STANFORD, Calif. – At just about 11:15 a.m. PT on Monday morning, Sabrina Ionescu strode onto the stage, surrounded by red roses, that had been erected in the middle of the floor at Staples Center in Los Angeles.
The Oregon senior guard pulled out her notes, set them down on the glass podium in front of nearly 20,000 people — including some of the biggest names and faces in the history of her sport — and started talking about her friends, Kobe and Gianna Bryant.
She talked about the first day they met, last year, back on an Oregon women’s basketball road trip to the University of South California when Kobe and Gianna Bryant sat courtside and then visited the team’s locker room after the game.
She talked about the friendship that began that day. She talked about the “blueprint” that he gave her for greatness in the months that followed.
They exchanged texts, Kobe sending her congratulations after her latest triple-double, encouraging her at the start of her senior season, a moment where Ionescu admitted she began to feel some pressure from the expectations that were starting to mount.
“Be you,” Ionescu said, recalling Kobe's text. “It’s been good enough and it will continue to be good enough.”
He asked her to come to Southern California last summer, to help him coach Gianna’s team. She sat courtside with him, and together they laughed at Gianna’s intensity on the court, joking about where that might have come from.
Ionescu talked about how she still texts Kobe, four weeks after his devastating passing, to say thank you, to tell him that she is playing for him. And she talked about seeing a bright yellow sunset in Colorado the week after he and Gianna died in a helicopter crash along with seven other people on January 26. She took it as a sign that he was still there for her.
"That's what he [Kobe] believed, that's what he lived – through GiGi, through me, through his investment in women's basketball. That was his next great act."— NCAA Women’s Basketball (@ncaawbb) February 24, 2020
@sabrina_i20 at @kobebryant's Celebration of Life.#ncaaW | @OregonWBB ( @espnW)pic.twitter.com/Vgv5GRNpXC
“His vision for me was way bigger than my own,” Ionescu said.
Her Oregon teammates, meanwhile, sat in silence 350 miles away on the floor at Maples Pavilion before their shootaround, watching her on their phones and laptops.
“Rest easy my guy,” she concluded.
And when the nationally televised memorial was over, Ionescu made a bee-line for the airport, and boarded a flight for the Bay Area to prepare for Monday night’s 6 p.m. Pac-12 showdown against No. 4 Stanford.
It’s been a remarkable week for the Northern California native who will finish her career in a matter of weeks as one of the greatest college basketball players in history.
On Monday morning, The Players Tribune published an Ionescu-authored piece called “Dear Oregon Basketball”, in which she talked about her career, and thanked her coaches, teammates and the Oregon fans for her experience.
This set of games in the Bay Area is her homecoming. Steph Curry brought his daughters to watch her play at Cal on Friday and took his wife to the game Monday, joining a crowd of more than 7,000. Family and friends were in the stands at both Cal and Stanford to see her play close to home one more time before she closes out her historic collegiate career.
She would lead her team to a 74-66 win and a Pac-12 title on Monday night with a 21-point, 12-rebound, 12-assist night that was the epitome of her entire illustrious and unprecedented college career.
“That one was for him,” Ionescu told ESPN after the game. “To do it on 2-24-20 was huge...I can’t put it into words. He's looking down and proud of me and happy for this moment with my team.”
Ionescu said she tried to do “everything I could to hold it together tonight.”
“My team helped me do that,” Ionescu said.
Ionescu came into the game needing just nine rebounds to become the first player in NCAA basketball history to collect 2,000 points, 1,000 assists and 1,000 rebounds. She already owns the NCAA record for triple-doubles with 25, a mark that she keeps adding to as the season reaches its most critical phase.
Ionescu got her 1,00th career rebound with 1:47 to go in the third quarter, pulling down a defensive rebound for the unprecedented milestone.
Less than four minutes later, she recorded her 26th career triple-double, forcing a jump ball under the basket with Stanford’s Maya Dodson.
All the while, Ionescu had an upset stomach and hadn’t eaten all day.
“I think it was the culmination of everything she went through today,” said Oregon coach Kelly Graves. “She battled. We all had a chance to see who Sabrina is today. She is a true treasure. She goes out and shines bright and it’s neat to see. She really has nothing left in the tank.”
Ionescu practiced with her team on Sunday evening at Stanford and then left at approximately 6:30 p.m. for a charter flight to Los Angeles, accompanied by head coach Kelly Graves’ wife Mary. She arrived at Staples Center around 8:30 a.m. to prepare for her role in the memorial service and left at its conclusion, a charter flight bringing her back to the Bay Area to join her team. She arrived in time for a pregame meal that she couldn’t bring herself to eat.
Ionescu came out onto the court a little more than a hour before tip-off to join her teammates, but left immediately with a shake of the head and didn’t return until before tip-off.
Satou Sabally, who finished the game with 27 points, said Ionescu’s teammates were ready to “have her back.”
“The way she always has ours,” Sabally said. “It means a lot for women’s basketball. She is the face of women’s basketball. And it wasn’t the easiest day for her. She inspired me so much with her strength and endurance.”
Graves said there was never a doubt that Ionescu would go to the memorial service and speak after Kobe Bryant’s wife Vanessa asked her to do it.
“It was a no-brainer,” Graves said, calling Ionescu’s remarks at the memorial “incredible.”
“When you receive an honor like that, you do it,” Graves said. “Even if she had been unable to make the game, that is more important. I don’t think it even crossed her mind that she wouldn’t play.”
With a second straight win at Maples Pavilion — Oregon won by 40 here last season before falling to Stanford in the Pac-12 Tournament title game — the Ducks are in control in the Pac-12, clinching at least a share of their third straight conference title and the No. 1 seed in the conference tournament in two weeks in Las Vegas.
After the game, Ionescu talked to ESPN and then ran to the sidelines to give her father a hug.
This was a big game. And it was more than that, a big moment. And there was no one better to step up to it than the same young woman who stepped up to the podium on Monday morning.