Sabrina Ionescu: The new G.O.A.T in town

Changing the game

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In 1989, a couple and their two-year-old son fled the Romanian Revolution. Seven years later, now settled in California, the couple had a set of twins — a boy and a girl. Twenty-two years later, their only daughter, Sabrina, solidified her status as the very best of women’s basketball.

Oregon’s Sabrina Ionescu is one of the most special players to play collegiate basketball. Her passion, poise, humility and excellence make her the best of the game and even take her a step further.

Those who know nothing about basketball know Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant and LeBron James. They likely don’t know the greats of the women’s counterpart, but Ionescu — once the girl whose parents knew far more about war than basketball — is actively changing that. If she isn’t a household name just yet, she will be.

On Monday, Ionescu made headlines after doing the unthinkable. She attended the memorial service for her mentor and lifelong idol, Kobe Bryant. She delivered a heartfelt and inspirational speech in front of a crowd of 19,000 people who were also mourning at the service.

Just a few hours later, she was on the court at Stanford’s Maples Pavilion, leading the Ducks to clinch the Pac-12 regular season title with their win over the Cardinal for the third time in three years.

That wasn’t all. Ionescu became the first NCAA player ever — men or women — to notch 2,000 points, 1,000 rebounds and 1,000 assists in a career.

The Monday performance that got Ionescu into the exclusive 2K-1K-1K club was not the first time she has been set apart from the herd. Throughout various points in her basketball career, it has seemed like all eyes were set on her — when she was being recruited out of high school, when she led her team to its first Final Four finish in program history, when she was deciding whether to enter the 2019 draft or play her senior season at Oregon, and when she was translating her grief into meaningful words at Bryant’s memorial service.

Ionescu knows pressure, as do many players. But the way she handles it is what makes her so fun to watch, read about and appreciate.

In her piece in The Players’ Tribune this week, Ionescu wrote that she was initially scared entering her final collegiate season. She knew her team was no longer the underdog squad still finding its footing, having a lot of potential and surprising its opponents with upsets. She knew the Ducks were now the ones with the targets on their backs — the team to beat. Oregon had become the UConn of the West, perhaps on its way to becoming the new UConn.

Not that it would’ve been easy, but Ionescu had the option to be the young fresh face again had she entered the 2019 WNBA draft where many expected her to be the No. 1 pick. Yet the 5’11” guard forwent that opportunity and stayed a fourth season at Oregon — not only aware of the enormous pressure weighing on her and her teammates to win an NCAA championship, but embracing it as a challenge that would help her grow.

As Ionescu closes out her final collegiate regular season, more decorated than any other, it’s undeniable that she’s grown in all facets of life. She has talked about how she wants to be a part of transforming the game at the next level within the WNBA, something she imagined she’d do with Bryant’s support and guidance.

Ionescu will undoubtedly follow in the footsteps of the basketball’s very best, but she has already been transforming the game — ever since she set foot on Oregon’s campus four years ago with more passion for the game than any other.

When Sabrina Ionescu’s parents immigrated to the United States there was uncertainty about the future. But nearly 30 years later, it’s certain that Ionescu will continue to have a major impact on basketball and inspire generations to come.

Surina Khurana covers volleyball. Contact her at [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter at @surina_k.