EUGENE, ORE. – Sabrina Ionescu woke not long after dawn in her small apartment, laced up her black Nikes and walked across a deserted street to the looming arena where she had spent the past four years creating memories.
She needed to find something she could control.
It was March 21, a crisp Saturday. Ionescu and her No. 2-ranked Oregon Ducks had been expecting to host March Madness games that weekend. If not for the coronavirus pandemic and the sudden cancellation of the NCAA tournament, she would have been playing in front of a buzzing home crowd at Matthew Knight Arena. Instead, the most vaunted player in college basketball used a key to let herself inside the empty, 12,000-seat arena and began working out alone.
As she shot, her mind drifted toward the future and the past.
Thousands of college athletes saw their seasons collapse on March 12, when the NCAA shuttered all sports. But no athlete was more poised for an anticipated championship run than Ionescu, the career collegiate leader among men and women in triple-doubles, a prime measure of dominance.
Her journey this season, filled with record-breaking achievement and stark tragedy, drew fans to her. Her high-octane team played before sellout crowds. Her No. 20 replica jersey made by Nike sold out in two hours.
She is projected to be the top draft pick this April in the WNBA. But first she must contend with having had the biggest stage of her career ripped away.
The best notice
Her bone-deep intensity drew attention to Ionescu from the NBA elite, but her focus connected her most closely to Kobe Bryant.
The two bonded during Ionescu's junior season, after the retired Lakers star brought Gianna, a budding basketball star and the second-born of his four daughters, to an Oregon game in Los Angeles and left impressed. "Geppetto," he called her in breaking down her game for ESPN, "the puppet master."
Ionescu spent a weekend coaching Gianna and her team alongside Bryant, and he became a trusted guide. They spoke on the phone and texted.
Like Bryant, Ionescu had struggled to relate to teammates. Nobody worked as hard. Nobody took losses in the same soul-crushing way.
"It was brutal," Ionescu said.
The Ducks hadn't been to the NCAA tournament since 2005, then went to the Elite Eight in her first two seasons. But Ionescu said she felt isolated from her teammates. "How competitive I am, there was nobody that compared to that," she said. "There was just kind of this separation between me and the team."
Oregon coach Kelly Graves saw it: "She had to figure out the nuances of how to connect."
In her junior year, during the last seconds of a home loss to UCLA, Ionescu fouled out and stalked to the sideline. Someone handed her a water bottle. She slammed it to the court. As the clock wound down, Ionescu stood apart from teammates.
She came to realize that she needed to make amends. During a tense meeting not long after, she opened up to her teammates about how much she cared for them, about the difficulty that came with ever-increasing attention.
On paper napkins, some stained with tears, each player wrote a promise to the others. Ionescu penned a single word: assurance.
She vowed to never let them down again.
"That set the tone for what our team became last season," she said, a nod to the Ducks' 2019 run to the Final Four. "I told Kobe about that meeting over the summer, and you know him, he said, 'What, you had to apologize?' He was like, 'Oh, that's soft.' But then he thought about it and he said, 'You know what, that was probably the right thing to do. You need to know that that is not how a leader should be.'"
Sorry for your loss
She said this in early March, and then she grew somber. Kobe. Gianna. Seven more. All killed when the helicopter they were using to get to a youth basketball game slammed into a Los Angeles-area hillside.
It was Jan. 26. In the locker room at Oregon State, readying for a game, a teammate blurted out that Kobe had died. At first, Ionescu thought her teammate was talking about someone's pet. Then her phone burst with texts. Sorry for your loss.
"I lost it. When it hit me, I blacked out," she said.
The game went on. Ionescu's teammates walked soberly to the Gill Coliseum court without her. Then, minutes before tipoff, she showed up.
The court was where she needed to be.
"I don't recall the actual game," she said. "Normally I remember every play. I don't even really have to watch game films. But that one, nothing."
Oregon won 66-57. Ionescu scored 19 points and played all 40 minutes.
Four weeks later, she was at Staples Center in Los Angeles for the memorial tribute to Bryant and Gianna. Vanessa Bryant, Kobe's wife, had asked Ionescu to speak.
Ionescu shook with nervousness. Then she focused as if it were a basketball game.
Her mentor, she told the crowd, was "a sun beaming, radiating, fixed in the sky."
"I still text him, even though he's not here. Thank you for everything. Rest easy, my guy."
Ionescu flew to San Francisco hours later. Her father, Dan, a limousine driver, picked her up and whisked her to the Stanford campus, where the Ducks were to play the No. 4 Cardinal. Ionescu vomited in the locker room. She barely made it to the court before tipoff.
When she gathered an errant shot in the third quarter, Ionescu became the only player in college history, male or female, with 2,000 career points, 1,000 assists and 1,000 rebounds.
Ionescu's goal for her senior season had been to win it all — to resolve unfinished business, as she called it.
Business has never been more unfinished.
"It's the fear of the unknown," she said. "Not really knowing what is going to happen next. For me, it's when the WNBA might start. What about the draft? What does the future have in store? Is there going to be a season, are they going to push it back? I don't have answers to any of that."