PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — It would’ve been easy to be bitter.
It was Sabrina Ionescu’s third professional game and after all that 2020 had sent her way, being picked Number 1 overall to the New York Liberty in the 2020 WNBA Draft and playing her first professional season was supposed to be a highlight in an otherwise very difficult year.
In January, her good friend and mentor, basketball great Kobe Bryant, along with his daughter, also Ionescu’s dear friend, Gianna, and seven others died in a tragic helicopter crash.
In March, COVID-19 halted the track of what many NCAA basketball experts believe was fated to happen: that Ionescu would lead her Oregon Ducks to their first-ever National Championship.
Instead, they cut down the nets as conference champs in Las Vegas and faded into the background with the rest of the sports world as the entire world hunkered down and held their loved ones close during the early days of the pandemic.
Many would’ve understood then if Ionescu’s response to her season-ending ankle injury in just her third WNBA game left the former college star a little bitter, a little angry, shaking her fist at the universe wondering, ‘what else could happen this year?’
Instead, six weeks after her injury, nearing the end of her rehabilitation for the Grade 3 ankle sprain that forced her to leave the ‘Wubble’ and her team behind, Ionescu’s attitude is far from bitter.
“Looking back on it now, it’s not the worst thing that could’ve happened to me,” Ionescu reflected. “There’s a lot of people that suffer a lot worse injuries in the sports that we’re playing so I’m really blessed to not have needed surgery, to not have anything worse happen.”
Ionescu called the injury “unfortunate,” not only because it ended her rookie season far more abruptly than anyone wanted, but because she had to leave IMG Academy, in Bradenton, Florida where her teammates, both past and present were doing life and basketball together.
Maybe some of the hardest to leave were her former Oregon teammates Dallas Wings’ forward Satou Sabally and Chicago Sky center Ruthy Hebard.
“We were always trying to find ways to spend time together.”
When the college season was canceled, the three were apart in that break between winning the Pac-12 Conference Title and preparing for what was almost certain to be a long March Madness run. So they never really got the closure on their college careers that ‘the Big Three,’ as they were known to Ducks’ fans, deserved.
It makes sense then that when the three got to Brandenton, they bent some Wubble rules to get time together.
“The league was super strict on having us hang out with each other and see each other because they wanted to prevent the spread, if there was a virus or anything,” Ionescu recalled. “When we’d scrimmage each other, or when we’d see each other we’d say ‘hi’ or eat lunch together, Ruthy’s coaches and my coaches were like, ‘stop hanging out with them, stop seeing them.’”
“And we’re like, ‘we can’t.’ So we’d eat dinner and just kind of space out at the table and be like, ‘well we’re kind of far from each other and we’re outside so this is ok.’”
On Ionescu’s last night in the bubble, the three had sushi together in her room.
“It kind of just felt like Oregon again.”
“It was really nice to have them there and just kind of comforting that you have two of your closest friends there with you.”
The three went their separate ways shortly after.
Sabally’s Wings have been eliminated from postseason contention, so she’s off to play professionally overseas this offseason. Hebard and her Sky prepared to start the WNBA Playoffs in Florida. And Ionescu is in full-blown rehabilitation mode, bouncing between her home in the Bay Area and Los Angeles.
Now in her sixth week of rehab, Ionescu’s days are still very full.
Her day usually starts with an hour and a half or two of mobility and strengthening rehab. Then she lifts before she hits the court to get a basketball workout in.
The rest of her days are filled with watching basketball, doing interviews and beginning to make business plans, including, when the pandemic allows, the creation of basketball camps. Specifically, in Eugene, where she calls home still.
“Hopefully we can have that start up as soon as everything clears up,” Ionescu said. “That’s definitely been in the works.”
“Just get kids out there playing and involved would be awesome.”
However, she has found herself with a little more time on her hands than she ever has before.
“It’s time that I never had,” Ionescu said. “During college, I was away for the entire year and so never really had time to spend with family and friends. It’s definitely been nice to have some kind of life away from basketball right now.”
One part of that life, includes TikTok.
“Everything’s so easily postable,” Ionescu said with a laugh.
Ionescu is often spotted with Vanessa, Natalia, and Bianka Bryant on the social media app, and most of the time, they’re busting up laughing. Ionescu credits Natalia with coming up with the concept for most of the videos.
“She’ll send them to me, have me try to memorize them and then she knows exactly what to do.”
Ionescu’s younger cousin is also teaching the star on the court, how to be a star on social media.
Ionescu will, undoubtedly, come back stronger than ever from her injury but in the meantime, the extra time to rehab, spend time with her family, friends and yes, keep up with the younger generation on social media, is a way Ionescu is enjoying spending her days.
“It’s been fun,” Ionescu said. “I’ve definitely enjoyed this time with close family and friends and just laugh and spend time together.”