Who Is Rosalyn Gold-Onwude?
Rosalyn Gold-Onwude Is Going Places — and She's Taking Women of Color With Her
"After I did that report, I got a call from a number I didn't know," she told me. "Turns out it's Charles Barkley saying how funny the whole thing was and thanking me for my work."
Phone calls from basketball legends are just one of the perks of being a worldwide sports journalist, but Ros — as she is affectionately known — remains humble. "It's been very cool," she said of the new gig, which she says has given her "a chance to learn the league and the game at a higher level."
The level at which Gold-Onwude knows the game is hardly low. Born in Queens, NY, to a Nigerian father and a Russian-Jewish mother, she began playing basketball when she was just 4 years old. She went on to accept a sports scholarship to Stanford University, where she made three consecutive trips to the Final Four and was honored as the Pac-10 Defensive Player of the Year.
After graduating from Stanford with a bachelor's degree in communications and a master's in sociology in 2010, she took a job with Tesla Motors — but her heart was always with the game. She chased broadcasting jobs on the side and worked for Pac-12 Networks, the WNBA, and the NBA Development League before joining the Warriors as a sideline reporter.
"It was like a rocket ship," Gold-Onwude says of the team's meteoric rise to greatness. As Golden State went on to compete in three straight NBA Finals (and take home two championship titles), her fame skyrocketed, too. Ask anyone: Gold-Onwude is basically a Bay Area treasure.
The energy, passion, and confidence that she brings to her job have made her a beloved figure among NBA fans. While she recognizes the importance that her role plays in the representation of women of color in white male-dominated spaces, Gold-Onwude is quick to credit other high-profile black journalists like Cari Champion, Sage Steele, Jemele Hill, and Stephanie Ready as inspiring women who have "trailblazed ahead" of her. "I'm thankful that there's already a path paved," she said. "I'm just trying to make my moves and find my own voice within this world."
She's also hoping to help those less fortunate find a voice, too. Recently, Gold-Onwude partnered with Qubed Education to launch a $1 million scholarship program in her name for disadvantaged youth who want to pursue careers in sports. It's something incredibly important to her; she espouses the values that sports have given her, like overcoming adversity, developing confidence, and being part of a team. Sports not only gave Gold-Onwude a college education and a career, but they've also been a beacon of light during some especially dark days.
On screen with TNT and NBA TV, Gold-Onwude is unabashedly herself — relatable, funny, and down to earth — and as someone who comes from a family of basketball fanatics but can't do a layup to save my life, I was thrilled to talk to her. Though it's hard not to be intimidated by her success (she covered men's basketball at the 2016 Olympics in Rio and has an Emmy, for God's sake), her friendly and easygoing demeanor put me right at ease, and her words of wisdom gave me chills. Here, we talk about playing the game, growing up without giving up, and finding balance when "ball is life."
Rosalyn Gold-Onwude: I enjoy the stories and, having been a player, I enjoy the athletes [and] their journeys. So I've been enjoying getting to know new players that I only saw from a distance and getting to cover the league as a whole. Every day at work, I'm literally surrounded by legends of the game and of broadcasting. I also enjoy the interactions I'm having. I've been pleasantly surprised [at] just how many guys have paid attention. Either they have said, "Hey, I remember you from when you played in college," or, "Hey, congratulations. I'm happy for you." There's a lot of support and encouragement within the league, and I've been really touched by that.
BS: Sports broadcasting seems like such a natural transition for athletes across all sports; what inspired you to make that move, and how has it informed your life as a former athlete?
RGO: I was really fortunate that I was given the game of basketball at the age of 4 by my mom. She introduced me to the game. And knowingly or not, it's really become a vehicle in my life. When people say, "Ball is life," I chuckle, but it's true: basketball has been my whole life. It has continued to give to me. Basketball provided me an athletic scholarship to college. It's given me great teammates and great experiences on the court. It's given me a career that I love. It's given me many of my closest friends. [Making] the shift from playing to broadcasting was a way to stay close to the game that I love. Not everybody is going to continue on to be a pro athlete, but you can still have a career close to the game you're passionate about. I think it's important for young people to understand that you can still have your passions and be close to them in other creative job fields.
BS: You started broadcasting as a side hustle while you were at Tesla, and you turned it into a full-fledged career. Tell me about how you did that and what challenges you may have faced.
RGO: Well, broadcasting is the entertainment industry, right? It's a really competitive business. You don't just say, "I want to be a broadcaster" and get a full-time job. You don't even get a part-time job, for the most part. I played basketball at a high level. However, I'm not one of the Maya Moores or Cynthia Coopers of the game. My first role in broadcasting started in the analyst and color-commentator role, and it's probably the best thing that's happened for me because I [could] really talk about and break down the game. That was more helpful than I even knew.
I had five gigs with ESPN around women's college basketball. I think you're paid less than $1,000 for each gig, so I needed a full-time job. I got both my bachelor's and my master's at Stanford, and Tesla was recruiting from Stanford. I had an opportunity to work for them and moonlight with the broadcasting gigs that I had. I told [Tesla] that I was still in this "figuring it out" space, so they were very flexible with me.
"I think it's important for young people to understand that you can still have your passions and be close to them in other creative job fields."
BS: That new graduate life is not always the easiest.
RGO: I'll share something I haven't shared before: that first year out of school was actually the worst year of my life. I left the comfort of having a basketball team caring [for me], and my long-term relationship ended — suddenly [I was] trying to figure out who I was alone. I didn't necessarily know which way I wanted to go with my career: should I play ball, should I do broadcasting, should I get a corporate job? At home, my mom was diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer's and dementia; she had lost her job, and we lost our apartment. My sister was going through her own problems and had to find her own path, [and] my dad had just moved to Nigeria, so he was across the world setting up his life there. It was a really hard time in my life, and it all happened at the same time. But I think what happened was a blessing in some ways. It made me tough in a way I never had to be tough.
I didn't have any other options if things didn't get figured out in my professional life. There was a lot of anxiety, ambiguity, and uncertainty. So I took the Tesla job and chased other odd jobs in broadcasting: I was writing for the Stanford football recruiting website, teaching a public speaking course, and coaching my landlord's daughter's basketball team so that I could get half off the rent! Eventually, I was able to piece enough odd jobs together that I was almost able to call it a very low salary. I left Tesla and chased this broadcasting dream full-time. It was very humbling, sometimes embarrassing. I felt I was being selfish by pursuing my dream, especially given how much pressure there was at home. I definitely thought about giving up broadcasting.
I think a real crossroads in my career was The Pink Room, which was a digital show I created with a friend — we called it that because we filmed it out of my bedroom. We covered women's basketball, and we did a couple episodes and then pitched it to the Pac-12 Conference, which I played in while at Stanford. They said, "This is cool. Can you do this for the conference for all 12 teams? We can't pay you this year, but it can help you get your foot in the door." So we did it: we pulled all-nighters, drove two hours to get there and come back and put this thing together, and we did it each week for 12 teams.
The next year, Pac-12 Networks started, and I got a contract from them. That was the first time I could definitively say, "I have a salary, and I'm a full-time broadcaster." From there, I was able to continue to build into not only women's college, but men's college too — then WNBA, then NBA Development League, and then, finally, into the NBA with the Warriors.
It seems like at some point the light bulb goes off, and you decide, "I'm going to take this road because this is what's going to make me happy." I know how stressful that can be, but how ultimately freeing it is after you come to that agreement with yourself. I think so many people — especially those in creative fields — have that galvanizing moment in their lives.
RGO: Exactly. I think for me it was a really quick shift from being a girl in college with a support system to having all of my support systems pulled right from under me — the comfort of a college basketball team, and the comfort of a relationship (my boyfriend was older than me and kind of led the way), and the comfort of having a home to go to and [my] mom being the mother figure — and suddenly realizing, "I'm the person who's in charge." I didn't have money or any real-world experience, [so] I had to learn quick. I was thrust into a position where I had to figure out lawyers, social work, and places my mom could go. Literally, we were homeless. I had to find shelters; I had to find communities for women in need — and eventually, as we figured out her diagnosis, places that could help those with dementia.
Even while pursuing what I wanted to, I was always shouldering a responsibility. I'm not going to try to act like I'm some superhero; I definitely think that at my lowest point is where I found a fire and said, "Come on. We're going to double the effort." And if it didn't work out, I might have ended up in something else a little bit more "responsible." There's a Martin Luther King Jr. quote that my dad had on our wall — he really loved MLK — and it's like, "The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort . . ."
BS: ". . . But where he stands at times of challenge and controversy." I think that quote is basically considered a black spiritual. It came up in my house a lot growing up as well.
RGO: Thank you! You know what the meaning is. It is such an important quote to live by. If I were to give advice to anyone that wants to be in broadcasting, but also to any young black women, it's that. There will be a lot of rejection, especially in the entertainment business or a creative space. And in those moments, what helped me was responding with resilience and being resourceful — telling myself, "Let's find a new way to try to get there, all right?" Networking and staying with it and continuing to hustle and work hard. Once doors start to open, they often continue to. It's just getting over that initial hump. It's like a four-minute mile: once you break it, you can really do it.
RGO: One of the things we're burdened with [as black women] is having to prove to people what we're not or [showing] people we belong or that we're good enough. These are things that our male or white counterparts likely aren't having to think about; they can just come in and deliver and expect to be accepted and know that their contribution is valuable. What we have to overcome are those moments of low confidence, and especially as women — you can see it over and over through the fight for equal pay or even the #MeToo movement — not being sure of what our value is. The system has taught us that it would cause trouble to demand more.
I know who I am. I know where I'm from. Whenever I take a step forward, I understand I'm representing just by being there. I hope people are looking at the subtleties, because it's all intentional. When I wear an outfit that has Ankara fabric or is from Nigeria, or when I put my hair in cornrows, it's definitely to show we're accepted here, and unapologetically so. Not only are black women doing it; we're going to do it at a fashionable, fabulous high level, and it's going to be popping [laughter]. I'm just being me and sharing the journey with everyone else.
I always think, "Who am I representing? What am I representing?" and try to deliver my own personal style. I try to be myself in a few ways: it's always been important to me not to have "reporter voice." I want to talk the way I really talk to my friends. I hope when you listen to me, you hear someone that sounds relatable. I hope you're hearing the joy and the energy that I carry when I talk about the game. I try to dress with color and vibrance and patterns that represent my culture and who I am as a person — and not just as a black woman, but as a mixed-race African woman. There's not just one acceptable hairstyle for professionalism. You can have braids; you can have protective styles; you can have twists; you can change it up.
I think playing sports helped me. I think all people should play sports; it's especially helpful for minority groups. Let's not even talk about becoming a pro; let's not even talk about going to college on a scholarship — there are so many valuable lessons in life that you take from it. You deal with overcoming adversity, teamwork, and developing confidence. Because of that, I've already pushed myself at a young age to get outside of my comfort zone; I've already dealt with eating humble pie, I've already dealt with having to buy into something bigger than myself, and I've already dealt with things not going my way. I come to work prepared, and I know what I'm talking about, and I think that the athletes and coaches respect that. I'm thankful to have worked for great networks — NBC Sports, Pac-12 Networks, and now Turner — that very much support people being themselves. I've worked within organizations that have allowed that.
"Once doors start to open, they often continue to. It's just getting over that initial hump. It's like a four-minute mile: once you break it, you can really do it."
RGO: There are many people that want to do [my] job and plenty that would do it for free. That's why every day I come to work, I do not allow myself a bad day or a bad attitude. I try to remind myself how blessed I am to have this opportunity: to come in and study basketball, study strategy, and study stories, and then share them with the public. I try to remind myself that my job is about helping people relax and have joy or have fun around a sporting event. And I try to remember the human aspect of it — the humans that are watching it, and also the very human people that are playing it.
I've always been taught that I'm representing something bigger than myself. It was always important to my father how we represented our home and our family. Many Nigerian kids can speak to the fact that their Nigerian parents always wanted them to do well. Academics were also very important to my mother, and she was the one really pushing basketball [on me]. From there, [Stanford Hall of Fame Coach] Tara VanDerveer constantly reminded us, "You don't just represent yourself. You represent the name on the jersey. You're representing a whole university."
Now, as a professional with more experience and maturity, it's no longer "Don't mess this up" or "Don't be a knucklehead," it's "Let's grab this by the horns and walk with a purpose so that you can leave a trail others can follow." I feel like I'm just beginning.
RGO: Chris Strachan started Kick'n It For a Cause, which is a nonprofit that utilizes sneaker culture as a vehicle to break down social barriers. I got to know Chris because he's really cool with [Warriors point guard] Stephen Curry; when I was covering the Warriors, Chris would be around building his program and the community and also doing his sneaker blogging. He saw how my profile was growing from the local to the national level, and he approached me with an opportunity to become a part of a scholarship program with Columbia University, Qubed Education, and Kick'n It For a Cause.
The program helps underserved youth pursue careers in the sports industry and is giving up to $1 million in scholarship money, and some of it will be under my name. My scholarship will be focusing on finding young women who love sports — especially in minority groups — and empowering them and giving them the resources to learn and pursue what they care about. I also want to be very much hands-on — giving them the opportunity to speak with me, shadow me, learn from my experiences, and gain their own resources. In addition to the scholarship money, students will receive an Ivy League completion certificate [from Columbia] and get an insider view of what this industry is about. We want a hands-on experience where they can also come away with something practical, and we're targeting those that need it most. I'm excited about it!
RGO: I think the highlight of my career so far has been working at the Rio Olympics. I was covering the Olympics on the international level for NBC, which was the biggest stage for men's basketball. That is really rare, especially for a 29-year-old black woman, to do. It was a huge deal for me, and I think it also changed the seriousness with which I was taken in this industry. I was also able to build relationships with the top players and coaches, and it's still helping me today in my current job. It really was a very beneficial experience. I'd say that's the highlight.
BS: I'd agree that's something to be proud of. Is there anything else?
RGO: Covering the Warriors' surge to greatness — I feel proud that I was able to improve fast enough to keep up with them! I feel that I gave it my best shot and covered it with the grace that it deserved, and I was very fortunate, very lucky, and very blessed to be a fly on the wall for all of that. In general, I would say that I'm proud of the fact that I've never had to compromise myself or take shortcuts; I worked hard, and I'm proud that I didn't give up. In those moments when I was embarrassed and scared and had no money, I'm glad that I decided in that moment to give it a shot again, to stay with it. I very much believe it's possible to be successful without playing dirty or trying to cut other people down so you can get higher. I didn't give up my flavor or any of the things that make Ros, Ros.
RGO: Well, I've always been pretty good at balance. People often look at my Instagram, and they're like, "Girl, how are you doing this?" [Laughter.] But something that I've learned through all of this is that if you don't make time for the things that are important to you, you will not do them. And while I am pursuing a career, I've never wanted to be the woman that looks up and suddenly realizes she didn't have any of the other things. I want a family. I want to have a social life. I want to have friends. And I think time management and good prioritization help me be able to do that. There are times when I have less sleep than others, but I make sure to mix in dinners with friends or time for family or a vacation or "Hey, let's get that Groupon for a massage."
You can't work so hard that you put yourself into the ground. A healthy mind, body, and spirit is very important, and I put a real emphasis on holistic success. I don't only think I'm successful if my career is going well. I've had to stop and reassess my workouts and how I'm eating and how healthy I'm being with food and exercise, especially with all the travel. I've had to check myself, like, "Hey, I've been on the road a lot. I've been working a lot. Have I been on a date? Am I being healthy in my love life?" I do those check-ins regularly. I pray regularly. I think balance is very key, and that's something I've been good at: balance.
RGO: All right!
BS: Twitter or Instagram?
RGO: Oh, that's so hard [laughter] . . . Twitter. It's so entertaining sometimes, oh my God. And shout-out to NBA Twitter too, because it has been fantastic as of late.
BS: I might already know the answer to this, but East Coast or West Coast?
RGO: I'm always the East Coast gal. I'm from New York, but the West Coast is very important to me, too.
BS: Fair. OK . . . ideal vacation?
RGO: Anywhere with a beach. I am a beach baby. I could start at the beach at 8 a.m. and stay until the sun goes down. You could find me on the beach, sleeping on a blanket.
BS: Last TV show you've binge-watched?
RGO: American Horror Story, every season. That was really good. Also, before that, probably Stranger Things. I watched it in a day. I have watched The Office, Atlanta, and, of course, Insecure. I'm going backwards. The most recent was American Horror Story. I just have to say, I have watched every single season of The Office, like, 10 times. I watch the whole thing from start to finish, and as soon as it gets to the last episode of the last season, I just start it over again. The Office is my happy place. It's just such a funny, happy, sweet, smart, great comedy, and I love it.
BS: I feel like everyone should have a happy-place show — even if you have it on in the background while you're doing other stuff, you just feel better with it being on.
RGO: Yes! I know every line, I know exactly what they're going to say [laughter]. What's yours?
BS: Sex and the City and Scrubs. I know the lines back and forth for both. Sometimes I'm only half paying attention, but I'm just like, "This is making me so happy right now." OK, last one: what song gets you hyped every time you hear it?
RGO: I've been on a real Sabrina Claudio kick recently. "Unravel Me" and "Belong to You" are on repeat in my house, but that's a recent thing. SZA is on repeat as well, and Wizkid. All time, who I always rock with? I'm a Kanye stan, and of course I love Beyoncé.
BS: We're on the same page. It was such a joy to talk to you, and it's really great to see where you are and how far you've come. As a black woman in her 30s, it is very inspiring to see you doing what you're doing and representing. So just keep going for all of us.
RGO: You too, girl! We're in this together.