The most talked-about player in college basketball this winter was a mean-mugging point guard from the University of Oregon who rewrote the NCAA record book with a crowd-pleasing style that’s made fanboys of LeBron James and Stephen Curry.
Sabrina Ionescu became the face of her sport during a sensational four-year collegiate career that saw her break into the American sports mainstream like few women’s basketball players before her. The 5ft 11in pick-and-roll savant became the first ever player – male or female – to surpass 2,000 points, 1,000 assists and 1,000 rebounds, while her 26 career triple-doubles shattered the previous record of 12 .
This month, Ionescu (pronounced yo-NESS-coo) was selected by the New York Liberty with the No 1 overall pick in the WNBA draft: a dream marriage of a budding superstar with the country’s largest media market. A lucrative sneaker deal with Nike immediately followed. The sky, it would seem, is the limit.
And it all might never have happened if she had taken no for an answer back in middle school.
“The after-school program at my middle school didn’t have enough girls for a team and they wouldn’t allow me to play on the boys’ team,” Ionescu told the Guardian last week. “So I had to find a bunch of girls who were willing to play. Which I did.”
A daughter of Romanian immigrants who fled their homeland after the 1989 revolution, Ionescu took to basketball “just trying to keep up” with her brothers in the driveway while growing up the San Francisco suburb of Walnut Creek. An avid NBA fan, she modeled her game after her idols: Curry, Monta Ellis and John Stockton. “I started falling in love with the game and playing more and more,” she says. “And I realized this is what I want to do for the rest of my life and for as long as I can.”
Ionescu became one of the country’s most sought-after prospects during a decorated career at Miramonte High School, where she poured in a school-record 2,606 points while leading the team to a 119–9 record over four years. She chose to play collegiately at Oregon over schools with far richer women’s basketball traditions for the opportunity to build something from the ground up. “I wanted to be a part of something,” she explains. “To grow a program and grow the university into what it is today. I’m excited to be able to say I was a part of that.”
Oregon coach Kelly Graves has regularly noted that Ionescu is not the fastest player on the floor and not the strongest, but no one wants to win more. That competitive fire drew the attention of NBA legend Kobe Bryant and the pair struck up a friendship after he attended an Oregon game at USC with his daughter Gianna in January 2019. “The basketball world is small, so we connected and spent time together from there,” she says. “It meant everything to me. He’d been there so he understood the pressure, just that willingness to be the best. He helped me through all aspects of life, not just basketball.”
Ionescu likely would have been the No 1 pick in last year’s draft after leading the Ducks to the Final Four for the first time in program history, but instead opted to come back for her senior season to try and win a national title. All signs pointed toward a return trip as the Ducks won 31 of their 33 games – averaging an NCAA-best 86 points per contest, beating five nationally ranked teams, even handing the USA women’s national team their first defeat in six years during their November exhibition tour – before the coronavirus pandemic abruptly prompted the cancelation of all winter and spring championships.
But a dream season that saw Ionescu cross over from star player to household name was struck by tragedy in January with the tragic helicopter accident that killed Bryant, Gianna and seven others. When the memorial service the following month in Los Angeles, Ionescu delivered a moving tribute. “If I represented the present of the women’s game, Gigi was the future, and Kobe knew it. So we decided to build a future together,” she said. “I wanted to be a part of the generation that changed basketball for Gigi and her teammates. Where being born female didn’t mean being born behind, where greatness wasn’t divided by gender.”
Hours later, an emotionally drained Ionescu recorded yet another triple-double (21 points, 12 rebounds and 12 assists) and broke the 2,000/1,000/1,000 threshold to stand alone in history in a crucial win over fourth-ranked Stanford.
With the scheduled 15 May start of the WNBA season delayed indefinitely due to the coronavirus pandemic, Ionescu is quarantining with her family in the Bay Area and maintaining her same daily routine. An avid reader, her recent favorites include Shoe Dog by Phil Knight, The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho and The Five People You Meet in Heaven by Mitch Albom.
“My mindset and the things that I do have stayed the same throughout my life,” she says. “That hasn’t changed now that I’ve been drafted. I still wake up and do the same things every day. I’m pretty grounded in that respect. I don’t really view myself any differently than I have before all this.”
Ionescu is set to enter a WNBA that appears to be on an upswing after a newly signed collective bargaining agreement that will significantly increase player salaries and expanded TV broadcast schedule. She aspires to follow in the steps of Megan Rapinoe, Diana Taurasi and Sue Bird in how they were able to permanently alter the way people view women’s sports.
“There are so many in women’s sports that have been using their platforms and it’s been inspirational to be able to see that,” she says. “I see myself jumping on board and doing the same thing.
“I’m excited to stand for something more than just being a basketball player in that city and using it for a bigger purpose. I want to be able to use my platform and voice to stand for something more. We’re already at a disadvantage as it is. Hopefully I can help bring appreciation and value into the game regardless of your gender. Trying to use sport to change the way society views us as a whole.”