Kobe Bryant’s Mentee Sabrina Ionescu Makes College Basketball History Hours After Speaking at His Memorial
By Leena Tailor
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Hours after speaking at her late friend and mentor Kobe Bryant’s Los Angeles memorial event, basketballer Sabrina Ionescu made college basketball history on Monday.
Ionescu led the Oregon Ducks to a 74-66 win against Stanford Cardinal at Maples Pavilion in Stanford, California. In doing so, the star athlete clinched the nine rebounds she needed to make her the first player (male or female) to reach 2,000 points, 1,000 assists, and 1,000 rebounds in college basketball.
While her coach, Kelly Graves, expressed some concern about her performance, telling ESPN she was "sick" at half time, Ionescu, 22, made the breakthrough well before the game's scheduled finish time.
Afterwards, she and her teammates ecstatically jumped up and down screaming in joy, before Ionescu dedicated the history-making moment to Bryant.
"That one was for him," she told ESPN. "To do it on 2-24-20 is huge. We talked about it in the pre-season. I can't really put it into words. He's looking down and really proud of me and just really happy for this moment with my team."
The achievement came after Ionescu became the second player (alongside Courtney Vandersloot) with 2,000 points and 1,000 assists, during the team’s Feb. 14 game.
When asked about the hardest part of her day (during which she spoke at the memorial event at 11.15 a.m., then flew from Los Angeles to the Bay Area at 1.00 p.m.) Ionescu responded, "Everything."
“You try and hide some of those emotions so you get there, [but] they all come back and get to you," she added. "Being able to speak was such an honor for me -- and being able to hear everyone speak. I tried to do everything I could to hold it together tonight and my team helped me a lot."
During her moving tribute at the memorial event, Ionescu recalled idolizing Bryant as a child. She shared how the first time she met the athlete was when he and Gigi surprised her at one of her games.
"He congratulated us on the win that day and our season up to that point but said -- and I’ll never forget -- 'Don’t shoot yourselves in the foot,'" she said. "He meant don’t settle, keep grinding, control what you can. The national championship wasn’t far and our goal was to win it all."
"If I represented the present of the women's game, Gigi was the future and Kobe knew it, so we decided to build a future together," Ionescu added about her first impression of Gigi.
As she pursued her basketball dreams, Ionescu said Bryant was there to offer encouragement and advice, often over text message.
"His vision for others is always bigger than what they imagine for themselves,” she said. “His vision for me was way bigger than my own. More importantly, he didn't just show up in my life and leave. He stayed. He was giving me the blueprint. He was giving Gigi the same blueprint. He united us."
Before speaking at the memorial, Ionescu, wrote an essay for the Players Tribune, where she shared how Bryant reacted to her surprising decision to stay at Oregon for another season, rather than enter the WNBA.
"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," she wrote. "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."