Tall, green trees dot the basketball court at Larkey Park in Walnut Creek, CA. A chain-link fence surrounded by bushes blocks it off from Buena Vista Avenue. Walking trails, jungle gyms sets, a tennis court and a pool can also be found throughout the park. The asphalt on the court is dark green and the paint is covered in a shade of brown. White lines mark the half-court and free-throw stripes.
This is Sabrina Ionescu’s home court.
Ionescu is now the NCAA’s all-time leader in triple-doubles, entering her senior season with 18 of them. She’s all but a lock to be the No. 1 pick in the 2020 WNBA Draft. But before all of that happened, she was playing here, at Larkey Park.
“I played at a few parks in Walnut Creek but Larkey Park was the one that we went to a lot of the time. I would say one of my earliest memories is just playing at the park,” Ionescu tells SLAM. “Pickup games, random games with my brother. Once I got older, obviously started playing on a team, but always the small memories of playing in the front yard or at the park.”
Her story is playing out like a Hollywood movie. Ionescu was good enough, tough enough, strong enough to play with the boys. But they didn’t always let her. She would have to watch sometimes. Then she would get to play other times.
“I always had a Tweety Bird shirt and they told me that I wasn’t allowed to play until I got rid of the shirt,” she remembers. “And so I went home and changed my shirt, came back and then they let me play. So I never wore it after that moment.”
When she did get to play, they wouldn’t pass her the ball so she started to grab it off the glass, push it up the court and dish it to an open teammate while the defense swarmed to get what they thought would be an easy steal. She’s been developing a skill set to stack up triple-doubles ever since she was a kid.
“She is a pass-first player,” Kelly Graves, her head coach at Oregon, says. “People know how much she scores.
She gets a lot of attention for her rebounding. But, I think, fundamentally, she is about the team. Her ability to see the floor, to be one step ahead of the defense is incredible. She knows her teammates are open before they know they’re open and that you just can’t teach. That’s innate to the elite players.”
And Ionescu is the most elite college basketball player in the country. The game she built at Larkey Park has her close to becoming the one and only NCAA women’s basketball player to reach 2,000 points, 1,000 rebounds and 1,000 assists in a career. Her three years as a Duck have seen her register 18 points, 7 rebounds and 7 dimes a game. And her junior season, in which she led Oregon to the Final Four, wrapped up with her best numbers yet—averages of 19.9 points, 8.2 assists and 7.4 boards were complemented by 42 percent shooting from distance and 88 percent shooting from the foul line. Her squad had a 33-5 record.
“She’s made us relevant in the national championship discussion,” Graves says. “Now we’re a national program. Obviously she has great teammates and everybody has helped, there’s no question about that. But she’s really been the face of that resurgence.”
It’s normal for Ionescu to get stopped whenever she’s on campus. The days where she can walk around and not get noticed are mostly gone, replaced by moments when people want photos with her or when they want her to know that she’s appreciated. Everybody wants to be a part of history. And Ionescu is living, walking, talking, breathing history.
Her 18 triple-doubles are the most—by a woman or a man—in the history of the NCAA. More than Diana Taurasi. More than Candace Parker or even Wilt Chamberlain. She busted up the record that Kyle Collinsworth set while he played at BYU when she got her 13th triple-double in December of 2018.
“I remember getting my first triple-double my freshman year and we were in Hawaii,” she says. “I had no idea that I had gotten it because the stats weren’t up anywhere. But I remember after the game Kelly came up to me and just handed me the box score and that’s all he said. He said, ‘Congrats, not a lot of people do it.’ Just handed me the box score and I had no idea what he meant. I was trying to look at the box score and see was it how many points we scored in a half? I was really confused at what he was talking about. I was like, Oh, I got a triple-double. I was like, OK. That was it.”
Ionescu, for as long as she’s been recording those triple-doubles, has always insisted it’s not about numbers. She’s just doing what it takes to help her team win.
“I just don’t like to lose,” she says. “In anything that I do, whether it’s basketball or anything, I’m just super competitive. Going into every game, into every practice, I’m trying to be the best version of myself. I’m not really playing against anyone, it’s really just me trying to be the best version that I can on the court, off the court.”
Ionescu says that her twin brother, Eddy, and their older brother, Andrei, never took it easy on her. Blood and tears were common for her when she was growing up at Larkey Park. But those moments helped her become the no-mercy-machine she is now. Clutch moments mean nothing to her. She’ll just walk up the floor, drill a dagger three-pointer and walk back to the bench while the other team scrambles to call a timeout. Because she’s not going to lose. And if she does take a loss, she’s going to make sure it won’t happen again.
After getting beat by Baylor in the 2019 Final Four, Ionescu all but promised a natty to the Ducks in 2020. She’s gonna deliver. Her game is a terrifying mixture of basketball’s most deadly competitors.
Her desire has been shaped by following Kobe Bryant. Her floor general skills have been refined by studying John Stockton. Her jumpshot has been honed by watching Stephen Curry.
“I’d pull up John Stockton’s videos from when he played and watched that on the computer,” Ionescu says. “I’d watch Kobe’s. It was cool because I was able to watch them growing up and if they did something, I would go back in the yard and try to do it myself.”
But it was more than just watching Curry and the Warriors or old grainy footage on YouTube. The way that those players hooped can be seen in Ionescu. Like her coach says, she sees the game before things happen. She can read defenses, bend them to her liking. She knows when to step up for the shot and when to drop a laser feed off the bounce.
“The more basketball you watch and the more you pay attention, that only helps your IQ,” the point guard says. “Playing with guys, they were a lot bigger and stronger and so I had to see things early and I had to be able to make passes in order to be able to play with them. Just starting at a young age, being thrown into a game like that has just helped me now. Now the game kind of slowed down for me just because of how sped up it was when I was younger.
“I was just back there and it’s cool to see that they watch our games and they keep up with me,” she says about all the guys in Walnut Creek. “Now they all want me on their team. It’s just different from when they weren’t allowing me to play with them.”
They can recognize the expert-level that Ionescu plays the game at. And so can Kobe. Sabrina gets excited when talking about the time that the Black Mamba and his daughter, Gigi, showed up at one of her games last season.
“We were just warming up and all of a sudden he goes and sits courtside,” she says, like she still can’t believe it. “I was like, Oh my gosh, that’s Kobe Bryant at our game. That was just awesome. He came back into the locker room and spoke to us and signed our shoes. It was really cool to be able to meet him and talk to him like an actual person and not someone that I just watch game film on.”
It wasn’t that long ago that she was recreating his moves at Larkey Park, under the big, tall, green trees. And it won’t be that long until she’s in the W, playing pro ball at Staples Center, the same court that he used to play at, under the big, bright lights. More triple-doubles and a national championship, it won’t be that long until those become reality too.
But for Coach Graves, Sabrina Ionescu is already a superstar.
“She’s gotten better skill-wise but I think where she’s made the most improvement is in leadership and being a great teammate, handling lots of pressure, expectations,” he says. “She has just become, I think, the entire package when it comes to what you would expect and want out of an elite athlete. She inspires me. She inspires her teammates. When you talk about what you want in a human being, she fits it all.”
Photos by Ashley Walters and via Getty.
Additional reporting by Camille Buxeda.