At Sabrina Ionescu’s first basketball tryout in her hometown of Walnut Creek, California, she was just a middle school student trying to find a place to compete.
She didn’t own basketball shoes, but that didn’t stop her from outperforming everyone else in the gym. Ionescu ran past the other players and scored plenty of buckets, but the club’s head coach didn’t offer her a spot.
“I guess his daughter was on the team and Sabrina was just punking everybody in the gym,” Ionescu’s twin brother, Eddy, said. The coach told her that she didn’t fit with the team, that she wasn’t good enough and that basketball might not be the sport for her.
Ionescu (Yo-Ness-Coo), only in her sophomore year, has already left her mark in the Oregon women’s basketball history books. Now she is the Pac-12 Player of the Year, the NCAA record holder for career triple-doubles and a semifinalist for the 2018 Naismith College Player of the Year award. Basketball, in fact, might be the right sport for her.
“I always think about that story as if, ‘What is that guy thinking now?’” Eddy said.
Ionescu broke onto the national scene in her freshman year with Oregon when she helped lead the Ducks to the Elite Eight as a No. 10 seed. She was the Pac-12 Freshman of the Year and the espnW National Freshman of the Year.
Now, as one of the best players in college basketball, 2018 Final Four expectations rest on her shoulders.
Ionescu thrives on competition, but she hasn’t always been able to find it. During her childhood she surpassed most of her peers, and a struggle to find on-court challenges led her to playing with her brother, other boys and older girls. Her ambition to best everyone she played elevated her to the level she’s at today.
When Ionescu was in middle school, she struggled to find valuable competition in her age group when she played with other girls. For Ionescu, playing with boys offered her more challenging experiences.
“They would come to me and say, ‘Please take your daughter, she will get hurt,’” Ionescu’s father, Dan, said. “She wouldn’t back down. She would keep playing.”
Ionescu’s middle school didn’t have a girls’ team, so she tried to form a team, but the level of competition with the girls didn’t live up to her standards.
As she always did, Ionescu played with the boys outside of school. But the school district wouldn’t let her play on the boys team, according to Dan.
“Back then it was definitely different than it is now and I think girls and boys are definitely more accepting now playing sports together,” Ionescu said. “It was kind of sad to be honest ‘cause we didn’t even have a girls team.”
Sometimes Ionescu managed to play on a boys club team when players didn’t show up for her brother’s AAU games.
“I’d just go over to her and point at her and say, ‘Go get your shoes out the car,’” Eddy said. “Me and Sabrina would combine for like 60 points out of the game. It was just ridiculous.”
The twins challenged each other as often as possible. After school, Ionescu would go home and head to the gym with Eddy.
“Her brother would push her every single time,” Dan said. “It’s just like he never took it easy on her.”
The two played a lot of one-on-one growing up. According to Dan, Sabrina would win all of the games.
“She was always able to control herself in the big moments and get in his head. And he would rush things like guys do,” Dan said. “When you rush, you play out of control, so she would take advantage of every single mistake he made. She’s more disciplined and chooses her fights very well — chooses her moments very well.”
The games got physical, which made it hard for Dan to watch sometimes. But Ionescu held her own against Eddy.
“If he was ahead, they would keep playing and playing until she wins,” Dan said. “She would never let go.”
Now, it’s a little different when they play. Eddy, who plays at City College of San Francisco, is 6-foot-5, towering over his 5-foot-11 sister.
“We always get in the gym whenever she gets back,” Eddy said. “We always go in and take some shots and she’ll ask me some stuff when we work out, show her some tips. We’re always still together.”
The one-on-one time and years of playing street ball with her brother and friends helped launch a high school career at Miramonte-Orinda High School. By her senior year she became the top guard and the No. 4 recruit in the nation, according to ESPN.
Her young, competitive spirit is still evident at Oregon, where she always wants to be involved.
In the 2018 Pac-12 Tournament quarterfinal against Colorado, Ionescu had 10 points, eight rebounds and 11 assists — just two boards shy of her 10th career triple-double. In the fourth quarter, she sat on the bench as the Ducks held a 77-33 lead.
“I don’t even know if she probably even knew where she stood on those kind of things,” Oregon head coach Kelly Graves said.
Ionescu’s ambitious nature makes her crave playing. She loves the big moments and never shies away when pressure mounts.
“I don’t know if she likes to win as much as she hates losing,” Dan said. “She doesn’t like to fail. When you fail you feel depressed. She’s very hard on herself. When she loses a game or something, we don’t talk for days.”
She may not talk to her dad after losses but she celebrates the wins with him, including the Pac-12 Tournament in Seattle when he rushed the court from the stands to celebrate with his daughter, embracing her in a hug.
During that game, Ionescu posted 36 points in Oregon’s 77-57 win over Stanford, giving the Ducks their first ever Pac-12 Tournament title.
“I can always tell when she’s really really focused,” senior Lexi Bando said. “And she’s capable of doing that every night and tonight is just the night that she decided to go off for almost 40 points.”
Her dad drove up to Seattle for the tournament, which isn’t out of the ordinary. He drives up from Walnut Creek to most of her home games — roughly an eight-hour journey.
Eddy said that he and Ionescu don’t just talk about basketball; they like to keep each other informed on their lives outside of the sport.
When Eddy’s games are streamed online, Ionescu tunes in to give her brother pointers. Eddy does the same.
“Just to keep my head up if I’m not shooting the ball well or something like that,” Ionescu said. “He’s usually just really supportive. He never really tells me too much. I think he understands I’m usually in my own head. He’s just there to talk and vent to.”
When they were kids, the twins weren’t focused on making each other better players. They only wanted to beat each other — and it’s what drove Ionescu to the skill level she’s at.
“We’re always going to be best friends,” Eddy said.
— Shawn Medow (@ShawnMedow) March 5, 2018
Follow Shawn Medow on Twitter.