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Dear Oregon Basketball

Feb 24 2020
Photo by
Kim Klement/USA TODAY Sports
Photo by
Kim Klement/USA TODAY Sports
Sabrina Ionescu
Oregon Ducks
Feb 24 2020

It’s been a crazy year.

Ever since I announced I was coming back, I knew that nothing would be “normal” pretty much ever again. I knew that we wouldn’t be underdogs this season….. and we might even be favorites. I knew that we’d have pressure on us from Day One, and targets on our backs every night. I knew that we’d have expectations — not just to be good, but to be great.

And at first, honestly, that scared me.

I knew it was going to be like nothing I’d ever experienced before.

But then two things convinced me that everything would be OK. The first was the reactions from my teammates when I told them the news. Most people on the outside were shocked I was staying. But my teammates? Nah. It’s so funny — it was like they already knew. There was a lot of excitement in the group chat, a lot of “LET’S GOOOOOOOO!!!” and “LET’S DO THIS!!!” But they weren’t even a little surprised. And I think that just kind of speaks to the wavelength we’re all on with each other. We’re more than teammates here — we’re more like sisters. We’re more like family. And no one knows you like family does.

And then the second thing that convinced me I’d made the right decision, it happened a few days later when I was in Los Angeles for the Wooden Award presentation. As part of the trip, Kobe had invited me to stop by this gym and serve as a guest assistant coach for his girls. And the one thing about Kobe is, he tells no lies. So I knew that if he thought I should have declared for the draft, he’d have let me know. With love, for sure, but he’d have let me know. Pretty much the first thing he said to me, though, when I walked through the doors — well, it wasn’t even him saying anything, actually. It was more just like….. a smile and a nod. You know what I mean? That was our secret language. He gave me this smile and nod. That was him letting me know he thought I’d made the right call.

And I think the reason that Kobe thought it was the right choice, it goes back to what I was saying about things not being “normal.” Most people saw the fact that nothing would be normal for us this year as a negative. But Kobe? He saw it as this, like, blessing. He saw the pressure that we were about to face this year as a privilege. A challenge to overcome. And the fact that it was scary to me at first?? He saw that as an opportunity. Harnessing your fear as an opportunity to learn something new about yourself — that’s Mamba Mentality 101. And I took it to heart.

Sabrina Ionescu

A lot of people….. they think this season was just about the destination. CHAMPIONSHIP OR BUST or whatever. And those people aren’t even wrong in some ways: We came into this season with these big-time goals, no doubt, and we’re going to do everything in our power to accomplish those goals. But the truth is, this season has been about a lot more than results. It’s been about the culmination of a four-year journey, establishing Lady Ducks Hoops as a true Pac-12 power. It’s been about building up this program to a place where it’s not just about us — it’s also about future Lady Ducks teams, after we’re gone, also having the ability to win championships here. It’s been about moments: big moments, like shocking Team USA….. and finally beating UCONN….. and sweeping Oregon State. But also little moments, those moments in between, like team dinners….. and road trips….. and the endless, ridiculous group chat that’s continued throughout it all.

And most importantly, it’s been about people. There are so many people I want to thank.

I want to thank my family, and especially my parents, first and foremost — because I flat-out just don’t know how I’d be here without them. And I don’t mean that on some basic parenting level. I mean it on the level of them just somehow always finding a way to be there for me, and to go above and beyond. So many weekends of them making that drive to Eugene from Walnut Creek, to see me play, before having to go right back to work on Monday morning — only then to do it all over again the next weekend. Mom and Dad: I’ve always felt so loved and so supported by you guys. And I want you to know that I’ve never taken it for granted.

I want to thank my brothers, Eddy and Andrei, for encouraging me to be the best — and for not letting me settle.

I want to thank the University of Oregon for this amazing education. Not just my bachelor’s degree, which I’m so proud of, but also my master’s in Advertising and Brand Responsibility. One of my favorite moments of the last few years wasn’t even on the court — it was going to Nike HQ as part of a group project, and getting to pitch an idea about how to create equal opportunity for boys and girls in youth basketball. It’s an idea that I hope to keep pursuing.

I want to thank the entire Oregon athletic department, and our entire Ducks coaching and training staff — and especially Coach Graves. “Four in four,” man….. that was the motto here from the start. Some how, some way, we were going to get to the Final Four within four seasons. And I’ll be honest: when I heard Coach Graves say that for the first time? I didn’t really understand the how or the way. I wouldn’t say I was extremely confident in our chances. But the one thing I was confident about, and knew right from the start, was that Coach was someone I could trust. He was someone that I could just put my trust in, and get on board with, and accept a motto like “four in four” from on faith. (And now I can act like I was confident all along.)

I want to thank my teammates….. the best teammates in the world. That goes for the amazing women on this year’s squad, but also for the amazing women who showed us the way in previous years. We’re all a part of the same history now — and I’m so proud to share it with you.

Mary Holt/Icon Sportswire/Getty Images

And then last — but the opposite of least — I want to thank Ducks Nation.

I got asked the other day, what advice I’d give to my 18-year-old freshman self, if I could look back on things and talk to her now, as 22-year-old Sabrina. And I think the biggest thing I’d want to say?? It goes back to what I was talking about at the beginning — that idea of being normal. Especially when we’re young, I think we all care a little too much about “normal.” We see being anything other than normal as this bad thing, this thing to avoid or to hide from. And when I got here, as a freshman, I think there was a part of me who was still sort of hanging on to that idea.

And when I really think of what this school, this city, my teammates, my coaches, and really all of Ducks Nation has most helped me with over the last few years, it’s figuring out who I am — and not hiding from it. Not hiding from her. Being proud of her.

And who I am, I’ve realized, is someone who loves basketball with all of her heart. Who obsesses over it, and takes it seriously, and nerds out over it, and who can’t ever get enough of it. In other words, I’ve realized that I’m a woman who wants to make basketball the focus of her professional life. And not just basketball — but achieving greatness in basketball. And a lot of people wouldn’t find that “normal.” But everyone here, you all gave me the opportunity to pursue greatness from Day One. You all let me be the biggest damn basketball nerd that I could be. And you never once made me feel like it was even a little weird. You made me feel like it was just….. me, in the best way possible. For four years, you all have nerded out with me, and made me feel like I belong.

You’ve made me feel like I didn’t just find my passion at Oregon — I found my people.

And when it comes to this season in particular….. like I said, it’s been a crazy year. It’s been a year I’ll remember forever, but it’s also been bittersweet. Because on one hand, I’m sitting here writing you this letter, Ducks Nation, and I’m so proud of everything we’ve accomplished together. I’m so proud of how we’ve met our expectations head-on, and contended for another Pac-12 title, and — even with this high-pressure target on our back — stayed right near the top of the polls all season long. I’m so proud of how we’ve put ourselves in the perfect position to reach our second straight Final Four, and beyond. 

I’m so proud of how we’ve put this program on the national map in a way that’s going to last.

But on the other hand, I can’t tell you how sad I am, to know that I’m going to be taking this next step of my basketball journey, and every step after that, without one of my biggest mentors — and without the mentor of mine who most understood exactly what my journey was about.

Emily Johnson/The Players' Tribune

When I first heard the news about Kobe’s crash, it was hard not to start questioning things. It was just, like, HOW? How could this amazing father and husband be taken away from the world? How could someone as full of life as Gianna be taken away from the world before she even got to LIVE her life? How could nine people be snatched away from their loved ones — just like that, in a blink? How could we all be living in a world without Kobe Bryant??

How could I have lost my friend?

Kobe’s death also left me with some questions about my own path. What was I supposed to do now without his presence?? Without his guidance?? Who was I going to turn to for advice?? And then on top of those thoughts, I had these almost even “angrier” questions, you know?? Like: How could the world have brought me together with someone like Kobe, someone who understood me so well — maybe the first person in my life who truly got me on this deeper basketball level — only to then rip him out of my life after less than a year?! And why?! It just felt cruel. It still feels that way.

But as I’ve started to process some of my grief, I’ve begun to realize — even if it was only for this short time?? That Kobe and I, and our paths…. they connected for a reason. Not just because of the wisdom that he shared with me. Not just because of the friendship, and confidence, and support that he gave me. Not just because of the way that he made me a smarter teammate, and a tougher competitor, and a harder worker. Not just because of the promise that he recognized in me — as a player, and a leader, and a person. I think my path connected with Kobe’s because of a bigger picture.

Kobe always saw the bigger picture.

That was clear with everything he did in his life — but to me it was especially clear with the way that he looked at and treated the game of women’s basketball. He didn’t see growing the game with girls as his hobby, or as some side project, or as a charity case. He saw it as a movement. And he didn’t get involved because he just wanted to be a fan of our movement. He got involved because he wanted to be a part of it.

And that’s what I always loved so much about Kobe, and it’s one of the things that I hope people will remember about him. He didn’t care about your age, or your gender, or your background….. or any of that. Even your talent, at the end of the day, wasn’t what Kobe was there to judge. All that he cared about really was your love of the game. That was the test you had to pass with Kobe: Could you match him passion for passion when it came to hoops. If you could do that, then you had his respect.

Emily Johnson/The Players' Tribune

So in a strange way, as hard as all of this is to express right now, I think it makes some sense to be thanking the school that’s given me so much, at the same time that I’m mourning the loss of my mentor who gave me so much.

Because as I look back and reflect on who I was, arriving in Eugene four years ago….. and who I am now, getting ready to finish my playing career as a Duck and move on to the next phase of my life….. all I can think about is how grateful I am all over again for everyone who’s helped to make this journey possible. Everyone in the Ducks program, from Coach on down, who kept repeating “four in four” until the entire team bought into it — and the entire world saw it happen. Everyone who helped me in the classroom, or bought a ticket to a game, or was friendly to me sometime on campus and made me feel a little more at home.

Everyone who believed in me, and instilled in me that I could reach for more than just some “Mamba Mentality for girls” — that I could have the Mamba Mentality, period. 

Thank you.

Thank you for allowing this native Californian to become an adopted Oregonian for life. 

Thank you for giving this nerd the opportunity to harness her passion, and discover herself — and then grow into the best possible version of that self.

Thank you, truly, for everything.

Now let’s close this season out right.

Let’s go take that unfinished business and finish it.

Sabrina Ionescu
Oregon Ducks