I spoke with newly-minted WNBA player Mimi Mungedi to talk basketball, family, and how she is adjusting to life away from home. This young woman is accomplishing the impossible, one goal at a time.
Mimi Mungedi has the world by a string. Recently drafted in the third round to the Tulsa Shock, she’s now a certified superstar on the national level, but for now…Mungedi is still just another student-athlete at the University of Nevada-Reno.
“Sorry I’m late, my laptop is broken and I’ve been at the library trying to fix it, after this I’m going to back and fix it again,” she says breathlessly sitting down for our interview.
Mungedi seems almost oblivious to the fact that she is now a professional basketball player, instead preoccupied with making sure she is able to finish her time as a student-athlete for the Wolf Pack.
I congratulate Mungedi on the results of the draft, and I am struck by how quiet and humble she appears. A simple, polite “thank you,” is all she says in return. For most people, draft day would be the center of their world; time would stop until they learned whether or not they made it to the big show.
For Mungedi though, it was just background noise as she focused on her studies. “I ended up watching it, but not watching it. I had two computers in front of me, one was my homework and one was the draft. I was able to see it as it was going on but I wasn’t paying much attention.
“My agent called me and told me Tulsa was going to draft me in the next few minutes and I was like, ‘really? Is this really going to happen?’ I was excited, but I had homework to do as well.” That laser focus and charming unawareness of the magnitude of her situation is what has allowed Mungedi to accomplish not only her academic goals, but her athletics ones as well.
Graduating with a degree in Civil Engineering, Mungedi has always been focused on making sure her athletic pursuits never interfered with achieving a solid education. “I didn’t start playing until I was 12, but it was always a draw between basketball and academics. My parents really stressed the academic part.”
In a nation where so often student-athletes are portrayed as slackers, skirting through the collegiate academic system, Mungedi’s dedication to her studies is refreshing to hear. For Mungedi, there was never an option to not succeed, she simply plugged ahead in her nonchalant way and checked off her goals, one at time.
Hailing from Libreville, Gabon in West Africa, Mungedi’s journey is one that truly embodies the American Dream. Determined to find a way to use her athletic 6’8″ frame to her advantage, Mungedi left her family and set off to the United States with little friends or family to rely on.
When asked how she handled being in a foreign country without her parents, Mungedi simply said, “You get used to it. It happens. So, just be strong about it, there’s nothing to cry about, I got used to it and I’m perfectly fine.” Getting colleges to notice her didn’t seem to be much of an issue as well, “I didn’t send my video out to many universities, only about two or three. Nevada was one of them, they liked it and here I am,” she says matter-of-factly, “in my heart I knew it was the place to go.”
Even more amazing, is that Mungedi started off her first semester in Nevada a track star, due to the lack of scholarship funds for her on the basketball team. “The head coach from track and field was nice enough to offer me a scholarship for my first semester so I could be here and start working out. I was throwing shot put and discus, stuff like that.”
Mungedi’s shaky start in collegiate basketball is well documented, but where most would see an incredible hurdle to overcome, she simply viewed it as another task to achieve. “Well…I guess I worked, and I told myself that’s what I wanted to do, it was in my head and I went for it,” she says.
Mungedi has a way of boiling down incredible achievements to an almost simplistic matter-of-fact point-of-view. Nothing seems out of reach for her, and I found myself starting to wonder why there would be any doubt that Mungedi would succeed at whatever she set her mind to in life.
But while she was learning the game of basketball, Mungedi was also learning about a completely new culture in America. “First I had to learn the language — that was the biggest issue. But once I fixed that, it’s really OK.
“There are differences between Africa and America, don’t get me wrong. I think in some situations we don’t have the same mentality; we don’t approach situations the same way sometimes, but we are who we are. It may not be the way I would handle a situation, but I’m not going to judge you for it at all.
“You get used to it, and it’s not that much different overall, my parents raised me well so I know how to conduct myself when I’m situations I’m not used to.” Indeed her parents have served as her backbone, a structured force that has equipped Mimi with the tools and mindset to persevere across the globe.
Despite her ability to keep her sights set straight ahead, there are still things about home Mungedi misses. “Definitely the food, is not what I was used to,” she says jokingly, “I love to eat! Cassava leaves are my favorite, we went to all the Asian markets to try and find it, but I guess there aren’t a lot of Africans here in Reno, so they had no idea what I was talking about!”
Mungedi has a soft spot, though, for her new home and its people. “I love the people here. I love the way they love my height. It’s amazing, because back home people weren’t so nice about that actually, but here from day one they go ‘wow you’re so tall!’ and nobody ever makes fun of me here for being so tall. That’s the main thing, I love the people here and that they love me for who I am.”
The American Dream, coming from nothing and ended up at the top. Mimi Mungedi epitomizes this ideal, and she does it with a cool indifference, a naiveté almost, that puts you in her corner. You can’t help but root for her success.
When asked, “What’s the one thing she would say to herself at the age of twelve, when she first picked up a basketball, knowing where she is at now? She wisely replies, “Mimi, you can do this. God gave you those long legs, use them. It’s not going to be easy, but in the end it will be worth it.”
Let there be no doubt.