Sports Are Her Passion

Feb. 22, 2011

Big Ten Black History Month Website

By Larry Watts

Former Northwestern University softball player Ndidi Opia Massay is the perfect utility player. Since taking her final at-bat for the Wildcats in 1989, she earned her degree from the prestigious Medill School of Journalism and graduated from law school at Notre Dame where she also served as a volunteer softball coach. She went on to work as an intern with the NCAA, served as director of game operations and legal counsel at the University of San Francisco and owned her own business negotiating contracts for people in sports and entertainment. She currently works as the director of business operations and development for ESPN RISE, a branch of devoted to high school sports.

“Everything I have loved in my life has all come together now,’’ says Massay, who lives in New York City with her husband, Marc, and two sons, ages 9 and 4. “Sports, law and business have served me well in this job.

“I still have friends making big money in law firms, who are envious of me because I am doing something I love. My husband swears I don’t have a job because I go to work and talk sports. He says I would talk sports even if I weren’t at work. ESPN is on TV 24/7 in our house. It’s my passion.’’

Had it not been for a successful escape from Nigeria during the Biafra conflict back in 1968, the entire Opia family probably would have perished. Her mother, a worker with the U.S. Peace Corps, was pregnant at the time but still managed to find safe passage to another part of the country for herself, Ndidi and her older sister, who was two-and-a-half-years-old.

“We took off on a plane with no lights on in the middle of the night with bombs going off everywhere,’’ Massay says. “Had my sister (Chinazo) been born on time, we would have been caught behind enemy lines and killed.

“Nigeria was doing everything it could to starve our people out. As my mother tells it, she would gather snails off the ground, chop them up and make soup just so we could have some protein in our diets.’’

Since her mother was a U.S. citizen, the next step was to try to find a way back to the United States. Through an anonymous gift, they were provided with one-way plane tickets.

“My mother had three girls under the age of 3, $100, the clothes on her back, a diaper bag and no birth certificates,’’ Massay says. “We wound up moving into our grandmother’s house in Eureka, Calif.’’

As for her father, who was told he had to serve in the army or be shot, his escape route was by boat with 10 other men. But when the bombs started coming close, everyone jumped overboard except her father, who couldn’t swim. The other 10 men perished, but her father remained at the bottom of the boat covered in blankets and finally reached safety. He was able to secure a visa because he had an American wife and rejoined his family in California, but the marriage would eventually end in divorce when Ndidi was four-years-old.

Massay’s mother settled the family in Cupertino, Calif., where she secured her first job as a Catholic elementary school teacher. She would eventually take on three jobs at once while trying to make ends meet for her three girls.

“We grew up playing every sport under the sun with the boys and girls in the neighborhood,’’ Massay says. “Playing with the boys I think helped me become a better athlete.’’

At Monta Vista High School, Massay immediately played on the varsity team in volleyball, soccer and softball. She dropped soccer for basketball in her sophomore year and made all-league in every sport each year, including all-sectional in softball each season.

When it came time to make a college choice, Massay knew she eventually wanted to be a writer for Sports Illustrated, so her choices came down to Stanford and Northwestern. During Massay’s senior year, Northwestern had just ridden the arm of Stockton, Calif., native Lisa Ishikawa, a three-time All-American, into the College World Series.

“I had known Lisa from playing against her in summer ball,’’ Massay says. “When Northwestern recruited me, they were No. 2 in the nation in softball and Medill was No. 2 in journalism, so it was a win-win situation.

“But my father wanted me to go to Stanford, which was only 15 minutes away, so I took the recruiting trip. At that time, Stanford was the doormat of the Pac-10 in softball and they only had two full-ride scholarships for softball, which they split up among the players.

“When I talked to a professor at Stanford, he asked me about my goals and then told me I would have to major in English because Stanford didn’t have a journalism department. He asked me about other schools I was looking at and I told him Northwestern was offering me a full ride. He then told me I was wasting my time at Stanford and I should go to Northwestern.’’

One thing that really impressed Massay was the fact that Northwestern head coach Sharon Drysdale was offering her a chance to be a full-time hitter. A pitcher most of her career in high school and summer ball, Massey would be trained as a catcher at Northwestern.

“Other schools recruited me as a pitcher, but Sharon recruited me as a hitter,’’ Massay says. “I thought she evaluated me better than any other coach in the country. I may have been the best pitcher on my team, but I was not one of the best pitchers in the country and my hitting often got overlooked. I would have ripped myself as a hitter.’’

Massay started in left field and was the backup as a freshman, then moved into the starting role behind the plate as a sophomore when the starting catcher was sidelined by an automobile accident. Massay immediately fell in love with catching.

She was able to catch for Ishikawa in the standout’s final year at Northwestern.

“You run the team and the game,’’ says Massay. “I called my own games, did my homework on the batters and loved setting them up.’’

And the treatment she received as a softball player at Northwestern was second to none.

“We were treated the same way the football players were treated,’’ she says. “We ate at the same restaurants and stayed at the same hotels; we were not second-class citizens.”

After winning Big Ten titles with Ishikawa the first two seasons, the Wildcats slid to third in the Big Ten during Massay’s final two seasons. However, Massay did her part, making second-team All-Big Ten as a freshman and sophomore and first-team all-conference in her final two years.

Entering her senior season, Massay was faced with a difficult decision. Her shoulder had been sliding in and out of its socket in various directions, so reconstructive surgery was recommended.

“It was my senior year, I was on track to graduate and softball wasn’t an Olympic sport yet,’’ she says. “Instead of taking the redshirt, I decided it was time to move on with the rest of my life. As long as I could hit, I felt like I could contribute.’’

So Massay became a designated player as well as team captain for her final season. She would still warm up pitchers, but she would always have someone stand next to her to throw the ball back because she couldn’t throw overhand. She also spent a lot of time working with the other catchers on mechanics and calling games.

“The bad thing about only being a hitter was I got a lot of walks and that was really frustrating,’’ she says. “Hitting was such a challenge and I loved it. My biggest regret is I finished with a career batting average of .299. I was so mad I didn’t hit .300. Now the good players are all hitting in the .400s.’’
Her career at Northwestern was made even more enjoyable when younger sister Chinazo, a pitcher, decided to join her for her final three seasons.

“I actually thought she would wind up going somewhere else,’’ Massay says. “We were one year apart, but we were always mistaken for twins while growing up. We did everything together, even completing each other’s sentences. In volleyball, she was a setter and I was a middle hitter. In basketball, she was a small forward and I was the center. She was my catcher in softball.

“It kind of drove her crazy that everyone knew her as my sister. That’s why I thought she would go somewhere else so she could branch out and create her own identity. However, she knew she wanted to become a doctor and she wanted to go to the best situation for a student-athlete. She wound up marrying one of my closest friends, (Northwestern baseball player) Everett Cunningham.’’

With graduation approaching, Massay made a sudden decision during the spring quarter of her senior year. After taking a class in journalism law, she decided she no longer wanted to be a sports writer.

“I figured I could find a way to combine journalism, law and sports,’’ she says.

But just to make sure she wanted to pursue a law degree, she spent a year working as a paralegal with a civil rights firm in Chicago. That year of work convinced her she was on the right path and she earned an academic scholarship to Notre Dame for law school.

At Notre Dame, she immediately walked into the athletic department and introduced herself to the softball coach and offered her services as an assistant coach.

“He told me they didn’t have the money to hire an assistant coach and I said I was here on scholarship and fine with working as a volunteer,’’ Massay says. “I couldn’t imagine being a student and not an athlete. He jumped all over it and I started working two days a week with pitchers and catchers. They kept me on staff all three years.’’

Massay passed the California bar exam the first time and had a six-figure offer to return to California to work for a law firm.

“But I really wanted to be in sports,’’ she says. “At the same time, I had applied for a sports internship in the compliance department with the NCAA in Overland Park, Kan. It paid $18,000 and when I took the internship people thought I had lost my mind. I was used to being a poor college student, so I waited tables at night and rented a room in a house.

“Being exposed to the business of college sports and seeing how the NCAA was run was a great learning experience. But I wanted to be back on campus, where I could be around the sweat, the athletes and the coaches.’’

That opportunity came from the University of San Francisco, which hired her as director of game operations for all home sporting events. She also became the school’s legal counsel in the athletic department. Her role later evolved into an adjunct professor position, where she worked on contracts and was the legal counsel for all student affairs.

“I handled anything non-academic in campus life,’’ she says. “I worked on a date rape case, and an illegal search and seizure case.’’

During her five-and-a-half years at San Francisco, Massay began advising college coaches and entertainers in resumes, interviews and contracts. She eventually created her own business, which she ran for six years.

“The bulk of my clients were men’s basketball coaches and I helped some assistants land head coaching jobs,’’ she says. “But during that time, I met my husband, got married and got pregnant right away. I was on bed rest with my first son (Miles) for five months and that really made me evaluate my whole life.

“I had become comfortable chasing grown men to be my clients and pay my bills, but I didn’t really enjoy it. However, I did enjoy the deal, the advising and contract negotiations. Unfortunately, that was only 10 percent of my time and the other 90 percent was running the business. Now I had my own son to chase and going to these functions, like the NBA All-Star events, wasn’t all that glamorous anymore.’’

With scaling down her list of clients, Massay and her family headed to New York City, where Chinazo already lived and had been joined by their mother when she retired.

“It hurt my career to be out of work for two or three years, but it was fabulous to be with my son,’’ she says. “I wasn’t a stay-at-home mom; I was a stay-at-home coach. We would go to the park every day to play catch, tennis or basketball. I wasn’t turning on the TV because we were too busy going out to the early rounds of the Big East Tournament, the U.S. Open qualifiers and Mets games.

“Miles (now nine-years-old) is a pretty good baseball player and we talk a lot about the game. When we go to Mets games, we like to analyze game situations. People are looking at me and telling me all their kids care about is the cotton candy. But since I find the game so interesting, we discuss it and he understands. He enjoys the strategy and he understands about Satchel Paige and the Negro League.’’

Nearly six years ago, Massay caught on with ESPN. She was originally hired as a consultant for ESPN The Magazine to develop youth sports for the magazine and eventually its website. That role changed in 2006, when ESPN purchased RISE, a sports and athletic lifestyle magazine for teens with localized editions in 25 markets and over one-million subscribers. In addition to its magazine circulation, ESPN RISE filters high school content into the ESPN programming and hosts 160 high school-age events throughout the country over the course of a year.

“Anything operations-wise, I lead it for our team,’’ Massay says. “I refer to ESPN as my team. My boss is my coach and I’m his captain. It was so long ago that I competed, but mentally you don’t lose that swagger or mind-set. It’s a fun mentality and I still feel like we are trying to win games and our World Series, except now we have business goals.’’

Back in 2008, Massay, a member of the Big Ten’s All-Decade Team (1980s) and all-time All-Big Ten team, and her sister, Chinazo, returned to Northwestern to be inducted into the school’s athletic Hall of Fame.

“(It’s) such an incredible honor,’’ says Massay. “It’s so special because you are being honored as a student-athlete, so you can’t have one without the other. And it made it even more special to be inducted with my sister. Some of the closest friends I still have are from Northwestern.’’

Massay has served on the boards of the National Association of Black Journalists (Sports Section) and Northwestern Alumni chapter in New York. She is also a member of the Black Entertainment and Sports Lawyers Association, National Association of Multi-Ethnicity in Communications and Women in Cable Telecommunications.

Eventually, Massay says she would like to return to San Francisco and take advantage of the two San Francisco Giants season tickets her mother purchased 20 years ago.

“That was the first time my mother ever spent money on something luxurious and not a necessity in life,’’ she says. “She bought those two tickets and would take friends or just go by herself. When the Giants left Candlestick Park, we kept them up and my mother even went back for the World Series last year. My oldest sister is an accountant in the Bay Area and we’ll never give them up because they represent how hard my mother worked for the three of us.’’