retirement was hanging triumphantly across the top.
She set down the scooter and stepped out of the noise and into the hallway. Then she stopped and considered a question, maybe for the first time in her life.
That assembly, a reporter reminded her, was attended by her entire high school. All her classmates. All her teachers. All the cheerleaders with their pom-poms, huddled in rows behind the net. Wouldn’t it have been safer — smarter — just to settle for the layup? Not to risk the embarrassment of an air ball?
“What if you had missed?”
“I guess I just had confidence,” she said with a laugh and a shrug, as if the idea had never occurred to her, as if failure was a foreign concept that had yet to be fully explained.
“I didn’t want to shoot a layup. That would be too boring.”
When you cash the first shot taken in DSHA's new gym pic.twitter.com/eh6bDUP3Qj
— Arike Ogunbowale (@Arike_O) May 13, 2015
Arike — 3 years old, holding a basketball and standing in front of a miniature Fisher Price hoop — mirrored the word back to her mother.
Then she took a deep breath and shot — and shot, and shot — until, her father says, “the ball kept going in.”
“There’s a picture of her with a big basketball looking at a big hoop,” said Gregory Ogunbowale, who immigrated from Nigeria to the United States more than 30 years ago and works as a high school principal in Milwaukee. “She was dreaming about what she could do with a ball.”
Then, and now, there wasn’t much she couldn’t do. Arike grew up playing in the backyard with her two older brothers, as well as a cousin that was three weeks older — Diamond Stone, now a professional basketball player. When Arike was in the first grade, she played in a basketball league against fourth- and fifth-grade girls.
Her first college recruiting letter arrived in the seventh grade, the same year she won her first state title. She went on to capture an AAU national championship in 2010.
By the time she arrived at Divine Savior Holy Angels High School in 2011, Arike’s offensive arsenal was beyond advanced. She was automatic — a shot-making machine.
“I remember the very first time I coached her,” Witt said last month. “I think it was a varsity summer league tournament, and she did a couple things I’d never seen before. I turned to my assistants on the bench sarcastically, like, ‘It’s all coaching. Can you believe I’ve been able to have such an impact on her this quickly?’
“She had the full package offensively by the time I got her. She came in as a freshman with what I would consider high-major (Division I college) offensive skills.”
After marrying his wife, Gregory Ogunbowale took her to his native Nigeria to meet his mother.
“When she saw her,” Gregory said, “my mother gave my wife that name.”
Legally, she returned to the United States as Yolanda Ogunbowale. But to the family, she was Arike — and she liked the name so much that she passed it on to her only daughter.
Technically, Arike means “one who is blessed on sight” or “something that you see and cherish.”
For four years, the people of Wisconsin saw.
“I could not believe the amount of random people at away games that wanted her autograph,” said Worzella, Arike’s head coach in her senior season. “Coming in, I knew she was big. But the lines of people after every game just got bigger and bigger and bigger.
“Whether it was little girls wanting their picture taken with her, adults wanting autographs or high school boys coming up and wanting her to sign their arm, it was crazy.”
All that crazy culminated in the state semifinals at the end of her senior season, when Arike — a McDonald’s High School All-American and three-time Gatorade and Associated Press Wisconsin Player of the Year — scored a state tournament record (for boys or girls) 55 points in an 86-76 overtime win over Middleton. That included 21 points in the final three minutes of regulation and overtime, as well as a state-record 45 attempted shots.
Middleton head coach Jeff Kind even embraced the basketball equivalent of hockey shifts, substituting five new players every 90 seconds in a desperate attempt to slow her down.
“But she just kept going,” a defeated Kind told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel after the game. “So, I don’t know. I think there’s a lot of people wondering how you stop her.”
While Kind was searching for answers, Worzella and Arike were seated in the first row of the bleachers, watching the second state semifinal of the day.
Well, at least Worzella was watching.
“I look over to my left, and there’s a looooong line of people waiting for autographs and pictures,” Worzella recalled. “We were right on the court, and that line easily went up the stairs. It was at least 30 or 40 deep.
“She didn’t get any time to watch the game, because she was signing autographs the whole time.”
She signed shirts. She signed arms. She even signed a phone.
Not a case, she noted last month. “I signed somebody’s actual iPhone.”
“It was like Madonna,” Witt said. “You only needed one name. Everybody was talking about Arike.”
Maybe she isn’t Madonna, but everybody’s still talking about Arike.
That’s what happens when you sink a 3-pointer to down undefeated UConn in the closing seconds of the 2018 Final Four, then deliver an identical sequel in the championship final against Mississippi State; when you play two-on-two with Ice Cube, Ellen DeGeneres and Kobe Bryant — your basketball idol — on national television; when you become the first collegiate athlete to compete on “Dancing with the Stars.”
When you arrive at a moment you’ve been waiting for all along.
“She’s got something innate within her that, when 99.99 percent of the world would crawl into a shell in those situations, it didn’t surprise me that both of those plays were basically Arike going and getting the ball,” Witt said.
“That’s like a 5 percent kind of shot (for anyone else). For her, that was like a 70 percent kind of shot.”
Now — for a little while, at least — Arike is done shooting. The soon-to-be ND senior debuted on “Dancing with the Stars” last week, and she’s currently juggling three to four hours of dance practice per day with preparations for final exams.
She goes from her apartment, to school, to practice, to sleep — with little else in between.
“I just worry that she’s flying coast to coast, taking the red eye home to go to class. Now she’s studying for finals,” said Notre Dame head coach Muffet McGraw. “It’s been a lot, and I want her to breathe. Just breathe for a few minutes, because it’s been a whirlwind since the Final Four.
“She hasn’t really had any kind of break at all. We’re hoping that in June she’ll be able to slow down a little bit and get back in the gym, which she’s anxious to do.”
Maybe then she can concentrate, breathe and shoot (and shoot, and shoot). She can work towards successfully defending Notre Dame’s second national title.
But, besides basketball, life may never be the same. In the aftermath of the Final Four, her father received more than 200 congratulatory emails (most from strangers), and a few fans actually showed up at his high school just to thank him and shake his hand.
There are more autographs than ever. More arms. More iPhones. More interview requests and television appearances where, if it’s anything like last week, she dances the salsa in sparkling blue sneakers.
Arike — “one who is blessed on sight” — has been seen far and wide. And yet, she’s still here, cruising around campus on her scooter, curly hair waving in the wind.
“All the coaches said, of all our players, she’s the one that can handle” this spotlight, McGraw said, “because she can appreciate the big moment, has never been afraid of the big moment.
“But she has a great family. With everything that’s going on right now, she’s really grounded.”
Arike credits her parents, both educators, for keeping her priorities and ego in check.
Meanwhile, McGraw credits South Bend native and former Notre Dame guard Skylar Diggins-Smith for teaching her how to accommodate sudden celebrity status.
“Having gone through what (spotlight) Skylar had, we’re more prepared,” McGraw said.
“But that was big in a different way. This is more national, with ‘Dancing with the Stars’ and ‘The Ellen Show.’ There’s been so many things (Arike) has done that have been a little different than what Skylar did.”
Time for one last tall tale.
About a shot, and a promise.
Both took place on a cloudy day on an empty court in early 2015. Arike and her 6-foot-11 cousin, Diamond Stone — who has since starred at Maryland and had a short stint with the Los Angeles Clippers — were locked in a game of H.O.R.S.E, battling for familial bragging rights. In front of a local television crew, they traded barbs and baskets.
“You better make every shot,” Stone warned the Notre Dame signee.
Wearing a black sweatshirt with five words — “Just a kid from Milwaukee” — printed across the chest, Arike dribbled with her left hand, stepped and shot.
“Don’t worry, I will,” she responded, before the ball even landed.
It arced perfectly towards its target. You can probably guess what happened next.
Just 2 cousins playing “horse” circa 2015. Beyond The Game 9:30 tonight @Arike_O n @Diamond_Stone33 grew up competing against each. Tune in to see who won...and reminisce on the basketball bond they both had before making it to the national stage. pic.twitter.com/faRxFUVQjp
— FOX6 Sports Blitz (@fox6blitz) April 4, 2018