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WNBA Rookie Sabrina Ionescu Reveals Her Ultimate Goal and Why She's Still Playing for Kobe Bryant

LeBron James sings her praises. Steph Curry, too. Here's why WNBA's brightest rookie, Sabrina Ionescu, is being hailed as the person who just might change the sport for good.

By Sarah Grossbart Aug 02, 2020 7:00 AMTags
Related: Dwyane Wade Recalls Heartwarming Kobe Bryant Memory: "I Miss My Friend"

Few anecdotes better encapsulate just who WNBA rookie Sabrina Ionescu is than the story of Feb. 24. 

A longtime mentee of Kobe Bryant's, University of Oregon's star point guard was tapped to serve as one of eight speakers at his and Gianna Bryant's public memorial. Stepping to the mic just after nine-time league All-Star Diana Taurasi and ahead of the likes of Michael Jordan and Shaquille O'Neal, the college senior delivered a rousing speech about how 13-year-old Gianna, already a basketball phenom with UConn aspirations, had been the "future" of the women's game. 

"I wanted to be a part of the generation that changed basketball for Gigi and her teammates," she announced to the crowd of 20,000 and the millions more watching at home or surreptitiously on office computer screens. "Where being born female didn't mean being born behind, where greatness wasn't divided by gender."

Then Ionescu caught a flight 350 miles north and recorded yet another triple-double against fourth-ranked Stanford en route to becoming the first college player in the history of the NCAA to cross the 2,000 points, 1,000 rebounds and 1,000 assists record. As in, no one had ever done it before. Ever

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So when talking heads throw around words like "history-making" and "game changer", well, they're not wrong. The 22-year-old three-time Pac-12 Player of the Year has literally done just that, her record-shattering performances at Oregon's Matthew Knight Arena boosting attendance for a sport long in need of further recognition.

"It was awesome to see our team be able to do that," she told Glamour in June. "Just being able to watch how many people came progressively through the years and to watch how attendance went up. Being on the road and seeing how attendance continued to rise and how many people wanted to stay after to sign autographs and stuff, it really just goes to show how special the team was."

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Now she's aiming to do the same at the next level. Hours after Ionescu surprised precisely no one by being selected No. 1 in April's WNBA draft (the most watched in 16 years), her freshly printed New York Liberty jersey sold out. And though an ankle injury is apt to sideline her for a minute, she already impressed with her second game stat line (33 points, 7 rebounds, 7 assists) and has the likes of two-time NBA MVP Steph Curry and three-time champion LeBron James rooting for her recovery.  

Beyond winning a championship (she came thisclose at Oregon only to be thwarted by COVID-19 and the cancellation of March Madness), her most important goal remains changing the game for every athlete that comes after. "Definitely gaining visibility for the sport," she tells E! News of her top aspirations. "I think it's already gaining more and more visibility as is and so just to hopefully continue to grow that through the years."

The 5-foot-11 phenom certainly has the drive to do it. "Work ethic and dedication, I learned that from my parents," she told ESPN of watching mom Liliana Blaj and dad Dan Ionescu hustle after immigrating from Romania. "They came here, and they've worked for everything they've gotten and had to work super hard. And nothing was ever given to us as kids. Nothing is ever given to us now."

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Ionescu's physical and mental toughness has been there from the jump. 

Just three when she first grasped a basketball in her tiny toddler hands, the native of California's Bay Area learned the basics in her driveway while scrapping with twin brother Eddy and their older sibling Andrei. WNBA aspirations weren't even on her radar then. "I mean I really just enjoyed and loved playing the game and that's all I really was focused on doing was having fun," she tells E! News. "I would just say I wanted to get better and was having fun doing it with my siblings."

Though, of course, their definition of fun meant contested shots, fouls, battles for each rebound. "If we really, really got into it, there'd be blood," she allowed to ESPN in their March profile. "Someone would cry. There'd be fights. It'd be pretty intense. If he won, we'd play again."

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Already a formidable opponent, her future superstar status was almost stunted when she reached middle school and a decidedly not forward-thinking administrator barred her from the boys' after-school team, telling her father that maybe she should stick to playing with dolls. "He, obviously, was infuriated," Ionescu recalls to E! News. "And so I just went around campus and found seven girls to make the team to just show up and play and I think I just about did everything else."

That included, for the record, subbing on Eddy's squad. "One day when we were short—I think we only had four guys warming up—I asked my coach if it was all right to have my sister play with us," Ionescu's brother recounted to ESPN. "At first he was a little skeptical. She absolutely killed it that game. If we ever needed a player, I would just look at Sabrina."

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To this day, nothing fires her up more than being questioned. 

"I remember I was in the front yard with Eddy, and he was like, 'My left hand's better than yours,'" she told ESPN. "That was the only thing he said, and I was like, 'All right.' And so for days on end, I didn't use my right hand once. I shot 3-pointers, free throws, everything left-handed. I definitely loved working with my left hand. And now I use my left hand more than my right." 

It's something that's stuck with her just as much as that middle school challenge. "I think a lot of people—especially the people that said no—were surprised after," she tells E! News. "So I'd love to see what they're doing today and how they feel about that."

Just a few years after she showed what it meant to play like a girl, the top 25 recruit was being courted by pretty much every school, but decided to stay close to home, somewhere she could build a legacy. "I wanted to be a part of something," she explained to The Guardian. "To grow a program and grow the university into what it is today." 

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Along the way, she caught a bit of attention, quickly making fans out of Curry (she connected with the Golden State Warriors' point guard while growing up in Walnut Creek, Calif., just outside Oakland) and four-time NBA MVP James. 

But it was learning that none other than Kobe Bryant, he of the five championships and legendary 81-point game, had analyzed her skills in an ESPN+ clip that truly left her floored. "It was awesome," she tells E! News. "I mean, I always watched his details for the other players, so it was cool to have him do one on me."

Amazed at how thoroughly he summed up her talents, "I watch it about a BILLION times. It's KOBE BRYANT, THE BLACK MAMBA, spitting these deep insights about my game," she recounted in a 2019 essay for The Player's Tribune. "Like, I'm trying not to write this in caps lock—but it's hard. It's KOBE, you know what I mean?"

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She had first connected with the sports legend when he brought second eldest daughter Gigi and her team from the Mamba Sports Academy to one of Oregon's games in Los Angeles and "it just went from there," she tells E! News. He helped her key in on her crucial midrange shot and never let up on championing the importance of women's sports. "I think a lot of people were talking after that," she says, "and the NBA is so supportive of the WNBA so it's cool to see the impact that he's had on them as well."

As for the impact he's had on her world, she continues to E! News, "Just from that time that we met, our relationship continued to grow and we stayed in touch and just continued to talk." The basketball community being quite insular, she shared with The Guardian, "It meant everything to me. He'd been there so he understood the pressure, just that willingness to be the best. He helped me through all aspects of life, not just basketball."

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She assumed he'd be among the first congratulatory calls when she was inevitably picked first in the 2020 WNBA draft.

And then came the morning of January 26. Thinking about the tragic accident that cut short the legacies of not just Kobe and Gigi but all the passengers aboard that helicopter—Payton Chester, Sarah ChesterAlyssa Altobelli, Keri AltobelliJohn Altobelli, Christina Mauser and helicopter pilot Ara Zobayan—undoubtedly still stings. But it's only given Ionescu more to play for.

"Definitely," she tells E! News. "I think it always will." Plus she shares Bryant's mission, that dream he had that for all the people asking when he'd have a son to carry on his legacy, it'd be Gigi who would truly run with it.  

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"I definitely think it starts with the system, because I think originally the culture was that women aren't 'supposed' to be playing sports, so people weren't 'supposed' to be going to women's games," she noted to Glamour. "That has obviously totally changed and shifted. So I think that it definitely starts with education and the representation of women in sports so we can finally see that as a norm. You shouldn't be watching a game and be surprised that you see women winning medals and playing at a really high level. We shouldn't still be having to demand equal pay. Hopefully in the future, like for our children and our children's children, it should just be so normal that they see that." 

In the meantime, the two-time USA Basketball National Champion, the recipient of back-to-back Wooden Awards, the queen of the triple-double, is going to continue doing what she does. 

Her ultimate goal, she articulates to E! News: "Just be the best player and person that I can and hope to continue to inspire the other generation of athletes—girls, boys—through the way that I play and through the way that I carry myself on and off the court."

Uh, mission decidedly accomplished.