Her time is also quarantine time. You’re such a leech, 2020.
“Obviously, one of the worst years of my life,” Ionescu said before adding, “but also one of the best.”
Through all the grief and disappointment, Ionescu (pronounced yo-NESS-coo) still managed to be the transcendent star of the college basketball season. She was the player of the year for a second time. She became synonymous with the triple-double. She scored 30 points in leading the Ducks to an exhibition victory over the U.S. women’s national team. On the day the Bryants and seven others died in a helicopter crash, she scored 19 points in a road victory over rival Oregon State, her first career win in Corvallis. On the court afterward, while fighting back tears, she said of Kobe: “Everything I do, I do it for him.”
About a month later, she spoke at the public memorial for Kobe and Gianna, honored them with great maturity, candor and wisdom and then flew to Stanford and posted her 26th career triple-double that night, all while battling the flu. Beyond basketball feats, Ionescu left the college game as a stunning example of willpower, mental toughness and focus. She showed us her heart, and she played with it on full display.
Her legacy — which includes being the only player in the sport, male or female, to surpass 2,000 points, 1,000 rebounds and 1,000 assists in her career — feels more intimate. Oftentimes, greatness is impossible to understand and better left to marvel. With Ionescu, you could see the human attaching and removing the cape.
“Her legacy is as one of the greatest players in women’s college basketball history,” Oregon Coach Kelly Graves said. “She’s an icon. She’s transcendent. I can’t think of a female athlete, especially in college, who captured the imagination of superstar males as much as she does. Everyone — Kobe, LeBron James, Steph Curry, Russell Wilson — was fascinated with her.
“That just does not happen all that often for a singular female athlete. In our sport, you think about some of the great Connecticut players who dominated the sport in a similar way, but the program is so great and full of superstars that you often saw them as a collective, the mighty U-Conn. We’re a program that’s really just getting started. We have a lot of talent, but Sabrina is the face of it all. There is no perfect comparison for her legend.”
Yet for all that Ionescu and Oregon accomplished over the past four years, they didn’t get to complete their journey. They get no closure. They didn’t even get to have a final team meeting, because the tournament’s cancellation came during a mini-break for the team. Graves was in Arkansas recruiting when the news broke. When he returned, he could meet with only half the team in person. Now we are in isolation, and some players are going pro, and some have decided to transfer. The coach doesn’t know if he will be able to get the entire group together again.
“I feel sad that might not ever happen,” Graves said.
Said Ionescu during a video conference call with reporters this week: “It’s kind of hard to think about it. I came back to win a national championship, and then you don’t win it, and then you try to see if there was any regret. I would say it was probably one of the best decisions of my life to come back, although there was many ups and downs through the year. I wouldn’t have wanted to be anywhere else besides there.”
Ionescu should have plenty more basketball and glory left. She is about to be drafted by the New York Liberty and given an opportunity to help rebuild a franchise under the brightest lights. She is working on her master’s degree in advertising and brand responsibility, which will come in handy if she reaches her potential. The question for her doesn’t seem to be whether she will become a WNBA star. It’s how big she will be.
If healthy, she is too skilled, competitive and full of intangibles to fail. But the WNBA is an incredibly compact and talented league full of stars who play for a long time and don’t pass the torch easily. If you expect Ionescu to come in and immediately carry the league for the next 12 to 15 years, that’s a bit ambitious. However, she will make an impact. She will win. And over time, she will figure out a way to become one of its defining stars.
“She’s always had to deal with the labels of what she’s not: not quick enough, not athletic enough, not tall enough,” Graves said of the 5-foot-11 guard. “So there’s always been a chip on her shoulder. I would never bet against her. She just knows how to play. She’s a baller. Maybe she won’t be as dominant statistically across the board as she was at Oregon, but I’ll tell you this: The New York Liberty’s culture is about to change for the better. She’s going to demand that.”
To make a loose comparison to players in the men’s game, Ionescu is similar to James Harden and Luka Doncic in the sense that, while she isn’t considered the most explosive athlete on the floor, she is so skilled and fluid in her movements that she can compensate for much of the differences in athleticism. She plays at her own pace; it’s unlikely a defender will rattle her or speed her up. During her freshman season, I covered the Sweet 16 game when Ionescu led 10th-seeded Oregon to a victory over No. 3 seed Maryland.
As disappointed as Maryland Coach Brenda Frese was after the game, she also sensed that this supposed upset loss was merely a glimpse into the sport’s immediate future. After watching Ionescu control that game and look unfazed against Maryland’s pressure defense, Frese said: “I’ll tell you this: Oregon is for real.”
Ionescu and Ruthy Hebard led the transformative Oregon senior class to a 120-26 record, two Elite Eights, one Final Four and “one question mark,” Graves said.
He was convinced it was Oregon’s destiny to win it all this season. South Carolina finished the year No. 1, but many would have considered the Ducks the favorite. But that dream — the only thing Ionescu didn’t accomplish — vanished. It was the final blow in a bittersweet year.
One thing is certain, though: Ionescu won’t let the disappointment define her. “Unfinished business” now applies to the pros. The game of basketball figures to benefit greatly.