The newly crowned MVP of the WNBA carefully reaches out and hands her guest a prized possession.
“Here it is,’’ the Sparks’ Nneka Ogwumike says with a big smile.
It is not the MVP trophy, which Ogwumike will receive Wednesday night at the Pyramid in Long Beach before the Sparks host the Chicago Sky in the first game of the WNBA semifinals.
It is not a championship ring, which Ogwumike hopes to win next month as the Sparks have a legitimate chance to win their first league title in 14 years.
It’s a Chipotle “Chiptopia” rewards card.
Ogwumike needs just one more visit to her favorite Mexican grill and she will reach the highest bonus level, qualifying her for a catered meal for 20. How sweet — or spicy — is that?
‘’I will achieve my ‘Hot Status’ tonight,’’ she says. “Now this is big.’’
The guest openly cheers at the idea of one of Hollywood’s marquee ballers proudly flashing a card that reads, ‘’Burritos With Benefits,’’ and she laughs.
‘’I’m glad you appreciate it,’’ she says. ‘’Some people might find it ridiculous.’’
There is nothing ridiculous — and everything sublime — about the grounded nature of a woman who Tuesday was named the best player in the best women’s league in the world. She’s exceedingly tough on the court, yet strikingly normal in a city where she says her public recognition takes two forms.
“Girls and women know who I am,’’ says Ogwumike, 26. “Guys are like, ‘There’s that girl with the crazy last name.’”
In leading the Sparks to a 26-8 record and the No. 2 mber-two seed in the playoffs, the 6-foot-2 power forward had a summer of crazy games. Ogwumike ranked third in the WNBA in scoring (19.7) and rebounding (9.1) while leading the league with 66.5% shooting, the second-best percentage in WNBA history.
She set not only set a league record for most consecutive field-goals with 23, she also set a record by making all 12 of her field-goal attempts in a literally perfect June game against Dallas, which ended with her going 19 for 19 including free throws.
With her inside play and increasingly effective outside game honed during long winters playing in Russia — she made 16 of 26 three-pointers this season - she performed like a combination of the Sparks’ two other former league MVPs, Lisa Leslie and Candace Parker.
“I’ve crafted my game on finishing,’’ she says. “If I’m at the rim, there’s no reason I can’t finish.’’
Ogwumike’s regular season had such a great finish, while driving with her to the MVP announcement at the ESPN studios on Tuesday, her posse threw a party.
That posse consists entirely of an uncle, Ufo Atuanya. He lives with her during stretches of the season and is known to Sparks fans as simply “Uncle.’’ He was so excited with his niece, he transformed a white polo shirt into a Nneka billboard covered in her photo and statistics. During the middle of the drive, he surprised her by tearing off a top shirt to reveal the celebratory polo.
“I was like, ‘Oh, that’s so cool,’” she says with a grin. ‘’So…subtle.’’
She speaks with the smart humor of a Stanford graduate while displaying out the unselfish family values instilled in her and her three basketball-playing sisters by their parents, Nigerian-born professionals from Houston.
She’ll talk with wonder about the connection she has forged with teammate Parker, who unselfishly and consistently finds her in perfect scoring position.
“There’s times I know the ball is coming at me even though she’s not even looking at me,’’ Ogwumike says. “But believe me, I’m always looking at her.”
She’ll talk with pride about the Sparks fans, who are considered the league’s most loyal and knowledgeable.
“They are great, so personal, they know everything about us, they want to take us to dinner,’’ she says. “But also, they’re like, ‘Why aren’t you rebounding! What’s wrong with you! You need to set a screen!’ I like that because it’s real.”
Oh, how she does love real. One of the high points of her public forays around town was the time she and Uncle went into a Culver City barbershop and the barbers ignored his head to talk about her game.
“The whole barbershop was fixated on her and I’m like, ‘Somebody cut my hair!’”said Atuanya.
There is probably only one place she wishes she was recognized but was ignored. Quite unbelievably, neither Ogwumike or Parker — who attended Tennessee — were chosen for this year’s U.S. Olympic team, which contained several products of Coach Geno Auriemma’s University of Connecticut program.
You don’t need to see their MVP awards to know they both belonged in Rio.
“I was told there were a lot of athletes at my position and that I had a bright future,’’ said Ogwumike, who was kept home even though she was on the world championship team two years ago. “I believed it. I’m fine with it.’’
Is she really? She says it’s all good, but one has to think that for both her and Parker, one reward in the upcoming WNBA playoffs against other Olympians could include at least some payback for the obvious slight.
Not that the Sparks need any further motivation after the 14-year drought. Ogwumike says they’re ready in a way she’s never seen before.
“This is the first time the parts have all come together, our development has come together, the process is finally converging, the focus is really there,’’ she says.
Does that mean she can guarantee a title?
“Yeah,’’ she says. “Who would I be if I said no? I feel like that’s an easy question. It is.’’’
Could this really be the year?
“I know it,’’ she says. “I feel it. I see it. I feel it. It‘s there.”
If the best player in the WNBA believes it, if one of the most real players in Los Angeles says it, you do the math.
Two series. Six wins. Chipotle for everyone.