The assists were her ticket onto the court. The boys at the neighborhood park wanted someone to pass it to them, so to make sure she would get picked, the young girl obliged. The rebounds were her chance to get the ball in her own hands for once, so she learned to crash the offensive …
The assists were her ticket onto the court. The boys at the neighborhood park wanted someone to pass it to them, so to make sure she would get picked, the young girl obliged.
The rebounds were her chance to get the ball in her own hands for once, so she learned to crash the offensive glass — more likely aluminum or wood — with a vengeance.
And the points? Those helped ensure that her team won so that Sabrina Ionescu could not only get on the court but stay there, the place where her basketball legend and trademark competitive fire was born.
“Just her competitiveness, it really did come from the park and the playground, playing against her brother,” Kelly Graves, Ionescu’s coach at Oregon, told The Post recently. “It all makes sense. It’s self-made. It’s hard to teach that, she just learned it.”
Soon, the basketball world would learn of Ionescu. The daughter of Romanian immigrants splashed onto the radars of NBA stars like Stephen Curry, LeBron James and Kobe Bryant, who would become an influential mentor to her before his death. Curry dubbed her “the walking Triple Dub,” James picked “Queen Sabrina,” and Bryant chose “Geppetto,” for the way she pulled the strings like Pinocchio’s puppeteer as a 5-foot-11 point guard who made NCAA history for a man or woman by racking up 26 triple-doubles and surpassing 2,000 points, 1,000 assists and 1,000 rebounds over her sensational college career.
Now, after becoming the face of the women’s game and inspiring a new generation of young basketball players, Ionescu’s star is primed to take off as a pro. Sneaker wars are already underway, her jerseys could be everywhere and all of it could be amplified under the bright lights of New York. The WNBA draft is Friday and the Liberty are on the clock with the No. 1 pick.
“I think it’s gonna be a match made in heaven,” Graves said.
Ionescu and Oregon turned out to be perfect for each other, too. She grew to thrive in Graves’ pick-and-roll offense that was in part shaped by one of her idols, John Stockton.
When she arrived in 2016 as the country’s No. 4 recruit out of Miramonte High School in the Bay Area — quietly announcing her commitment by showing up on campus the day before the summer semester began — Graves and his staff knew they had something special, a program-changing player to cap off a powerhouse recruiting class.
The same day, Nike co-founder and major Oregon donor Phil Knight texted Graves over the magnitude of Ionescu’s signing.
“This is a game-changer,” Knight texted, according to Graves. “She’s a difference-maker, not just for your basketball program, but for the entire university.”
And still, Ionescu went on to exceed the great expectations
When Ionescu stepped foot on campus, the Ducks had not made the NCAA tournament in 11 straight years. By the time she left, they would have gone four straight years — two Elite Eight appearances, the program’s first-ever trip to the Final Four last year, and left forever wondering what might have been this year, ready for a run at a national championship before the coronavirus pandemic canceled the tournament.
Ionescu could have been a top pick in the 2019 WNBA draft had she opted to leave after her junior year. She was already a two-time All-American, had captured the national player of the year and had recorded 18 career triple-doubles, enough to break the NCAA record of 12.
She decided to come back for her senior year, though, and while the unfinished business she and her teammates chased remained just that, their season was unforgettable. It began with a win over Team USA — becoming the first college team to beat them since 1999 — and ended with a Pac-12 championship, as stud teammates Satou Sabally and Ruthy Hebard joined Ionescu for a formidable big three.
“This year, honestly, it was like traveling with rock stars,” Graves said. “Our Pac-12 games, our opponents averaged 2,000 more [fans] than their other Pac-12 games. A lot of those were to see Sabrina and the team. It wasn’t just a one-person show. It was a fun style.”
The most memorable day of Ionescu’s Oregon career, though, was hardly the most fun one.
Feb. 24 began for her at Staples Center in Los Angeles, where Ionescu was asked to speak at Kobe Bryant’s memorial, and ended at Maples Pavilion at Stanford, where the 22-year-old posted another triple-double and reached the 2,000-point, 1,000-assist, 1,000-rebound milestone. It was a test of fortitude unlike any she had experienced before, but one she aced like the rest.
Bryant and Ionescu had formed a strong relationship in the year leading up to his sudden death in January. During Ionescu’s junior year, Graves got a call from Bryant’s assistant. The Lakers legend, his daughter Gianna and two of her teammates wanted to come to Oregon’s game at USC and set up a postgame visit. So after Bryant, Gigi and her teammates watched the Ducks win handily, they headed into the locker room for pictures and talks about basketball.
A few months later, Bryant dissected Ionescu’s game in an ESPN+ segment, comparing her pick-and-roll prowess to Steve Nash. On one play in particular, where Ionescu shrugged off a defender and nailed a step-back 3, Bryant rewound the tape and chuckled.
“I’m just going to leave this here for idiots that think women’s basketball is not entertaining,” he said.
Last summer, Ionescu trained with Bryant and Gigi and sometimes helped coach her team. Bryant and Gigi were spectators at more Oregon games this season, and even when Bryant wasn’t there, he’d send one of the text messages awaiting Ionescu whenever she dropped another triple-double.
They stopped coming, though, after a Sunday morning in January, when Bryant, Gigi and two of her teammates were among the nine killed in a helicopter crash in California. Ionescu had a game that night and still played through the devastation.
A month later, Ionescu joined the likes of Michael Jordan, Shaquille O’Neal, Diana Taurasi and Geno Auriemma in speaking at Kobe’s memorial. She had the crowd laughing in one breath and crying the next, handling a difficult assignment with grace.
“I wanted to be a part of the generation that changed basketball for Gigi and her teammates,” Ionescu said in her speech, “where being born female didn’t mean being born behind, where greatness wasn’t divided by gender.”
Hours later, greatness took the court. After flying to Palo Alto, Ionescu didn’t warm up. She was sick and spent pregame throwing up, but of course she still played. And she didn’t just play. Ionescu dazzled, scoring 21 points, 12 rebounds and 12 assists while reaching the 2K, 1K, 1K club of one to beat No. 4 Stanford.
“That’s pretty iconic,” Graves said. “I think that sums her up. On a day where she had every reason to not be at her best playing-wise, and under all that pressure and scrutiny and all the national attention, she delivered. She delivered and she delivered in a big way.”
A WNBA coach with a vested interest took notice.
“I think you need to look no further than the way she’s handled herself in times of crisis to know what type of a leader she is,” Liberty coach Walt Hopkins said, “and what type of leader she could be at the next level.”
The Liberty should have a front-row view of it for years to come when they pick the potentially franchise-altering star Friday.
The organization has a new general manager, a new head coach and a new home to match their new cornerstone. Barclays Center will be Ionescu’s newest playground, sharing the building on Atlantic Avenue with Nets stars Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving.
After attracting the NBA’s best and a huge following to her games at Oregon, a new, untapped fanbase awaits in New York City.
“I think Sabrina is perfectly suited for that,” former Liberty star and current ESPN analyst Rebecca Lobo said on a conference call this week. “Not only her game, which is next-level, but her personality, her drive, her will to win. She fits in in high-pressure moments. She lives in them. She craves them. She comes through in them. And there’s nothing bigger than being in New York City.”
Opportunities are coming off the court, too. Nike, Under Armour and Puma are battling for her endorsement deal, though it would be an upset if Nike let her get away after she spent the last four years in its backyard.
Only a select few WNBA players have had their own signature shoes and none of them are still playing. Could Ionescu change that?
“I would think she would have a possibility there,” said Steve Rosner, a partner and co-founder of 16W Marketing, a sports marketing company in New York. “Maybe she could be the first one, why not? And if it’s with Nike, with the marketing dollars they put behind it, who knows?”
Reigning MVP Elena Delle Donne has had the WNBA’s top-selling jersey for the last three years. Ionescu, whose Oregon jersey sold out in hours when Nike first put it on sale last fall, could soon challenge her while pushing the limits of what’s possible for someone in her shoes.
Either way, Ionescu, who is finishing her master’s degree in advertising and brand responsibility, knows what she’s capable of.
“Just the marketability that there is in New York and kind of the hustle and bustle is something I think could be not only beneficial to myself as a person but as a brand and for women’s basketball,” Ionescu said Tuesday on a video conference call with reporters.
But Ionescu’s journey leading to Friday’s draft has never been about just basketball.
For every triple-double she has notched, there have been thousands of new fans she attracted to women’s basketball. For every game-winning shot she has hit, the new generation of young girls looking up to her has grown stronger. Beyond all the points and assists and rebounds, Ionescu’s biggest impact has come without the basketball in her hands.
When Oregon played at UConn in February, a father told Graves he drove his daughter seven hours so she could see Ionescu. They came to the team hotel before the game, with the young girl wearing Ionescu’s jersey, and saw Graves, who then introduced her to Ionescu.
“You should have seen her face,” Graves said. “It was incredible. And her dad actually had tears in his eyes. That’s the kind of impact that she makes.”
At Oregon’s basketball camp every year, Graves asks young girls who their favorite basketball player is. Usually, nine out of 10 would say an NBA player like LeBron or Kobe.
“I think Sabrina’s really changed that narrative,” he said. “I think if you ask a lot of young girls now, ‘who’s your favorite player?’ They’re going to say Sabrina.”