Sabrina Ionescu Is Always On

How did a 5'11" player become CBB's triple-double queen? With a basketball mentality nicknamed Bazooka Mode and an obsession her coach compares to MJ, Taurasi and the drummer from Whiplash.
photo of Mirin FaderMirin Fader@MirinFaderB/R Mag ContributorJanuary 25, 2019

Sabrina Ionescu gets nervous. Too nervous to sleep. Lying in her bed, wrapped in her gray blankets, she'll try to meditate. Inhale, exhale. Inhale, exhale.

Doesn't work.        

She'll turn over right, then turn over left. Right, left. Right, left.

Still nothing.

She hardly sleeps during the season. Especially nights before games. 

The thoughts will just get louder in her head. What if we don't win? We have to win. What if my shot's off? How are they going to guard me?

2 a.m. …

She'll replay mistakes she can't let go of, losses she's still ticked off about. She'll try praying, try reading one of her favorite books, Mamba Mentality: How I Play or Golden: The Miraculous Rise of Stephen Curry or Tim Tebow: Through My Eyes.

3 a.m. …

She'll turn on some nonsports TV but end up on SportsCenter.

But then, somehow, in the morning, she'll join her team at shootaround, looking like she slept 10 hours. She'll be energetic and confident. Ready. Every time. She has to be. She is The Woman Who Does Not Miss. The Triple-Double Queen. Her teammates need her. Follow her. Copy her. If she flinches, they flinch. If she doubts, they doubt.

So she can't show weakness, even when she feels like vomiting in the hours before tipoff and can't eat anything.

Chris Pietsch/Associated Press

"I'm just super nervous before games," Ionescu says, sitting in the lobby of the Courtyard Marriott in Culver City, California, before a team film session in mid-January.

The Ducks are in town to play USC and UCLA. A mini silver-cross necklace pokes out from her navy Golden State Warriors sweatshirt.

Naturally reserved, the 5'11" Ionescu doesn't really let people see her anxious. So all people see are her accomplishments. They see she is in the midst of a magical season in which she's led the fifth-ranked Ducks to a 17-1 record and set the all-time NCAA triple-double record—for both men and women—in December.

Her mark has since grown to 16 triple-doubles—four more than the next player on the list, BYU's Kyle Collinsworth.

Collinsworth had his 12 in four seasons. Ionescu is midway through her third.

It looks effortless, easy, beautiful, the way Ionescu beams crisp passes right to her teammates' hands with the perfect amount of oomph as she glides up the court.

But it isn't easy.

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.

"People ask me, like, 'Why are you nervous?' They think it comes naturally, like, 'Oh, you're just gonna go out there and play.' No," Ionescu says. "There's a lot of other stuff that comes before what people actually see."


The next day, moments after Oregon beat UCLA 72-52, Ionescu takes a deep breath. She looks happy but reserved. Quiet, like something is eating at her.

The Ducks swept the weekend by a combined 60 points. Ionescu broke Oregon's career assist record against the Trojans and finished with 14 points, five boards and six assists against the Bruins.

Oregon assistant director of athletic communications Joe Waltasti stops her as she heads toward the postgame press conference, hoping to deliver good news. "We're not gonna need you tonight," he says. "You can get a little rest from media."

"Yeah," Ionescu says, tucking her head down. "Because I sucked."

She means it. Truly thinks she sucked. Each of her misses infuriated her. Sometimes it can seem like Ionescu carries a portable mirror in her gym bag—a mirror that only shows her misses. Her mistakes. Her flaws.

Beauty is truly in the eye of the beholder, and Ionescu doesn't buy into her own hype. Even though she is the most productive, most creative player in women's college basketball. Even though she's projected to be the top pick in the WNBA draft if she turns pro after this season.

"She reminds me a lot of Sue Bird," says Connecticut Sun star and 2014 No. 1 overall pick Chiney Ogwumike. "Excellent feel for the game, plays her own tempo, and as a passer she has the That's So Raven ability to see the future."

Charlie Litchfield/Associated Press

Even though, as Oregon associate head coach Mark Campbell says: "She's doing stuff that has never been done in college basketball. It truly feels like every night she's breaking a new record."

Ionescu doesn't like talking about her records. She wants to talk about hoop. About what the hardwood does to her, means to her. How she tries to create order out of a space of disorder—predictability in a game of unpredictable runs and stops, and good and bad calls.

"On the court, everything has to be perfect," Ionescu says.

If she makes a shot in a drill but it doesn't feel good to her (not enough backspin, not enough legs, not enough arc), she'll shoot it again. And again and again and again. Sometimes, after missing a shot during a live game, she'll apologize to her teammates—I'm so sorry. I shouldn't have missed it.

She expects herself to make every single one. This is what propels her to make so many. "But that hurts you," Ionescu says. "Sometimes it can drive you a little crazy."

Her coaches know it. That's why they try to put her on something like a pitch count—limit the number of times per day she does something that would potentially get her injured—but she defies it. Sometimes they literally have to pull her off the court. Otherwise she has to be there. All the time. All-out. No matter the wear and tear on her body. Her dad, Dan Ionescu, calls her attack mode "Bazooka Mode."

"Sabrina's wired differently," Oregon head coach Kelly Graves says. "She's always on."

"[Diana] Taurasi, [Michael] Jordan—they have that same mentality," Graves added later. "That's what makes those people special. That competitive greatness."

There's a difference between a ballplayer and someone who plays basketball. Ionescu is a ballplayer. And ballplayers do not recognize out of bounds. So if the ball rolls out during a drill and the rest of her teammates stop, she screams, "What are you stopping for?!" And if they pass up an open look, she screams, "Shoot the ball when you're open!"

"Sab has no room in her life for people that are OK with losing—for people that are OK with mediocrity," says Lexi Bando, a former teammate at Oregon.

That's how she's transformed Oregon from a WNIT team to a national-title contender, reaching the Elite Eight the past two seasons. And, she hopes, going further this season. "About the time you think she might be running on empty," says Vic Schaefer, coach of rival No. 7 Mississippi State, "that's when she's just halfway full."

But she can't turn Bazooka Mode off. And it gnaws at her.

Charlie Litchfield/Associated Press

Graves likens her to the drummer in the 2014 movie Whiplash. The drummer is so obsessed with greatness that he bloodies his palms, his fingers, drumming and drumming and agonizing and agonizing, spending every waking moment chasing perfection. He breaks up with his girlfriend for one reason: "I want to be great," he tells her. "I want to be one of the greats."

"My God," Graves remembers thinking when he saw it. "That's Sabrina."


Campbell sat in the stands—some creaky, some without backs—for about 200 of Ionescu's high school games for Miramonte High in Orinda, California. He even followed her to Pilsen in the Czech Republic for the 2014 FIBA U17 World Cup, where she helped the U.S. team to gold. And now he's watched her play 89 games for Oregon.

"For all of those games," Campbell says. "I've never seen her have an off game."

He had to get her to sign. Just had to. She could pass and score and rebound and defend—not because she was athletic but because she was the total opposite: patient, cerebral, instinctual. The best part? She had no backdown in her bones.

In seventh grade, while playing on an all-boys team, Ionescu tucked the ball to her chest and drove in for a layup. Wham! A boy on the opposing team pushed her so hard, intentionally, that she crashed onto the cold hardwood. She still made the layup.

The boy was ejected from the game, but Ionescu wasn't satisfied with his punishment. She popped right back up, got in his face and started talking smack, like she was about to do something.

"Coming from a girl, everyone was just like, 'What?!'" says Eddy Ionescu, her twin brother.

This is a girl who was never afraid to speak up in huddles, so cognizant of everyone's duties on the floor that toward the end of the McDonald's All-American Game, according to her mother, Liliana Blaj, she snatched the clipboard from one of her coaches and began diagramming a play. Not to be disrespectful—but because her team needed a bucket, and when there is a bucket to be gotten, Ionescu will get it.

Even if that means yelling at teammates. To play with Ionescu, you have to always be on, too.

One game, her club team, Cal Stars, was facing Cy-Fair Shock at the Boo Williams tournament. Kat Tudor, now at Oregon State, was getting open looks but couldn't hit. Just one of those days. Cal Stars trailed by two at halftime when Ionescu walked up to Tudor.

"Make a f--king shot!" she remembers Ionescu saying.

Tudor blinked. Stunned. "I'm trying!" Tudor said. "Do you think I'm f--king trying to miss?!"

"F--k trying!" Ionescu said. "Make it!"

Tudor came out of halftime and drained seven threes.

"That's what I needed that day," Tudor says. "With Sabrina, that's how she shows she respects you. She had the faith that I could hit those shots."

Cal Stars ended up winning—by so much the game finished with a running clock. A member of UConn's staff called Cal Stars coach Kelly Sopak to inquire about Tudor.

"Sabrina has that ability to push kids," says Sopak, who was also Ionescu's coach at Miramonte. He's her mentor, having coached her since she was in the third grade.

"She can grab 'em by the shirt collar, tell them to get their butt in gear, but she'll be the first one there for them when they do something great," Sopak says. "Or when they're down, to say, 'You got this!'"

This is one of the reasons Graves was so excited when Ionescu finally committed to Oregon. She had made him, and every other program in the country, wait for months as the lone uncommitted Top 25 recruit, not telling him she was coming until the day before summer school was supposed to start her freshman year of college. She wanted to focus on her high school season, and she had to know who was really committed to her.

Ionescu and Graves
Ionescu and GravesChris Pietsch/Associated Press

Graves knew he wasn't just getting a ballplayer; he was getting a leader. A leader who thought differently, moved differently, than any other woman in the country.


"I know, just by staring at the ball, who on my team shot it," Ionescu says.

Yes, Ionescu has memorized the individual backspins of most of her teammates' shots. Which one whirls this way, which one zigs that way. Which one has a high arc, which one sails lower.

It sounds impossible, but it's true: She doesn't have to look at her teammates to know who shot it. She doesn't have time to. Her mind moves faster than her feet. Her basketball IQ cannot be captured by cliches like She sees the play before it happens.

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.

"She's not a me-first type of person," says Asia Durr, fourth-ranked Louisville's star, who has known Ionescu since high school. "She could be a score-first type of player, but she truly loves passing the ball."

Ionescu's mind is erupting with ideas, but she is completely calm while executing them. She doesn't dominate loudly like the players she is often compared to. People see her triple-doubles and automatically call her "the Female Russell Westbrook," but she isn't like him at all.

She's not lightning-quick. She isn't quick…at all. She's neither athletic nor tall. She racks up double-digit rebounds because she's relentless. A mastermind of angles. A firm believer in outlasting everyone.

She is The Everywoman.

"She's not a huge player. She's just a normal-looking person. She doesn't look like an all-star athlete. I think if you think of someone who has a triple-double record, it's not gonna be her," says Ruthy Hebard, Oregon forward and close friend.

Hebard wasn't prepared for Ionescu's fire the first time the two shared the court. Hebard was a freshman, and it was only open gym, but Ionescu was yelling at her—and everyone else on the floor—for missing easy layups.

"I was kind of scared," Hebard says. "I was like, Wow. This is going to be a crazy four years here."

But then she got to know Ionescu. Really know her.

Ionescu and Hebard
Ionescu and HebardJeff Chiu/Associated Press

She saw how funny Ionescu is. How much of a joke-teller she is. Someone you can tell your secrets to. Someone who understands pain, understands fear. Someone who will battle her in a dance-off or halt practice just to give her a reassurance or a pointer. Stay hours after to help her with her shot. Send her I believe in you text messages.

And she saw how she does this for every woman on the team. She'll specifically set up a teammate for a few quick, easy shots at the start of a game if that teammate struggled the game before, just to get her confidence going. She doesn't sleep. She burns to win. And now, her teammates do, too.

"You feel like, 'I don't want to lose for her,'" says Hebard, who has become the team's third-leading scorer.

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."

And this season, Ionescu sent a similar message during the opening week of Pac-12 play. A Washington State player, while boxing out, undercut teammate Satou Sabally as she released her free throw.

Ionescu, sitting on the bench, was furious. She bolted up and jumped onto the court to defend Sabally. She got about five feet out before her coaches stopped her.

"We had to hold her back," Graves says, laughing. "Shoot, I'd love having her as my teammate. She'll back you to the end."


Sometimes Ionescu goes to Oregon's home court, Matthew Knight Arena, and sits in the stands just to think. Not even shoot (though she does launch threes late into the night, mostly to country artists like Chris Young). But many times, she goes to have time to herself.

"Just me and the court," she says. "I don't like going when there's a lot of people."

This is her peace. Her place. Her space to contemplate. A lot of times, she prays. Or thinks of passages from books she's read (she has stacks in her room), like The Five People You Meet in Heaven by Mitch Albom. It tells her she's on the path she's supposed to be on. That she should be appreciative of everything she has. Not dwelling on the negative.

But she dwells.

Especially when critics write negative comments to her on social media, like, Oh you didn't get a triple-double against UConn or a Top Five team, so it doesn't count. That motivates her—but it gets under her skin, too. Graves has to tell her to stop reading the comments. Just let it go.

"It's just funny how they'll find anything to try and degrade and downplay the game just because women are playing it," Ionescu says.

Even now, leading the fifth-ranked team in the country, she acutely feels the disparity in respect. Feels that, unlike the NBA, the WNBA gives her no real financial incentive to turn pro. Feels that no matter what she accomplishes, the measuring stick is moved farther and farther away.

"It's crazy how much negativity just goes into the game of women's basketball, regardless of what you're producing," she says. "I could have 30 points, and Zion Williamson could have 30, and his is published and not mine. It's the same thing," Ionescu says. "It's the norm, and now we're breaking norms, and it's gonna take a while for people to get used to it."

Whether they do or not, there is still the weight of competing, of always having to be on. "I really can't have a night off," Ionescu says. "The challenge is everyone expects you to do so much."

Sometimes she thinks of what Sopak used to tell her in high school about what a leader is.

"You make players better because you can make shots and you can pass the ball," he'd say. "The moment you can make players better by just stepping on the floor, that's when you're really an elite player."

She has that presence now—now that she's come out of her shell a bit. Her freshman year at Oregon, if she wasn't playing to the level she thought she should, she'd retreat into herself. Not say much. "I used to keep everything in," she says. She'd be so upset with herself that she wouldn't want to sign autographs or take pictures after the game.

"That's not the person I am," says Ionescu, who now spends hours with fans as little girls flock to her after games. Hoping to just touch her hand. To see some of her magic up close.

Chris Pietsch/Associated Press

But her makes aren't magic. They come from misses. And there are some you can't let go of, no matter how many days, months or years after the leather leaves your fingertips.

Ionescu's was six years ago. Freshman year at Miramonte. State Open Division playoffs. Down one. Ionescu snatched the rebound and went coast to coast. She was fouled right before she started shooting with 2.8 seconds left for a one-and-one opportunity.

The ball rattled out and broke her heart on its way down. "She was devastated," Liliana says. "She felt like the team was counting on her, and she let them down."

But Sopak told her to think of the moment differently.

"That's what great players do. Great players lose games because they put themselves in that position," he told her. "If you can't take missing that shot, you can't take making that shot, either. If you're not ready to lose the game for us, you're never going to be ready to win the game."

That moment changed Ionescu. Not just because she never wanted to miss in that situation again, but also because it taught her that failing didn't ruin her. The ball still bounced the next day. And the day after that. And the day after that…

But no matter how many clutch free throws she has made since, like when she sank two to upset Kelsey Plum and No. 11 Washington 70-69 in the Pac-12 Conference Tournament quarterfinal freshman year, some part of her might still feel like the girl who missed.

"I really believe she still considers herself an underdog," Sopak says. "I hate to say she feels inferior, but, somewhere in her psyche or her subconscious, that's what she feels. I would bet to think that she does not think that she is that good. That is what motivates her."


It's the week after Oregon's L.A. sweep, and the Ducks are preparing for a game against Arizona State by scrimmaging against their male practice squad. The men are supposed to play hard-nosed, aggressive, physical defense. Throw-you-out-of-your-scheme, get-in-your-head kind of defense.

And it works. Oregon keeps turning the ball over. So many times that Ionescu can't take it.

"Enough!" she yells at her teammates, stopping play. "Enough."

Silence.

No one needs to say anything. Everyone knows what that meant: Get in line or get out. Ionescu is about to go Bazooka Mode.

The next few possessions?

She boxes out and rips down a rebound.

She throws an assist.

She dishes another assist—a kick-out three to Sabally.

She hits two straight pull-up jumpers for the win. Of course, on both, she makes damn sure the ball doesn't graze the rim.

              

Mirin Fader is a Writer-At-Large for B/R Mag. She’s written for the Orange County Register, espnW.com, SI.com and Slam. Her work has been honored by the U.S. Basketball Writers Association, the Football Writers Association of America and the L.A. Press Club. Follow her on Twitter: @MirinFader.

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