In 2016, Sabrina Ionescu drove eight hours up the coast from Walnut Creek, California to Eugene, Oregon so she could accept her offer to join the Oregon Ducks Women’s Basketball team in person. The University of Oregon is a small but mighty campus, where many student-athletes are expertly elevated and educated, providing a strong foundation that readies them for long-term success on and off the court. Not only are the sports facilities supreme, but Oregon’s top talent are also considered some of the greatest in their sport. This small-town enabled an incredible athlete to take basketball to new heights and is more than ready to take on the bright lights of New York after lighting up the Ducks from 2016-2020. She has carved out a pathway like few others before her, and left a legacy for so many to follow – some would say worthy of being placed on Oregon’s Mt. Rushmore. This past year has held many transitions for the WNBA’s #1 draft pick, and while way too much was unexpectedly taken away, much is promised as Ionescu and the NY Liberty step into a new home during a very new normal.
Through the darkness of the tunnel, the lights dimmed on the iconic court covered in tall firs as the Oregon Ducks Women’s Basketball team walked from the locker room towards 12,000 loyal fans inside Matthew Knight Arena that are excitedly quiet, not stirring until the lights do. The spotlight was on Sabrina Ionescu, but she quickly extended it towards her team, as they all ran with authority onto the court, together, ready to play, and ready to shine.
During Ionescu’s time as a Duck, her presence helped to grow the season ticket holder base to 58% per game (approximately 7,000 fans or 4.2% of Eugene’s population). The ongoing commitment to all home games at Matthew Knight Arena was a stat worth comparing to other professional sports teams. As was the true shooting percentage of the Ducks 57.6%, against the Golden State Warrior’s 57.4% back in 2020. It was the perfect stage for Ionescu to become the first player in NCAA history to score 2000 points, 1000 assists, 1000 rebounds, 26 triple-doubles, and be drafted number one in the 2020 WNBA Draft. Her ongoing top-level performance led to selling out her first WNBA jersey in a quick hour and inking a monumental deal with Nike that will likely lead to a signature shoe one day soon, catapulting her into becoming one of the most recognizable faces in sport for this generation.
Most athletes write letters to their younger selves. Call it a half prophecy-half dream, but 12-year-old Sabrina Ionescu had the foresight to write a speech about her future self while in grade school, publicly voicing her dream to become a WNBA player. Clearly, she can also add ‘the ability to manifest destiny’ to her growing accomplishments.
It was a dream that became a destination from the very moment she said it out loud.
What she didn’t dream of, however, was to go #1 in the WNBA draft to the biggest market team in the league. While sitting on her living room couch with her family by her side, she wondered for a brief moment (due to technical sound delays) if she heard right when WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert announced her name on April 17, 2020 (the WNBA was the first professional sports league to host a virtual, televised, live draft due to COVID-19). Ionescu made history on many levels that day, including becoming the first Oregon athlete in any sport to be selected at the top of a professional sports draft since 1972.
Looking back, small-town Eugene presented a large stage for the playmaking point guard to fortify her craft on the court, and elevate her team leadership abilities off of it. Kelly Graves joined as Head Coach of the Oregon Ducks Women’s Basketball team on April 7, 2014, and by April 17, 2020, he proudly saw his players go #1, 2, and 8 in the WNBA draft (#1 Sabrina Ionescu, #2 Satou Sabally, #8 Ruthy Hebard).
Viewed by 387,000 on ESPN, it was the most-watched WNBA draft in 16 years and second most-watched in ESPN’s history (first was when Diana Taurasi went #1 in 2004). The WNBA’s Instagram generated more than 3.8M video views on Draft Day alone. The fan demand for the Ducks, the WNBA, the NY Liberty, and especially for Ionescu was reaching new heights—Ionescu alone generated almost 18M Twitter impressions (valued at $188K) in the season’s opening week (July 25-31, 2020). Needless to say, the interest in the women’s game has never been greater.
The “Sabrina Factor” is a reference Graves often uses to project her “ability to transcend demographic and geographic boundaries like very few players before her [and] develop friendships with NBA players that truly support her and want to see her succeed.” In her newest role as a WNBA player, Ionescu will address an on-court need for the young Liberty team. According to the New York Times, she is “a point guard capable of making the uncommon pass, of avoiding turnovers and of shooting 3-pointers,” and a draw for many fans who are eager to watch her and her new team play live.
Of Ionescu, Graves continues to say he “admires her ability to play, and succeed, while under so much pressure, and deliver everything that’s ever been asked of her…with grace, poise and an internal fire. Her abilities run the gamut. She’s developed as a player, as a teammate, and as a leader. What a treat to be her coach.”
From deep in the woods, to the heart of Brooklyn, Ionescu’s transition to her new home has already been one worth watching. From her first memorable two-and-a-half games in the WNBA’s bubble (more well known as the wubble) to her focused recovery on her ankle injury, to her much-anticipated return to the court, her presence will be felt and highly anticipated as the WNBA celebrates its 25th anniversary season this year.
On many fronts, the WNBA embraced last year’s unprecedented season by uniting together as few other groups of 144 athletes ever have, signing a first-of-its-kind Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) in January 2020 to kick off a season that would be like no other. Viewership was up 63 percent year over year on opening weekend, and the Seattle Storm vs New York Liberty game averaging 419,000 viewers (peaking at 526,000 with a 1.2 average rating in Seattle-Tacoma), made it the most-watched season opener on cable since 2016, per ESPN.
Pulling on her 12-year-old self yet again, Ionescu delivered memorable speeches during this unprecedented time; to her teammates, after their March Madness dreams were abruptly shattered, to the world as it celebrated her mentor and friend, Kobe and Gigi, as Valedictorian of her University of Oregon graduating class, and finally, as the WNBA’s #1 draft pick and newest member of the NY Liberty.
The stage was set for the next phase of Ionescu’s career, or perhaps the stage was elevated as she had already appeared on so many. With the mentality that life is never a dress rehearsal, she took all of these moments in stride, with equal parts passion and grit in a way that only a champion mindset could, leaning on the Mamba mentality more than she ever thought possible.
There’s no doubt the pressure was on for Ionescu to not only stay on pace to perform at the same level she had in Oregon, but to move across the country during a pandemic and quickly find trust and camaraderie amongst teammates she was meeting for the first time. Ionescu was off to a strong start to the season, in her third game (July 31, 2020, against the Dallas Wings), with a high scoring of 33 points, 7 rebounds, 7 assists midway through the game, when she sustained a grade 3 left ankle sprain that took her out of the game, out of the bubble and back to the west coast for assessments and rehabilitation.
As if 2020 hadn’t thrown her enough curveballs, Ionescu took this one in stride and pulled on that unrivaled Mamba mentality yet again. While tap dancing wasn’t in the cards for her recovery as it once was for Kobe, focus, patience, and a newfound hobby were.
“To me, the Mamba mentality is all about staying focused, passionate and present both mentally and physically. I took time to slow down, and patiently go through the healing process to strengthen myself and prevent injuries,” says Ionescu. “It was essential to stay present and focused during my rehab to gradually come back strong. While tap dancing was not a part of my rehabilitation, I did discover yoga, which I’ve enjoyed.”
As the WNBA emerges from quite possibly its most impactful season yet—both on and off the court—the world continues to eagerly await Ionescu’s return. The WNBA embraces many roles during these times and has become “essential” in the social justice movement, with ambitions to use its united voice in increasingly impactful ways. The sky’s the limit for what this league and each of its 144 players can do. Ionescu’s eager to take her biggest stage yet.
“I am beyond excited! I am ready to fully start a full WNBA season with the New York Liberty on their home turf,” says Ionescu in advance of this next upcoming season. “There will be great energy going into the new season and I am looking forward to bringing my A-game in front of the home crowd and feeling the energy of the fans.”
While Ionescu may be in New York, her home crowd is everywhere, even up in the clouds looking down with pride. Meeting the moment, in the moment, comes quite naturally to her, but that doesn’t diminish its importance, impact, and the sense of pressure it can often bring too.
“This is a great time for the WNBA and for Sabrina. I don’t remember any other college basketball player that drew so much attention to the women’s game before,” said Graves.
She is “the right player, in the right market, at the right time” to build on the momentum of women’s sport in the industry.”
Wake up. Grind. Get Better. Wake Up. Grind. Get Better. “in the biggest moments, she came up the biggest,” Graves reminisces. And she’ll do it again when she returns to the court.
Sabrina Ionescu 2.0 is ready and waiting for tip-off. It’s glow time.
About the author: Katrina Galas (Founder, In Common Consulting) is a Toronto-based sports strategy consultant focused on advancing and accelerating women’s sport. Currently, she’s working with the Women’s Sports Foundation and has held various roles within the global sports business industry, including Nike and Vancouver 2010, and lived in Eugene, OR while completing her MBA at the University of Oregon’s Warsaw Sports Marketing Centre. You can reach Katrina via email@example.com or @katrinagalas.