I have been an Oregon Ducks Football fan for many years. I don’t remember since when exactly, but it has been a while. Naturally, after watching so many games on the field, I started to care for the school as a whole, including other sports. Year after year, men’s basketball saw improvements, from a Pac-12 Conference title to tournament appearances and even a trip to the Final Four in 2017. One tip would have brought the Ducks to the final. Unfortunately, this past year was cut short, but it was a success, with another high national ranking and one of the nation’s very best players in guard Payton Pritchard.
All of that said, one would have to think that the men are the hottest story on the court in Eugene. But that isn’t the case. The biggest focus in the basketball world is on the women. Specifically, Sabrina Ionescu.
Before recent memory, the Ducks were struggling. Winning records were nonexistent and the team was a nonfactor. But things changed with the arrival of head coach Kelly Graves in 2014. After a 13-17 debut, Graves transformed the Ducks into a 20-win team, a tremendous accomplishment in itself. But things reached new heights with Ionescu’s emergence in 2016.
Freshman of the Year in 2017. Pac-12 Conference Player of the Year and the nation’s top point guard in 2018. A Final Four appearance and coveted Wooden Award for the best college basketball player in the country in 2019. The stats were also off the charts, incredible, unprecedented for the program and perhaps even the world of women’s basketball. But that loss in the Final Four, to eventual champion Baylor, left the season as a disappointment. And Ionescu — a competitor with insatiable hunger — returned for more.
The 2019-2020 season was even better. Another Wooden Award. Another Wade Trophy. AP Player of the Year. ESPN Player of the Year. The awards go on. But above all, Ionescu became the first to do something extraordinary. 2,000 career points, 1,000 career rebounds and 1,000 career assists. The first player to reach all three of these numbers, men or women. Along with that, the NCAA’s all-time leader in triple-doubles.
The stats are hard to believe, but the numbers alone fail to express the full picture. Ionescu’s impact transcends accolades and integers, not just on Oregon or women’s basketball, but the larger sports world. And that is not hyperbole.
Attendance at Oregon’s Matthew Knight Arena flew through the roof since Ionescu arrived. And these are not just Ducks fans, as numerous stories have surfaced of fans traveling across the country to see Ionescu play. Beyond that, Ionescu took to Twitter to question why Nike had failed to release the jerseys of any female college basketball players. Sometime later, her jersey emerged online and sold out in minutes. Now, she has inked a deal with Nike that, while undisclosed, is believed to be the largest ever for a female athlete.
Ionescu’s on-court ability certainly played a role in these feats. Her aggression, competitiveness and pure talent in all facets of the game speak for themselves. But even more noticeably, she connects with fans as a person, whether they be young women who want to play the game of basketball or men who enjoy watching her play. She is not only knowledgeable about basketball but knowledgeable socially, evident in moves like the call to Nike that should have come so many years sooner. For these reasons, it is difficult to dislike Ionescu, and fans have surfaced across the country, growing by the day.
While Ionescu’s dreams at Oregon may have come up short, an entirely new journey lies ahead. This past week, at the virtual WNBA draft, what was long known to be the case finally became official. With the first overall pick, Ionescu was drafted by the New York Liberty.
And the story for the Liberty is not all that different than it was in Oregon. A team that was playing with success has recently hit a road bump, with consecutive disappointing seasons at records of 7-27 and 10-24, respectively. But this is a time of change for the Liberty. A move to Brooklyn permanently for this season, new threads and a slew of draft picks, headlined by Ionescu, along with Megan Walker and Jazmine Jones.
Ionescu is used to being the underdog, and it is time to do it again in Brooklyn. She may have only been to the city a few times, but guess what? Her seafoam colored jersey sold out in minutes after the draft. And a black one quickly came into stock. The world of the WNBA is more abuzz than I have seen it before, and Ionescu has certainly played a defining role in that.
If that’s the impact Ionescu had in just a few days, there is no telling what can happen next. Ionescu can produce change. She did it in Oregon and is bound to do it again in Brooklyn.
Would it be crazy to say that Ionescu’s arrival in Brooklyn has had a bigger impact than one of the NBA’s very best, Kevin Durant? Maybe not. And the craziest part is that the Ionescu era is only just beginning. So, all I can say is welcome to Brooklyn. We can’t wait to see what you’ll do next.