Ionescu, who was fighting the flu, finished with 21 points, 12 assists and 12 boards for her eighth triple-double of the season (tying her NCAA record set last year). Although she wasn’t available to most of the media after the game, she did speak briefly with ESPN. The Bryants, and how they were raising the profile of women’s hoops, were not far from her thoughts.
“That one was for him. To do it on 2-24-20 was huge,” she said of the date that symbolized the numbers Bryant and Gianna wore, along with his years with the Lakers and his wife, Vanessa. “We talked about it in the preseason. I can’t put it into words. He’s looking down and proud of me and happy for this moment with my team.”
Coach Kelly Graves is accustomed to being awed by her ability, but Monday night was special. “I don’t know many people that could have done what she did today,” Graves said. “I knew this was the way it was going to end tonight for her. I’m glad that it ended in a victory, but I knew that she was going to get that. It’s so fitting that she did it tonight.”
During the Bryants’ service Monday morning, Ionescu spoke of having forged a relationship with the father and daughter even though Gianna, a 13-year-old hoops prodigy, had set her sights on playing for Geno Auriemma’s storied Connecticut program rather than Oregon.
“I wanted to be a part of the generation that changed basketball for Gigi and her teammates,” Ionescu said in her Staples Center eulogy. “Where being born female didn’t mean being born behind.”
She delivered a message that was important to Vanessa Bryant, Kobe’s widow and Gianna’s mother, ensuring that a large portion of the “Celebration of Life” centered on the future that was lost as well as Kobe’s achievements. She echoed Bryant’s “Dear Basketball” message in a Players’ Tribune post Monday, writing about how she knew she’d made the right decision in returning to Oregon for another season.
“... I was in Los Angeles for the Wooden Award presentation. As part of the trip, Kobe had invited me to stop by this gym and serve as a guest assistant coach for his girls. And the one thing about Kobe is, he tells no lies,” she wrote in “Dear Oregon Basketball.” “So I knew that if he thought I should have declared for the [WNBA] draft, he’d have let me know. With love, for sure, but he’d have let me know. Pretty much the first thing he said to me, though, when I walked through the doors — well, it wasn’t even him saying anything, actually. It was more just like ….. a smile and a nod. You know what I mean? That was our secret language. He gave me this smile and nod. That was him letting me know he thought I’d made the right call.”
Bryant saw her decision, she wrote, as a blessing. “He saw the pressure that we were about to face this year as a privilege. A challenge to overcome. And the fact that it was scary to me at first? He saw that as an opportunity. Harnessing your fear as an opportunity to learn something new about yourself — that’s Mamba Mentality 101. And I took it to heart.”
A graduate student at Oregon, Ionescu had grown close to the Bryants and to Payton Chester and Alyssa Altobelli, Gianna’s teammates who also were killed in the Jan. 26 helicopter crash. She has the names of all four written on her sneakers, along with “Forever 24/8,” Bryant’s numbers. This season, and the rest of her career, will be different as she goes forward without the man she calls her mentor.
“Kobe’s death also left me with some questions about my own path. What was I supposed to do now without his presence? Without his guidance? Who was I going to turn to for advice? And then on top of those thoughts, I had these almost even “angrier” questions, you know? Like: How could the world have brought me together with someone like Kobe, someone who understood me so well — maybe the first person in my life who truly got me on this deeper basketball level — only to then rip him out of my life after less than a year?! And why?! It just felt cruel. It still feels that way.”
Ionescu went on to write that she had learned to see the “bigger picture” — the whole court — behind how she and Bryant connected. The father of four daughters, Bryant was seeing the game fresh through his daughter and her team. It was a different game, one rooted in the fundamentals that drew him to it in the first place.
“He didn’t see growing the game with girls as his hobby, or as some side project, or as a charity case. He saw it as a movement,” Ionescu wrote. “And he didn’t get involved because he just wanted to be a fan of our movement. He got involved because he wanted to be a part of it.
“And that’s what I always loved so much about Kobe, and it’s one of the things that I hope people will remember about him. He didn’t care about your age, or your gender, or your background….. or any of that. Even your talent, at the end of the day, wasn’t what Kobe was there to judge. All that he cared about really was your love of the game.”
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I miss you guys more than I could ever put into words 💔 Kobe, thank you for being a source of light in the midst of darkness.You were and always will be my sanctuary. You brought me the peace and guidance that I had been searching, and praying so long for. You were my mentor, idol, inspiration, and close friend. A part of me was lost Sunday, a void that can never be filled, because you are one of one. You took me under your wing and believed in me more than I believed in myself. I only have one choice. To live out your legacy. 🐍 You will forever live through me, and be watching over me every step of the way, because you have the best seat in the house. I can still hear you telling me, “Sab, real sharpness comes without effort,” and that’s a voice I will never forget. Love you boss. Always. Gigi, Alyssa and Pay Pay- Never stop shining your light! I was blessed to have been apart of your lives and to inspire you, but now you inspire me. Keep working on those fade away jumpers up in heaven. RIP little mambas❤️🐍 I pray for everyone who lost a loved one on Sunday, may God heal your broken hearts🙏🏼 Legends never die! #mambamentality🐍