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Liberty No. 1 pick Sabrina Ionescu on a mission on and off the court

In this March 8, 2020, file photo, Oregon's

In this March 8, 2020, file photo, Oregon's Sabrina Ionescu (20) reacts after her team scored against Stanford during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game in the final of the Pac-12 women's tournament in Las Vegas.  Credit: AP/John Locher

Sabrina Ionescu is on a mission.

Her mission isn’t just to be a great professional basketball player. Her mission isn’t just to bring her new team, the Liberty, their first WNBA championship. Her mission is to help transform the way we feel about women’s basketball, to elevate it to the next level of fan recognition.

Ionescu made that clear months ago when she spoke at a memorial service for Kobe Bryant, his daughter Gianna, known as Gigi, and others who died in a helicopter crash near Los Angeles, saying she wanted to be “part of the generation that changed basketball” for young girls. And the Oregon guard reiterated that Friday night after the Liberty kicked off the surreal virtual WNBA Draft by making her the No. 1 pick.

“It’s going to be huge. The fact that I’ll be able to be in Brooklyn and have a platform and a voice in kind of the mecca of the world is going to be amazing,” said Ionescu, a two-time college player of the year. “I’m just excited for that opportunity, having done it in Eugene and kind of changed the way people viewed women in sports in Eugene. Just excited to take that with me to Brooklyn and hopefully use it for a bigger good in that bigger marketplace.”

Ionescu is the perfect sort of superstar for this brave new world in which we find ourselves.

She not only has the right combination of drive, skill and personality to be a transformative player, but like any great point guard, she has an incredible sense of mission and timing.

No one knows when we will see live sports again, or what it will look like when we do. One thing is for certain, though. When we come out through the other side of this COVID-19 pandemic, it won’t be business as usual.

Fans will be looking for a different sort of superstar. After months of social distancing, they will be looking toward someone they can get close to. They will be looking for a genuine feel-good story, and there’s no doubt that Ionescu is that.

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 playground background helped Ionescu develop a different style of game from most of her female peers, who were first introduced to the game through the structure of girls leagues.

Plenty of talented and accomplished women have entered the WNBA over the years, but few of them signed multiyear contracts with Nike on the same day they became part of the league, as Ionescu did Friday.

What’s more, few of them have had as many high-profile fans as Ionescu.

LeBron James dubbed her “Queen Sabrina” on Twitter. Steph Curry attended a couple of her games in the Bay Area and posted a photo of the two of them on his Instagram feed, writing “S/O to the walking Triple Dub.”

Bryant befriended her after watching her play her junior season and invited her to coach his daughter for a weekend. The three developed such a tight bond that it was Ionescu whom the Bryant family asked to speak about Gigi’s love of the game at the memorial service.

Said Ionescu: “I wanted to be a part of the generation that changed basketball for Gigi and her teammates, where being born female didn’t mean being born behind, where greatness wasn’t divided by gender.

"You have too much to give to stay silent.''

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