Warriors

Why Sabrina Ionescu's legacy can transcend WNBA, end of Oregon career

Warriors

Sabrina Ionescu should have spent the last week celebrating after leading the Oregon Ducks to their first national championship in program history.

Her business officially finished, the Walnut Creek native should have been basking in the waltzing around with a net around her neck, having capped off a trying senior season the way she was meant to.

As a champion.

But the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic took that opportunity from her, among many other student-athletes, when it forced the NCAA to cancel the men’s and women’s basketball tournaments for public health reasons.

Just like that, Ionescu and the Ducks, winners of 19 in a row and on their way to a No. 1 overall seed in the Portland region, had their season end. The unfinished business Ionescu and fellow stars Satou Sabally and Ruthy Hebard set out to accomplish would remain as such.

There’s zero doubt in Ionescu’s mind how the season would have ended in a normal time.

“I don’t think we were going to lose again,” Ionescu said April 8 on ESPN’s “The Boardroom.” “I think we were peaking at the right time. We were shooting the ball well, we were defending, we were locked in and we were hungry. We weren’t really OK with getting to a Final Four. I think that would have been the bare minimum.

“I don’t think we’ve ever really had that mindset, but I think the core group of us, having been to a Final Four last year, we were going to go in trying to win a national championship, so I’m almost positive that’s what would have happened. It sucks not being able to finish it but things happen for a reason.”

 

It was not the ending Ionescu and the 2019-20 Ducks deserved.

But her legacy won’t be defined by the Ducks’ “Unfinished Business.” Ionescu’s legacy has the potential to go far beyond wins and losses, championships and defeats. Her generational talent, wide appeal, engaging and authentic personality give Ionescu -- the presumptive No. 1 overall pick in Friday’s 2020 WNBA Draft -- the ability to be a global star for women’s basketball.

Ionescu can help accelerate the growth and popularity of a game that still unfortunately lags behind its men's counterpart.


Photo via AP

Sports grab our attention for many reasons, one of which is how the narratives so clearly unfold. Ionescu returned for her season with redemption on her mind, and she achieved unprecedented greatness in the meantime.

Her junior season ended in heartbreak after Baylor eliminated Oregon in the 2019 Final Four, a game in which Ionescu was held scoreless in the fourth quarter. She returned, touting her “unfinished business,” and the  Ducks were a wrecking ball this season, with Ionescu becoming the face of college basketball with each silky step-back jumper and every mesmerizing assist.

Tragedy put Ionescu even further in the spotlight.

She carried herself with unbelievable strength and grace following the tragic death of her friend and mentor Kobe Bryant, his daughter Gianna and the seven others who died in a helicopter crash on Jan. 26.

A month after Bryant’s death, she gave an emotional speech at his celebration of life. Again, Ionescu comported herself with an eloquence that rarely is seen in the face of tragedy.

“'You have too much to give to stay silent.’ That’s what he said," Ionescu said of Bryant at the memorial. "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.

“Basketball in many ways was just a metaphor. I still text him even though he’s not here. ‘Thank you for everything. The rest is for you. Rest easy my guy.’ ”

Ionescu then flew north to San Francisco hours later. Her dad picked her up and drove her to Palo Alto, where the Ducks were set to take on No. 7 Stanford.

Ionescu channeled her mentor and made history -- becoming the first player in NCAA history to record 2,000 points, 1,000 rebounds and 1,000 assists -- while helping Oregon throttle No. 7 Stanford.

 

The writing was on the wall. The Ducks were firing on all cylinders, and Ionescu had taken control of the college basketball world. A run to the Final Four and dates with fellow No. 1 seeds Baylor and South Carolina surely awaited.

Facing the best of the best, Ionescu was destined to have her own Kobe moment, dominating the team that bounced the Ducks from the tournament a year ago before toppling Dawn Staley’s Gamecocks with a performance for the ages to deliver a title and cap an unforgettable season.

COVID-19 robbed Ionescu and the Ducks of their moment. It’s something the 22-year- old will have a hard time coming to grips with even as she prepares to join the New York Liberty when her name is called Friday.

“I don’t think I’ll really be able to get over it for a long time,” Ionescu said Saturday on Yahoo! Sports’ #WeKeepPlaying panel on April 10.

“It was devastating just knowing that that’s what we’ve been preparing for as a team this last year,” Ionescu said. “And losing last year in the Final Four, there’s more fuel in the fire this year to get to that national championship.”

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In today’s media climate, immediacy is often placed above substance. Having an immediate reaction is seen as a necessary way to capitalize on a moment, but Ionescu’s senior season, its abrupt end and her next steps deserved a longer look. Time to marinate on a season and a career that saw a talented player from Northern California become one of the faces of basketball by being herself.

She’s humble, hard-working and human, and unsought fame followed.

Ionescu arrived in Eugene, Ore., as a heralded recruit for a program that hadn’t seen success. She became a countrywide sensation, pressuring Nike to sell her jerseys, just as they sold men’s basketball jerseys and countless football jerseys.

The Swoosh finally caved, and Ionescu’s No. 20 jerseys hit the stands and sold out within hours. Legions of green No. 20 jerseys arrived anywhere the Ducks went, flying off the shelves faster than they could be stocked.

Ionescu’s collegiate career ended with a number of accolades, records and a mountain of statistics: 2,562 points, 1,091 assists and 1,040 rebounds; 26 career triple-doubles, back-to-back Wooden Awards, a sweep of the national player of the year awards this season and a win over Team USA; making friends and mentors of Bryant and Steph Curry along the way.

"It's pretty amazing to see her set new levels of expectation for what greatness is, not just for women's basketball but for basketball in general," Curry told ESPN while watching Ionescu make history against Stanford.

 

"She's blazing a trail nobody has set foot on."


Photo via USATSI

Legacy in sports often is tied to titles. History is littered with great players who never had their moment in the championship sun.

Ionescu had her final collegiate chapter closed for her mid-sentence. Cutting down the nets in Las Vegas after the Pac-12 Tournament Championship Game was her last moment as a Duck.

But her legacy will be defined by what she does next, where her unique talent, authentic personality and popularity can give women’s basketball its biggest star to date.

She’s currently choosing whether she’ll sign a shoe contract with Nike, Puma or Under Armour, with Curry pushing hard for her to join him with UA.

If the popularity of her jersey is any indication, the Sabrina 1s, whenever they arrive, are sure to be the next big thing in the sneaker game.

Women’s basketball has had a number of stars. Cheryl Miller, Lisa Leslie, Dianna Taurasi, Maya Moore and Brittney Griner come to mind off the top.

But Ionescu’s rise is different. With supreme talent, social-media buzz, media exposure and support from NBA stars coming together, she is giving the women’s game something it hasn’t quite seen yet.

"She's changing the game," Oregon coach Kelly Graves told NPR. "There's no player in the history of college women's basketball that's getting the attention she is.

"She's getting crossover support from some of the greatest men's basketball players in the world. Icons ... and that just does not happen. So she is, I think, making an impact for our sport that I think will be long-lasting.”

Women’s basketball is gaining popularity and Ionescu is set to be one of the next global stars regardless of gender, elevating the game by inspiring a generation of young girls to be themselves while striving for greatness.

“Hopefully our legacy is that we’ve created something bigger than just basketball in Eugene,” Ionescu said on “The Boardroom.” “A program that’s good and is going to be good for years to come, so hopefully just creating that opportunity for girls in that community and around the world to watch us and aspire to be like us.”

[RELATED: How Ionescu is prepping for WNBA during quarantine]

Greatness can be defined in many ways. Ionescu’s isn’t just in how she sees the court in a way only the greats do -- dazzling with every pass she threads through a defense with 10 eyes fixed on her. Nor is it limited to how she forces you to hold your breath with each deadly crossover, anticipating an icy setback reminiscent of Bryant.

It comes also in the graciousness she showed in taking pictures and signing autographs with each fan who asked after most Oregon games. It comes in her fearlessness to speak out on issues that require a strong public voice, in showing rarely seen strength in the face of tragedy and in the bravery to be human when so many would offer a false persona.

 

“You don’t have to be anything different than who you are,” Bryant said of Ionescu before his passing. “Because you being who you are has brought on these expectations, because that’s what you’re capable of. You don’t need to get in your own head about it, and say, ‘I gotta live up to this, live up to that.’ Just be who you are.”

Ionescu deserved her moment in the championship spotlight, to announce her greatness on the biggest stage. That was taken from her and the Ducks.

But her biggest moment comes in what she does next, both as a champion for the women’s game and a global ambassador for basketball.

There’s little doubt her next chapter will be even better than the last.