Oregon star Sabrina Ionescu became the first player to reach 2,000 points, 1,000 assists and 1,000 rebounds in NCAA Division I basketball history. She is the only member of one of the most exclusive clubs in college basketball. No other player in NCAA women’s basketball history has 2,000 points, 1,000 rebounds and 1,000 assists in a career — until now. She was awarded the USBWA National Freshman of the Year as the top freshman in the nation.
Ionescu was born in Walnut Creek, California to Romanian-American parents. Her father, Dan Ionescu, fled Communist Romania around the time of the 1989 revolution, seeking political asylum in the United States. He hoped that his then-wife, Liliana Blaj, and their son Andrei could join them in a few months, but they were unable to move to the US until 1995.
By that time, Dan owned a limousine service in Northern California, where he had chosen to settle because he had several extended family members in that area. Sabrina was around three years old when she first picked up a basketball. She has a twin brother Edward („Eddy”), who was born 18 minutes after her. Eddy played basketball at the City College of San Francisco before transferring to Oregon; he was solely a student in the 2018–19 school year before walking on to the Ducks men’s basketball team in 2019–20.
In a 2019 interview with Ava Wallace of The Washington Post, Ionescu admitted to being a „natural scorer”, but said that most of the rest of her skill set came from playing alongside both boys and older girls in her childhood.
„When I was younger, I was always playing with the guys, and I had to find ways to get the ball, because they never wanted to pass to me. So I figured that if I could rebound, I would be able to get the ball myself. Then passing-wise, when I was in sixth grade playing with the eighth-grade team, I was obviously a lot shorter, skinnier, smaller than they were. I would just have to find ways to impact the game other than shooting or scoring, and that was passing”.
Ionescu attended a middle school that did not have enough players to field a girls’ team, and her school refused to allow her to play on the boys’ team. She recalled, „My middle school said I should be playing with dolls. Seriously, word-for-word.” She responded by recruiting enough girls to enable her school to have a team.
„I started to play basketball at the age of 3, though I was just throwing the ball around. I gained a lot of experience playing on my brothers’ 10-foot hoop. I used my older brother as inspiration to keep improving. Playing him was not always easy, but I do improve because he’s harder to play. … My family has always been there for inspiration to keep pushing and one day become a WNBA player.”
Playing basketball with her older brother, Andrei, and her twin brother, Eddy, had taught her the joy of clawing for every rebound, every point. Small and stubborn, she willed her game to improve. As the years passed, the game respected her wishes. “We’re built-in best friends. Being able to grow up, have the same friends, play the same sports and do everything together is really fun. We were always so competitive, and I think it’s ‘cause we were the same age. Everything was fair game”.
Liliana Blaj calls her daughter „the hardest self-critic. It motivates her to go back and practice more from learning from her mistakes.” Her father, Dan, remembers that in middle school, they had no girls team to speak of, but they had a boys team. So Sabrina always kept her shoes with her when we went to Eddy’s games.
“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. 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”, explains her twin brother, Eddy.
Sabrina gets her first collegiate triple-double just seven games into her Oregon career, in a 91-62 victory over San Jose State. It’s Oregon’s first triple-double since 1988. “I knew I was doing a little bit of everything, but there were no stats up on the scoreboard. I just walked into the locker room and knew we won”.
After two years at the City College of San Francisco, Eddy transfers to Oregon, and he and Sabrina become roommates. Heading into her junior season, Sabrina has 10 triple-doubles in her career. With the eight she’ll add in her third year in college, she will become the NCAA leader in triple-doubles.
Deep down, fear isn’t what causes Ionescu’s nervousness. No. She’s not afraid of anyone, anything. Except for maybe one thing: not living up to the expectations she set for herself, for her team. That is why she tosses in her bed, eyes open, mind wild.
What Ionescu sees is everything. Weird things. Cool things. Different things. She watches the ball when she shoots, which is untraditional. Players are usually taught to stare at the back of the rim, but Ionescu taught herself to shoot. She knows when a teammate will miss and where the ball will come off. She knows how to time a pass so her teammate can catch and shoot without needing a step to gather.
Ionescu wasn’t always comfortable in a leadership role. She had to earn the right. It didn’t take long, though. As a freshman, she hit a buzzer-beating pull-up three with a hand right in her face to defeat No. 20 Cal. By the time she was a sophomore, she dropped 36 against Stanford to win the Pac-12 championship—every few minutes telling Graves: „Don’t you worry, coach. I got this.”
On April 17, 2020, the New York Liberty selected Ionescu with the first overall pick in the 2020 WNBA Draft. She played her first game with the Liberty on July 25. In her second WNBA game on July 29 against the Dallas Wings, she recorded 33 points, 7 assists, and 7 rebounds in 34 minutes of play.
Make your subscription for HORA magazine here.