Last weekend was a big one in professional basketball. Though there were no live games, both the NBA and WNBA featured major stories. In the WNBA draft, “virtual” this year, the number one pick went to the New York Liberty who selected Sabrina Ionescu. Over on ESPN, The Last Dance, the much-anticipated documentary series on Michael Jordan and the 1990’s Chicago Bulls debuted.
Basketball fan or not, undoubtably the name Michael Jordan is familiar to you, but likely not that of Sabrina Ionescu. Here’s why it should and likely will be soon.
Star point guard at the University of Oregon, Sabrina Ionescu is the first player in NCAA Division I history – male or female – to record 2,000 career points, 1,000 career assists, and 1,000 career rebounds. She also finished her college career with a record 26 triple-doubles (that’s points, assists, and rebounds). Even more impressive is that she achieved this milestone just hours after delivering an unforgettable eulogy at Kobe Bryant’s memorial service in front of tens of thousands at the Staples Center (watch here).
Bryant and Ionescu had formed a bond in the year leading up to his sudden death, along with his daughter Gianna (“Gigi”) and seven others in a helicopter crash in January. Bryant had made a surprise visit to an Oregon-USC game, sitting courtside with Gigi and her Mamba Sports Academy basketball teammates, the program and facility founded by Bryant. They visited with Ionescu in the locker room after the Oregon win. Ionescu had idolized Bryant growing up, but it turned out he was as big a fan of hers as she was of him.
ABOVE LEFT, SABRINA IONESCU WITH KOBE AND GIGI BRYANT; RIGHT, MICHAEL JORDAN CUTTING DOWN NET AFTER 1982 NCAA CHAMPIONSHIP
The two would remain in close contact after that, with Bryant texting Ionescu after every game about another triple-double performance or epic performance. Ionescu trained with Bryant and Gigi last summer, and sometimes helped coach Gigi’s team. He and Gigi attended multiple Oregon games this season… until their passing.
“If I was the present of the women’s game, Gigi was the future”, said Ionescu at the memorial. “I wanted to be a part of the generation that changed basketball for Gigi and her teammates, where being born female didn’t mean being born behind, where greatness wasn’t divided by gender.” Before Ionescu’s selection by the New York Liberty at the WNBA draft, the league named Gigi, along with her teammates Alyssa Altobelli and Payton Chester who also died in the crash, as honorary draft picks.
When Ionescu arrived at the Oregon campus, the Ducks had not made the NCAA championship tournament in 11 straight years. By the time she left, they would have gone three straight years, with two Elite Eight appearances and the program’s first-ever trip to the Final Four last year. She led the Ducks to three straight Pac-12 championships, but she and the team will never know the crowning achievement that might have been this year, as the NCCA championship tournament was cancelled due to the Coronavirus pandemic.
Ionescu’s star power goes beyond the court and she will no doubt change the women’s game as the franchise face of the New York Liberty. Less than an hour after her selection, Ionescu’s Liberty jersey sold out, followed by an announcement the Oregon alumnus was signing with Nike. One can assume her own shoe is next.
Meanwhile that other star Nike athlete, Michael Jordan, was the men’s basketball story of the weekend with the debut of the highly anticipated 10-part docuseries, The Last Dance. The series focuses on the 1997-98 season and breakup of the Chicago Bulls dynasty following their sixth championship title. With over 500 hours of previously unseen footage, and unprecedented access to the athletes then and now, the docuseries was originally scheduled to debut in June around the time of the NBA Finals. With live sports at a standstill, ESPN moved up its release and fans tuned in en masse Sunday night to watch the first two episodes.
Though the series focuses on Jordan — his rise as a college player and evolution into NBA superstar — behind the scene stories of Scottie Pippen, Dennis Rodman, along with coach Phil Jackson and other star contributors to this team, are equally compelling and highlight the conflicts with the players and management that ultimately led to the dynasty’s demise. What is revealed above all is the unapologetic competitive drive that motivates the greatest athletes to win — a quality, Ionescu remarked in her eulogy, that she shared with Bryant as well.
Tune in next Sunday when the next two episodes of The Last Dance air on ESPN in the US and Netflix abroad.