Sabrina Ionescu invokes Kobe Bryant's spirit on record-setting night

Sabrina Ionescu invokes Kobe Bryant's spirit on record-setting night

PALO ALTO -- Sabrina Ionescu found herself in an increasingly familiar environment after her record-setting night in third-ranked Oregon's win over No. 4 Stanford. 

Standing in a corridor just off the hardwood at Maples Pavilion, she attracted a who's who of onlookers. On one end, Warriors star Steph Curry stood in awe, while Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson chucked up shots in the adjoining gym.

Ionescu had just capped off an emotional day, becoming the first player in NCAA history -- man or woman -- to record at least 2,000 points, 1,000 rebounds and 1,000 assists in their career. She spoke at Kobe Bryant's memorial service in Los Angeles earlier Monday morning, leaving her Oregon teammates in a private jet after practice Sunday.

Monday began with Ionescu paying tribute to her mentor, and it ended with her earning a distinction that neither Bryant, Curry nor any other player could claim.

"It's unchartered waters for any person," Curry told NBC Sports Bay Area. "I know a lot of people are sleeping on her or don't know how good she is, but numbers don't lie. To do it today is even better." 

The location of the feat is noteworthy. Ionescu's story began 55 miles away from Maples, in the small, distant San Francisco suburb of Walnut Creek.

Her father, Dan, immigrated to the United States in search of political asylum after the 1989 Romanian Revolution. His then-wife, Liliana, and son, Andrei, joined in 1995. Two years later, Sabrina was born, 18 minutes before her twin brother, Eddy. Along the way, Dan supported the family by driving a taxi, and he later owned a limousine company. 

Sabrina took to basketball early. She averaged 25.3 points, 8.8 assists, 7.6 rebounds, 4.5 steals and 1.3 blocks per game as a senior at Miramonte High School in Orinda, earning McDonald's All-America game MVP honors and taking inspiration from her idols and eventual peers.

"She always watched male basketball," Dan said. "So on the women's side, I think Diana Taurasi, but having a twin brother she played more with men and to be accepted with a group of guys, you have to ball. So she was always playing to the level of guys. So Steph, Kobe, all those guys, she was trying to master what they do." 

She met Bryant on Jan. 11, 2019, when Oregon played USC in Los Angeles. That morning, her coaches told the team a surprise was in store. Bryant, his daughter Gianna and two of her AAU teammates walked to their courtside seats minutes into the Ducks' blowout win over the Trojans.

When Ionescu was in LA again months later to receive the Wooden Award, Bryant asked her to stay extra days to help coach his daughter's AAU team. The two then built a bond that even surprised Ionescu's father. 

"The relationship was bigger than I thought," Dan said. "I knew they were close, I knew he came and watched her play in LA, I knew she trained with him, but texting three or four times a week? That was beyond me. She was closer than I thought." 

Bryant's mentorship of the All-American was indicative of his second basketball act: Women's basketball ambassador. His presence along baselines of WNBA games garnered praise from star players Taurasi, Liz Cambage and Chiney Ogwumike upon his death.

Off the hardwood, he coached Gianna on Team Mamba. Kobe, Gianna and seven others died last month when his helicopter crashed in Calabasas, Calif., en route to his daughter's tournament at Mamba Sports Academy. 

"He united us," Ionescu said during her speech at Bryant's memorial. "He made it so that the outsiders who outworked everyone else, who were driven to be just a little bit different every single day to make those around them, behind them and above them a little bit better every single day. And they weren’t the exception. They were the rule.

“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. ‘You have too much to give to stay silent.’ That’s what he said. That’s what he believed. That’s what he lived.

"Through Gigi, through me, through his investment in women’s basketball. That was his next great act, a girl dad."


Bryant's late wish of equality seemed to come full circle during Ionescu's final collegiate trip to the Bay Area.

Curry cheered from his courtside confines Friday at Berkeley's Haas Pavillion as Ionescu notched her 25th triple-double in a one-sided win over Cal. A few seats to Curry's right sat agent Bill Duffy. Down the baseline, former Warriors guard Chris Mullin sat in the same section as New York Liberty coach Walt Hopkins, whose eyes were fixated on Ionescu. The Liberty, after all, own the No. 1 overall pick in April's WNBA draft.

Minutes after the blowout, security walled off a tunnel to make a path for her to safely reach the Ducks' locker room. Once she exited, even Warriors guard Ky Bowman couldn't get past the barricade to see his summer workout partner.

Two nights later, Curry again showed up at halftime in Maples, just before Ionescu grabbed the record-breaking board, giving validation to what he has believed all along.

"Her game will play anywhere," Mullin said Friday. "That type of game makes fans come out, it makes teammates happy, it makes coaches happy, it makes GMs happy. It makes everyone happy."

Said Curry: "Once you see her play for the first time, it's hard not to follow her and understand what she's about, and the type of basketball that they play is pretty special. It's her last year, so people better recognize before she goes to the next level." 

While big crowds are becoming normal for Ionescu's Ducks, her father still is reconciling the attention his daughter receives. 

"It's surreal, man," Dan said. "It's not something I was equipped to or hopeful for or even envisioned. Every day, I'm still amazed." 

A peek into Ionescu's game makes it clear why onlookers are coming in droves. On Monday, she darted a pass into the paint over three Cardinal defenders and found teammate Minyon Moore for an easy layup three minutes into the game. Minutes later, she grabbed a rebound, sprinted three-quarters of the court and prodded the defense before finding Erin Boley for a transition 3-pointer.

Just before halftime, she threw a pinpoint pass from halfcourt to forward Taylor Chavez in stride for a layup, giving the Ducks a 19-point lead while making true the comparisons she has garnered during her run.

"She reminds me a little bit of Diana Taurasi," Warriors coach Steve Kerr said last week. "Just a level of confidence and a swagger is off the charts, which is well-deserved because she's a baller. She's a great role model, great player, fun to watch."

Added Mullin: "A lot of times, you know she could score if she wanted to, but she's kind of like on her own rhythm. You know 'cause you hear the term 'make the extra pass from good to great.' She kind of does that on her own with the manipulation of the dribble, and you know everyone kind of winds up watching her."

At the moment, Ionescu's Ducks are in the conversation for national championship contention. Oregon clinched a share of the Pac-12 title Monday, with the conference tournament more a week away.

There's still work to be done in her father's eyes, even with collegiate and professional success in her sights. 

"Even now, I don't think she's all that," Dan said. "I think you guys make her all that. But I think she still has some growing to do, she still has to master more. But it's the inside part that nobody sees. It's not the athleticism, it's the inside part."

[RELATED: How fatherhood, not career, made Kobe a man of all people] 

Nonetheless, as far as Ionescu goes, Bryant's influence won't be too far behind. It wasn't during the biggest moment of her career Monday. 

The date was Feb. 24, 2020, or 2/24/20: Gianna's number, Kobe's and Ionescu's. 

"That one was for him," she told ESPN after the game. "To do it [today] -- we talked about it in the preseason -- I can't really put that into words, and he's looking down and really proud of me and just really happy for this moment with my team."

Matt Barnes was on verge of NFL pursuit before Warriors offered chance

Matt Barnes was on verge of NFL pursuit before Warriors offered chance

Matt Barnes wasn't guaranteed or promised anything in his NBA career.

In fact, the former Warriors forward nearly left hoops in 2006 to pursue football.

"I was on the verge of trying to jump into the NFL," Barnes recently explained to Warriors broadcaster Bob Fitzgerald. "I was still working out -- basketball and football -- during the summertime because basketball hadn't really seemed to hit.

"I had played four years up to that point and bounced around -- been on a handful of teams -- and just really wasn't getting a fair shot."

Barnes was selected in the second round (No. 46 overall) of the 2002 NBA Draft, but spent his entire rookie season in the G League with the Fayetteville Patriots.

He didn't make his NBA debut until Jan. 19, 2004 when the Clippers gave him a shot with a 10-day contract.

Barnes signed with the Sacramento Kings in October 2004, and appeared in 43 games before he was traded to the Philadelphia 76ers in February.

[RUNNIN' PLAYS PODCAST: Listen to the latest episode]

That brings us to the summer of 2006.

"I was in Sacramento (his hometown) at the time. Baron Davis called me (and said), 'Hey, we're gonna have an open run at the facility (in Oakland). If you're not doing nothing, come down.' I wasn't doing nothing. Hopped in my car, drove down an hour and a half. 

"Played well -- not knowing that Nellie (Warriors coach Don Nelson) was watching the whole time upstairs through the offices. We finished playing, he comes down, tells me I played well (and asks) where I'm going to camp. I was just like, 'You know coach, I don't really have any plans.'

"He told me, he's like, 'I can't promise you anything. I think we have 16 guarantees and 19 people coming to training camp, but if you play like you did today I'll give you a chance.' And that was the first time a coach really had a conversation with me. That's all I needed.

"(I) made the team and continued to use the games as practices and eventually worked my way into the lineup. The rest is history. That's kind of when I put my name on the map."

Over 76 games (23 starts) during the "We Believe" 2006-07 season, Barnes averaged 9.8 points, 4.6 rebounds, 2.1 assists and 1.0 steals, while shooting nearly 37 percent from deep. In 11 playoff games, he averaged 11.1 points, 5.7 rebounds, 2.4 assists, 1.5 steals and shot over 42 percent from 3-point range.

[RELATED: Barnes reveals 'We Believe' Warriors documentary in works]

After one more season with the Dubs in 2007-08, Barnes played for the Phoenix Suns, Orlando Magic, Los Angeles Lakers, Clippers, Memphis Grizzlies and Kings.

He returned to the Warriors in early March 2017 after Kevin Durant sustained a knee injury, and became an NBA champion.

The 40-year-old currently co-hosts a fantastic podcast with Stephen Jackson called "All the Smoke," and he is terrific as an analyst on TV.

It's crazy to think how different his life could have been had he not picked up BD's phone call 14 years ago ...

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Damian Lillard torches Dan Orlovsky for 'spoiled', 'entitled' remarks

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Damian Lillard torches Dan Orlovsky for 'spoiled', 'entitled' remarks

We live in an era of hot takes. Being correct isn't as important as being noticed. Ratings triumph over truth.

It leads to a situation in which television pundits frequently spout off misguided and easily disproven snap judgments without understanding the true context of the situation. Why give an accurate assessment when a bombastic quote can drive exponentially more traffic?

Most times, they aren't held accountable. On Thursday, though, Damian Lillard wasn't going to let that fly.

Lillard recently announced that he would sit out games if and when the NBA resumed the season if the Trail Blazers didn't have a chance to qualify for the playoffs and compete for a championship. While that is entirely reasonable, former NFL quarterback Dan Orlovsky joined ESPN's "Get Up" on Wednesday and put his foot in his mouth in criticizing Lillard's decision.

"How can you sit there and go, ‘Nope, I’m not going to play, but understand that there are people out there that don’t have that choice," Orlovsky said. "They have to go to work. They have to go earn their money. I struggle with sitting here and going ‘you don’t come off, in some way, a spoiled and entitled brat by saying I’m not going to play."

Spoiled and entitled? Seriously? Lillard is anything but, and he didn't let that idiotic comment slide.

Let's see. Lillard grew up in a rough part of Oakland. He didn't have a single D-1 scholarship offer coming out of high school. He attended a mid-major at Weber State University and built himself up to become the No. 6 overall pick in the 2012 NBA Draft. In the time since, he has been named Rookie of the Year, made four All-NBA teams, selected to five All-Star games and become the face of his franchise. Not to mention, he continually gives back to his Oakland community, including hosting an annual picnic and donating to his high school.

What exactly is spoiled about that? And Orlovsky has the nerve to call Lillard entitled?!

Orlovsky, as Lillard reminded him, was a career backup. 

Across 12 career starts, he posted a 2-10-0 record. He is most known for unknowingly stepping out of the back of the end zone for a safety. And this is the guy who we're supposed to view as an authority on the circumstances of a superstar?

Come. On.

Lillard doesn't back down, on the court or off of it. He didn't relent in calling Orlovsky out, and to no one's surprise, the comments eventually were walked back ... sort of.

I suppose you can credit Orlovsky for acknowledging his mistake and apologizing, but I won't. If not for Lillard defending himself, the comments likely would have gone unchecked and further emboldened the hot-take culture.

[RELATED: Warriors could practice again at Chase in next two weeks]

Maybe Orlovsky will think twice -- or at least do a little research -- before opening his mouth next time.

[RUNNIN' PLAYS PODCAST: Listen to the latest episode]