On Monday morning, Oregon senior guard Sabrina Ionescu delivered a heartfelt speech in front of 20,000 people, including some of the biggest names in the sport, at the Kobe Bryant memorial. On the same day, just hours later, she became the first player in Division I history — male or female — to record 2,000 points, 1,000 assists and 1,000 rebounds, leading her Ducks to a win at No. 4 Stanford.
She’s 22 years old.
— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) February 25, 2020
Ionescu, who returned to Oregon for her senior year despite a No. 1 overall pick awaiting her in the WNBA Draft, has deservedly made all kinds of headlines this week. But almost all of those headlines are focused on Ionescu’s close relationship with the Bryant family, a relationship most people didn’t know about until after Kobe’s passing. Let’s be real: If Sabrina didn’t have a connection to Bryant, would her remarkable achievement be getting nearly the same amount of press?
This is not at all to diminish what Kobe meant to Ionescu, or what Ionescu meant to Gigi. In fact, perhaps the most heartbreaking moment of Monday’s memorial came when Ionescu revealed she still texts Bryant, wanting to pick his brain just like before, still hoping for a response.
“I still text him even though he’s not here,” Ionescu said, voice shaky from emotion but remaining composed and eloquent. “The last one I sent him said, ‘I miss you. May you rest in peace, my dear friend.’ The texts go through but no response. It still feels like he’s there, on the other end — that the next time I pick up my phone, he would’ve have hit me back. Sometimes I find myself still waiting.”
— FOX Sports (@FOXSports) February 24, 2020
It’s not a coincidence that the memorial’s first three speakers after Vanessa Bryant — Diana Taurasi, Ionescu and Geno Auriemma — all come from the women’s game. Kobe was a steadfast admirer of women’s hoops; a firm believer that women’s basketball players should be celebrated as basketball players, not just as female ones.
What Ionescu achieved on Monday is nothing short of astounding. Not only was she forced to gather herself just hours after an emotional and mildly terrifying (at least it would be for me, although I’m not sure she knows what fear is) speech about the passing of a close friend, but she was also violently ill all day with flu-like symptoms, barely able to eat.
She then proceeded to record her 26th career triple-double (the most ever, by the way), defeat a top-5 team in the country on their home court and reach an awe-inspiring milestone that no college player in history has ever achieved. Quadruple-digit points, rebounds and assists. 26 triple-doubles. Let those sink in. The fact that it occurred on 2/24/20, the combination of Gigi’s, Kobe’s and Sabrina’s uniform numbers? I’ve run out of adjectives.
— espnW (@espnW) February 25, 2020
We are witnessing one of, if not THE, greatest college basketball player of all time. I’m glad more people are finally appreciating it. I’m disappointed it took so long.
But like Kobe, Ionescu is far more concerned with winning than with individual accolades, and what she has accomplished in that area too is staggering. The season before she arrived at Oregon, the Ducks didn’t even make the NCAA tournament. In her freshman season, they made the tournament as a No. 10 seed, making an unlikely run to Elite Eight before running into … the No. 1 UConn Huskies, losing by almost 40 points.
Now, in her senior season, Oregon, currently No. 3 in the country, has made a convincing case as the best team in the nation. The Ducks slaughtered UConn earlier this season, 76-58, the worst loss ever at Gampel Pavilion. Ionescu isn’t the only reason Oregon has gone from an afterthought to one of the premier programs in women’s hoops — but she’s certainly a huge part of it.
“In the last four years, she’s probably redefined what is possible for a point guard,” Auriemma said ahead of that meeting with Oregon. After the loss, he added, “There’s a lot of good programs out there today and they’ve certainly made the most progress quicker than anybody else. I wasn’t the least bit surprised. You get a generational-type player like Sabrina and that kind of accelerates the process … One player can make you. Trust me, I know.”
Ionescu has brought a bright spotlight to women’s basketball, something that rarely happens outside of Storrs, Connecticut. She is fully aware of the perception of the women’s game as inferior and unimportant. But through her historic play on the court, and her impressive poise off it, she’s actively changing that.
“I wanted to be a part of the generation that changed basketball for Gigi and her teammates,” Ionescu said on Monday. “Where being born female didn’t mean being born behind. Where greatness wasn’t divided by gender.”
In her address to the star-filled Staples Center, Ionescu lamented the crushing reality that we’ll never know the player that Gigi would have become.
“If I represent the present of the women’s game, Gigi was the future, and Kobe knew it,” Ionescu continued. “So we decided to build a future together.”
Ionescu has already helped pave the future of women’s basketball. There are millions of young hoopers watching triple-double after triple-double, hoping to achieve that same level of dominance one day. In Ionescu, we’re watching unprecedented greatness. Pay attention.