A Season of Loss

Oregon star and WNBA top prospect Sabrina Ionescu opens up to B/R Mag on her search for peace after losing her mentor, Kobe Bryant, and a chance to cap a historic college career with a national title.
photo of Mirin FaderMirin Fader@MirinFaderB/R Mag ContributorApril 14, 2020

Sabrina Ionescu woke in a panic. She didn't know if she was still dreaming or awake.

Whoa, she thought to herself. What's going on?

It took her a few seconds on this recent night to calm down, to gather herself. To realize she had been dreaming.

But she couldn't let the dream go. Lying under her covers in bed, she replayed it in her head. Every detail, every sound, haunted her. Especially that laugh.

She kept hearing Gigi Bryant's laugh in the dream. That sweet, high-pitched laugh that could jolt joy into the grumpiest of souls.

The dream takes her back to summer. L.A. Last year. Ionescu was standing on the sideline with Gigi's father, Kobe Bryant, who was also Ionescu's mentor and best friend. They watched as 13-year-old Gigi laughed so hard with her Team Mamba teammates that her eyes began to squint into mini moons. Then Ionescu and Kobe started laughing too, sharing the most simple and meaningful joy: being around basketball, being around each other.

These days, Ionescu has grown accustomed to these dreams. They bring sadness, bring joy.

And it's not just in the dreams she'll be transported back to that day. Sometimes she'll be in the backyard of the home of her mother, Liliana, attaching a band to a lemon tree to do defensive slides, and out of nowhere, she'll hear the laugh. Or she'll be looking at her phone, and a name will pop up that looks like Kobe's, and when she realizes it isn't, something will pierce her.

She can't stop it from hurting, so she accepts the feeling—accepts that she may never get over this.

"I think it's going to be one of those things I always feel. I can still think about it anytime and cry," she says, speaking to Bleacher Report over the phone on a tough day in early April. "I'm not normal yet."

Sometimes she thinks about how order in the world seemed to disappear once Kobe did. Not just her world but the entire world, with the rise of the COVID-19 pandemic. She wonders what Kobe would have thought about her backyard workouts, now that her NCAA championship dreams have been shattered. The 22-year-old Ionescu had turned down hundreds of thousands of dollars in WNBA salary and endorsements to return to Oregon as a senior to try to win a ring, and her team was a favorite to do just that.

That dream now dead, she wonders if Kobe would smile at how creative she's being as she prepares for the WNBA future that will arrive beginning with this week's draft, in which she is a certainty to be the first name called. How she takes a sack of onions and potatoes and uses them as weights. How she does squats with her mom's large potted plant, brown with an extra-wide brim. "He'd probably want me to do more," Ionescu says, managing a laugh. Then her voice grows thin. Quiet.

"Thinking about that is hard," she says. "If he was here, we'd probably all be quarantined together in L.A." Her, Kobe, Gigi. Laughing. Enjoying being around basketball, being around one another.

Ionescu can't remember ever not having control like this before. She is used to feeling in control of every aspect of the game. The score, the plays, the players, all beckon to her call. When the ball is in her palms, she can slow the game down, speed it up. Put people in the exact places to succeed. Torment defenders whenever she decides to take over, entering what her dad, Dan, calls Bazooka Mode: her all-out attack.

She is always on, always obsessing. She expects herself to make every shot, to be perfect in every drill. "She has to make a half-court shot before every game," says Joe Waltasti, former Oregon assistant director of athletic communications. She vomits before games. She doesn't sleep the night before a game, instead just staring at her ceiling until 3, 4 a.m. She berates herself for misses, challenges teammates for not matching her intensity.

She is this way because deep down she's afraid. Afraid of not measuring up to her own expectations. Afraid of not being good enough.

"She feels like she's inferior," says Kelly Sopak, her former high school club coach at Cal Stars, who talks to her daily. "That's what motivates her. Imagine a 25-year-old athlete playing against a five-year-old in a game of one-on-one, but imagine the 25-year-old thinks he's going to lose. That's Sabrina. She lives in that world of self-doubt."

So she tries to control. Tries to shoot shoot shoot past exhaustion to erase that doubt. To prove that she is good enough. Great enough.

She used to limp through practices from going too hard, from not telling her coaches she felt pain bordering injury.

But the pain she is battling right now, a deep sense of loss—loss of a storybook season on top of loss of a mentor and a friend—cannot be solved the way she is accustomed to solving problems: through hard work. Grief cannot be solved or contained. Only felt.

"Nobody can teach you how to deal with this," Ionescu says. "You just have to go through it."

Both losses happened so suddenly, so unexpectedly. She was having the best year of her life, and then she was having the worst. When the college season was canceled, she didn't want to think about it, didn't want to acknowledge that just weeks after losing the person who'd believed in her the most, she'd played her last college game. It cut too deep. "She's a human being," Liliana says.

But now, Ionescu is finally allowing herself to reflect on it all. "Every day I think about why," she says. She is starting to learn to accept that she doesn't have answers. And she is trying to think less why, and more what's next. "I still have to keep finding ways to get better," she says.

She and her teammates should have been in New Orleans this month, contending for a national title that would have been the exclamation point on a turnaround for a program that had only one winning season in six years before Ionescu arrived and has now won three straight Pac-12 titles and went 31-2 this season.

LAS VEGAS, NEVADA - MARCH 08:  Sabrina Ionescu #20 of the Oregon Ducks cuts down a net after the team defeated the Stanford Cardinal 89-56 to win the championship game of the Pac-12 Conference women's basketball tournament at the Mandalay Bay Events Cente
Ethan Miller/Getty Images

It stings, but she tries to envision how happy they would have been instead of dwelling on the fact that it's over. She tries to feel gratitude for family, health, food, shelter. The chance to play in the WNBA when the season commences.

"She's gotten to a level of maturity of understanding that nothing is guaranteed," Liliana says. "We have to be grateful for everything we have."

So, Ionescu heads back to her lemon tree. Back to her defensive slides. She pushes herself as hard as she can go. She tries to embrace the uncertainty. To let go.

Of needing control.

Of having to be perfect.

Of the way things were supposed to be.

Peace. That is what Ionescu is searching for. Peace.

This break from organized basketball is the first time in a while that Ionescu has really taken a breath. Really breathed. "Nobody's coming after her," says Mark Campbell, Oregon's associate head coach. "She's had a bull's-eye on her back for six years."

She doesn't usually think about that weight, because she's usually busy just carrying it. Her insomnia has even subsided a bit. She is going to sleep at 10:30 and not waking up through the night as much as she did during basketball season. It is a strange feeling, this calmness. She can't tell if it's because she's learning to accept her new normal—life without basketball games—or if it's because it's made her realize that basketball, really, is just a game.

She would have scoffed at that expression a few years ago. Just a game. People who say it's just a game usually have never played, have never felt the rush that basketball creates. How it makes her feel alive. Powerful. Dominant. To her, every game, every shot, matters.

And now they don't. At least, not like they used to.

"You really realize what's important in life," she says. "I think I was so consumed with winning and getting better in basketball, then you realize life is so much more than that. You realize it's not even about basketball at the end of the day. Basketball is so small."

Her mind drifts to Kobe again. She thinks about how he is remembered more for what he did outside of being a basketball player. She thinks about how their trophy cases, their tough days, their brightest days, are really all a blip. Dots in the sand.

Ionescu is currently picking which sports agency she will sign with. In a recent meeting, she and one suitor discussed her writing a memoir. She loves to read books. She wants to write children's books one day too. Ionescu and Sopak tried to come up with a title for her memoir. Maybe Driven, they thought. Ionescu isn't sure yet.

She is still figuring out who she is without that orange leather ball—that ball that makes her laugh, cry, smile, scream. She wonders who she can become, too, in her new normal.

Ionescu doesn't remember the details of the games she played after Kobe died. "My head was in a cloud," she says. She was so consumed by grief that they all seem to blur for her.

She continued to communicate with Kobe: "The rest is for you," she texted him once. "Miss you and love you."

She does remember how physically ill she felt, how devastated she felt the first time she had to take the floor.

She sat in the locker room prior to Oregon's game against Oregon State. She didn't go out to warm-ups. "Hey," she called to teammate Minyon Moore. "I'll be up there. You make sure the team's ready." Campbell felt goosebumps watching what happened next: the way she dominated, compartmentalizing her grief. She was there, but she wasn't there.

"That was not normal Sabrina," Campbell says. "You could see it in her eyes, could see it during timeouts."

She played brilliantly, fearlessly, scoring 19 points with eight rebounds and three assists. And, a month later, just hours after speaking at Kobe and Gianna's Celebration of Life, Sabrina came through again, this time against Stanford. She dug deep, finding strength to lead her team. She had 21 points, 12 assists and 12 rebounds in the win and became the first player, man or woman, to reach 2,000 points, 1,000 assists and 1,000 rebounds in NCAA Division I basketball history.

John Locher/Associated Press

"The best of Sabrina came through that day," says Kelly Graves, Oregon's head coach. "I saw a more focused, more driven Sabrina after Kobe's death. That was the moment she made up her mind: We're not losing."

She also allowed her teammates to see her full self. Not just Powerful Sabrina. Not just Leader Sabrina.

This time she showed Vulnerable Sabrina.

When the Stanford game ended, when she did not have to talk to the media, she let herself not be on. She cried in front of her teammates. She dared to let them see her hurt. See that she was not perfect.

Not together.

Not OK.

That's not something she ordinarily does. "From that day on, every single game, every single practice, everything, the roles were kind of reversed," Ionescu says. "They understood the pain I was going through. They took on a different role, more of a leadership role. They had to carry me."

Liliana was supposed to go home after the game, but instead she stayed the night with Ionescu to make sure she was OK. Liliana knew there was nothing she could say to make her daughter feel better. All she could do was just be there. Hold Sabrina tightly throughout the night. Let her cry.

Sabrina would realize something about herself in the weeks after that: "I'm not going to break," she says. "As long as I have a support system around me to help me through, I'm not really ever going to reach that point of breaking."

One night in particular confirmed that to her. It was two weeks later, and she was sitting in her hotel room before a game against Utah. She looked out the window, asking God for a sign. A sign that she would be OK.

As the sun began to set, she saw a burst of color. Purple and yellow streaks stretched across the sky. Then a helicopter flew by, humming into the distance.

Oh my God, she thought, shaken up. This is it. Kobe's always going to be with me.

As the season wore on, she started to feel more calm before games. Less nervous. She felt newfound purpose: It was less about unfinished business, avenging Oregon's Final Four loss last season, and more about the journey.

"It was kind of nice in a way to just be able to have fun and play and not really worry," she says.

She was just happy to be with her teammates. She enjoyed every moment until the team couldn't play anymore.

It felt surreal for the season to be canceled. For it to be taken from her. So quickly, so surprisingly. Then she remembered what Kobe had told her about control. "He was big on controlling what you can," she says. "You can't control your teammates. You can't control how hard other people work. It's kind of you versus you."

She's been thinking a lot about that now, you versus you, in this time of quarantine, of solitude. "I started to realize I never really was competing against the person next to me," she says. "I wasn't trying to beat out the person next to me. I was trying to beat out myself every time."

That self has no regrets. That self spilled her heart out onto the court every time for the Ducks, turning a WNIT team into a national title contender. And there was nothing she could do to change the end of her college career.

She packed up her things in her Ford Fusion and drove home to the Bay Area, staring out onto the road. It is what it is, she thought to herself. Acceptance would be her new compass.

Ionescu headed to a local outdoor court one recent afternoon. She was thankful it was even open. Practically all of the gyms and outdoor courts in California have been shut down during the statewide shelter-in-place order.

"It's so nice to be able to just shoot," she says.

Even if she had to do it alone, given social distancing protocol. So she shot and shot, and the balls kept going in. She was slightly disappointed. She needed a challenge. She wished she would miss so that she could feel angry at herself and then feel motivated to correct her form and make all of her shots.

Then, self-doubt swarmed: What if I don't live up to the expectations? What if I don't lead my new WNBA team? She released jumper after jumper, quickly silencing that voice in her head.

Soon she lost herself between the lines, and the ball became part of her hand again. She felt thankful for her hands, looking at them, pausing between shots.

She has fingers. She has wrists. She has joints. She has muscles. Look at this miraculous thing, this beautiful thing she can do with her body, using it to create perfect backspin on her shot.

Then she missed a shot. She laughed. "I was even happy about the miss," she says.

Sabrina, happy about a miss?

She smiled even wider, realizing old Sabrina, normal Sabrina, would never feel such a thing. But where's the fun in normal anyway?


Mirin Fader is a staff writer 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 Associated Press Sports Editors, the U.S. Basketball Writers Association, the Football Writers Association of America, the Los Angeles Press Club and the Best American Sports Writing series. Follow her on Twitter: @MirinFader.