She didn’t even warm up. This is the one fact that Oregon coach Kelly Graves can’t quite get his head around when he talks about Sabrina Ionescu’s superhuman performance on Feb. 24.
That morning in Los Angeles, the Ducks point guard stood shoulder to shoulder with NBA legends Michael Jordan and Shaquille O’Neal and delivered a powerful eulogy to an arena packed with mourners at a Staples Center memorial service for Kobe Bryant and his daughter Gianna.
That evening in Palo Alto against Pac-12 rival Stanford, despite having spent the entire pregame throwing up in the locker room as she processed the emotion of the day, Ionescu delivered a history-making game. She not only had a triple-double to lead the Ducks to a win over the Cardinal but became the first player, man or woman, to reach 2,000 points, 1,000 assists and 1,000 rebounds in NCAA play.
“Sabrina always seems to shine the brightest in the biggest moments,” Graves said. “She has a knack for the dramatic, which people love. She thrives on pressure. I think New York is the perfect place for her. She is going to thrive on that big stage.”
It appears that the proverbial Mount Rushmore of New York sports superstars is about to gain a new face. And it will be wearing a ponytail.
Transformative opportunity for Liberty
The Liberty have the top pick in the WNBA Draft next Friday, and it will be considered malpractice if they don’t take Oregon’s triple-double machine. Ionescu is the most recognized college basketball player today, man or woman. She won the prestigious Wooden Award for the second straight season on Monday, completing a clean sweep of the major national player of the year awards.
Ionescu to the Liberty has the potential to be like Patrick Ewing to the Knicks, or in some ways even bigger. She has a chance to be a transformative athlete, someone with the right combination of drive, skill, personality and timing to push the Liberty, the WNBA and ultimately women’s team sports to the next level of fan recognition.
“I think her personality is perfect for New York,” ESPN basketball analyst and former Liberty player Rebecca Lobo said. “She has a swagger and confidence that fans in New York love. Obviously, she can play. The reason she is so confident is that her game backs it up. She’s personable. She’s funny. She’s competitive. Not only all the things that make a great basketball player, but she has the personality that seems to fit the city.”
There have been plenty of talented and accomplished women to enter the league, but none has captured the attention of the public at large — specifically the attention of high-profile male athletes — the way this 5-11 pick-and-roll savant has.
The daughter of Romanian immigrants who worked long hours, Ionescu spent the majority of her childhood at a playground near her home in Walnut Creek, California, playing pickup games with her twin brother, Eddy, who went on to play for the Oregon men’s team. This freelance playground background helped Ionescu develop a different style of game from most of her female peers, who were introduced to the game through the structure of girls leagues. It’s a style that has won her plenty of big-name fans.
LeBron James dubbed her “Queen Sabrina” on Twitter. Steph Curry attended both of her games in the Bay Area this season and posted a photo of the two of them on his Instagram feed, writing “S/O to the walking Triple Dub” (she finished her college career with 26 triple-doubles, the NCAA record for men and women). Bryant befriended her after watching her play her junior season and invited her to coach Gianna for a weekend. The three developed such a tight bond that it was Ionescu whom the Bryant family asked to speak about Gianna’s love of the game at the memorial service.
Graves said he realized just how transcendent Ionescu was when they attended a Wooden Award ceremony last season. At the post-ceremony reception, Graves found himself standing with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Jerry West, Karl Malone and Julius Erving.
“I introduced myself, and they were like ‘OK, whatever,’ ” he remembered. “And then I say, ‘I’m Sabrina’s coach,’ and their faces change and everyone starts talking. Karl Malone told me he watched us play four or five times this year and we end up talking about the pick-and-roll.”
One can’t underestimate the power of having celebrity big-name fans, Lobo said.
“Sabrina in a very public way has drawn attention to the women’s game and now the WNBA. The casual fan asking why is Steph Curry going to her games? Why was Kobe watching? Diana Taurasi is also loved by a lot of NBA players, but I don’t think there was this kind of social media to shout out when she was in college.”
No, there wasn’t, and it does seem that timing is one big thing that Ionescu has going for her when it comes to being a big-time star in New York. If she is selected by the Liberty, Ionescu will start her professional career with a franchise making a fresh start in the biggest media market in the world. The Liberty have a new owner, new coach and a new home court at Barclays Center, home to the NBA’s Nets.
A player fans can relate to
Not only are more brands already looking to align themselves with women athletes, said Joe Favorito, a veteran sports marketing consultant who teaches at Columbia University, but when sports returns after the COVID-19 pandemic, people will be looking to embrace a different type of athlete.
“I think the time is right when we come out the other side of this, whenever that is, I think people are going to be looking more for feel-good people who they can relate to,” Favorito said. “To have a transcendent athlete in New York who also happens to be a woman would be very important to not just little girls, girls and boys, to parents, to every community out there.”
Big brands already are jockeying to get in on the action. On a radio show Monday, Ionescu said Nike, Under Armour and Puma are the three shoe companies she could do a deal with and added that she likely will have a decision soon.
Still, it takes a rare talent to deal with the stresses of playing in New York.
“New York fans are more demanding, less forgiving,” said Lobo, who played for the Liberty from 1997-2001. “At the same time, they have a passion that’s a bit different than what I’ve seen in other places. You can be walking through Central Park and someone will shout out your name. There’s just this great awareness of basketball in New York City.”
Favorito agrees that New York is a unique market in which it’s hard to juggle the large off-the-court demands and play at an incredibly high level.
“It would be great if the Liberty had that player and she could be a transcendent star and do all the things off the court while being an amazing player on the court. That’s hard to do,” Favorito said. “People can say they are prepared for this market. I’m sure Bobby Bonilla thought he was prepared for this market.
“The beauty of it is the WNBA is just enough under the radar that you can position someone to do things that would be positive without getting some of the pushback from people. I think people want to see rising, telegenic stars who are very socially savvy succeed.”
Graves believes Ionescu has all the tools, on and off the court, to succeed in New York. Whether it’s scoring 30 points against the U.S. national team, which she did in the Ducks’ stunning upset this past November, or staying an hour after a game to sign the autograph of every kid waiting for her, she knows how to rise to the occasion.
“She’s just ahead of the competition in everything that she does,” Graves said. “The way she thinks the game and plays the game. The thing that makes her endearing to people that watch — she’s not 6-7, she’s not touching the rim, she’s not dunking the ball, she’s not the quickest player, not the fastest, doesn’t jump the highest — she’s one that everyone can relate to. It’s her work ethic.
“New York is going to love her.”