On February 24, 2020, Sabrina Ionescu became the first player ever in Division I NCAA college basketball to record over 2,000 career points, 1,000 assists and 1,000 rebounds.
On that day, Ionescu recorded 21 points, 12 rebounds and 12 assists to lead the Oregon Ducks past the Stanford Cardinal by a final score of 74-66. It was her 26th career triple-double. The next closest player to Ionescu’s triple-double record is BYU’s Kyle Collinsworth with 12. 12 compared to 26.
But recording another triple-double or re-writing history won’t be the thing that Ionescu will remember when looking back on this day.
That very morning - before the game and before making history - she spoke at the memorial service for her dear friend Kobe Bryant, who passed away a month earlier on January 26, 2020.
Ionescu spoke on what Bryant’s mentorship meant to her, in both basketball and life.
She recalled the day the two first met.
Kobe brought his daughter Gigi to USC’s campus to see Ionescu in action as the Oregon Ducks faced the Trojans. The two sat curtsied and then went into the locker room after the game.
“It’s crazy and surreal to think of," Ionescu said on the Sports Uncovered Podcast. "I think in the moment, I didn’t know where our relationship would lead.”
From that moment on, the two developed a relationship both on and off the court. Kobe became a mentor to Sabrina, texting her after every game.
“The mentorship was awesome,” Ionescu continued. “We got to become really, really close friends. We talked a few times a week. We talked really about everything whether it was basketball, his family, my basketball. Really the conversation took us wherever we really wanted.”
As Kobe became a mentor to Sabrina, Sabrina became a mentor to Gigi. She helped coach Gigi at Kobe’s camp during the Oregon offseason.
“She was gonna be great. It was awesome to see her development through the entire year,” said Ionescu. “I mean she kept getting taller, she kept getting longer and she kept getting more and more competitive. She was one of the most competitive girls I’d seen at her age.
“She made me want to be a better person on and off the court. She inspired me to be a better role model. She inspired me to be a better player. I knew she looked up to me along with many other athletes and so it made me want to work harder. It made me want to play better just so I can try and pave the way for her and for her teammates.”
Ionescu carried on though the toughest year of her life after losing two close friends that day on January 26, 2020. She dedicated the rest of her collegiate basketball season to Kobe.
Kobe was such an advocate for women’s basketball and Ionescu knows it:
“I think there’s still a long way to go for when there’s gonna be equality in sports and really in gender as a whole. But I think we’re starting and kind of starting to peak and see change. See men showing up to women’s games, sitting courtside and just appreciating them for the sport that they’re playing. Doesn't matter what they look like, or the color of their skin or what gender they are. Kobe did that better than anyone.”
“I think people are trying to live on his legacy especially those players in the NBA that looked up to him and so, they’re trying to take on that kind of girl dad and appreciate women in sports. So it’s cool to see obviously Kobe kind of starting that transition but seeing it take on a life of its own now and excited to see what it’s gonna be like in a couple years and in the future, because I do think it’s going to change.”
After a collegiate basketball season that was abruptly cut short due to the coronavirus pandemic, Ionescu was selected No. 1 overall in the 2020 WNBA Draft by the New York Liberty.
Looking back on that day on February 24, 2020, it was a moment that Sabrina knew that Kobe would be with her always.
Gigi Bryant wore jersey No. 2. Kobe, jersey No. 24. Sabrina, jersey No. 20.
2+24=26, the day Ionescu recorded her 26th career triple-double.