In January, when her mentor died suddenly in a helicopter crash, Sabrina Ionescu was cast as a character in the Kobe Bryant Extended Universe, and the final games of what was an electric, singular college career at Oregon were parsed not really as basketball contests, but as weird exercises in numerology. Her 24th career triple-double, eight points in a half, that sort of thing.
It was nice, then, to encounter Ionescu in a less tragic (if much blurrier) context, one where she could exist in the spotlight that the NCAA Tournament’s cancellation and the cloud of Bryant’s death had denied her. The New York Liberty selected Ionescu—all nine pixels of her—with the first pick in Friday night’s 2020 WNBA Draft, held virtually and soundtracked sweetly by the earnest cheers of several dozen parents. When her selection was announced, Ionescu was between family members on a white chair, glossy Mylar balloons floating just behind her head, bouquets of roses on an adjacent counter. The week before, every player in the draft had been shipped a box of 12 team hats.
Left unsaid all night was that the upcoming season, initially scheduled to tip off next month and now postponed indefinitely, may not take place at all. That would be a genuine bummer for a few reasons, one being that earlier this year, as part of a new collective bargaining agreement, players signed a revenue-sharing agreement conditioned on the league’s steady revenue growth. Another being, I want to watch basketball and I really want Ionescu to be playing it.
She’d like that, too. Read any of a hundred profiles and it’s clear she takes very seriously her obligation to The Game of Basketball—the on-court product, but also its storied, sacred past—and finds it offensive, actually, that anyone would care less than she does. Kobe Bryant’s protégé, through and through. When Diana Taurasi paid the Ducks a visit for an exhibition game in November, Ionescu asked the WNBA veteran (it amuses me to imagine she did this in front of her own teammates), “How do you get the people who might not be as motivated or dedicated up to that level?”
So maybe Ionescu is well-suited for the promotion everyone is pretty eager to give her, from face of college basketball to face of women’s basketball. There’s a naïve subtext, though, in the way some well-meaning people talk about the WNBA, and it’s that the league is one transcendent star shy of success, which tends in these discussions to be nebulously defined. An old one of those man-on-the-street quotes from The Onion comes to mind: “Tennis needs its Michael Jordan. Well, I guess what I’m saying is, I’d watch it if Michael Jordan played.”
It’s certainly much easier for the people in charge to believe the NBA’s structural disinvestment in its women players—its insistence on a summer schedule that leaves them out of sight and out of mind for most of the year, the wimpy TV contracts it settles for, salaries that devalue and imperil the product—can be offset by the arrival of a mythical savioress.
The truth is, the WNBA has had lots of “faces of women’s basketball” in its 23 years, lots of bright, lovely faces paid what might be a nice haul for an early career paralegal and asked to tow a sport into relevance. Many of them, not surprisingly, were frowning by the end. Ionescu seems up to the challenge, but when the deck is stacked the way it is, you can only transcend so much.
What marketers and broadcasters do cite as evidence of Ionescu’s potential for “transcendence” is one thing about her that has driven me a bit insane for years. “Ionescu’s long-term value might be the sway she holds with a group that has often been skeptical of women’s sports as entertainment: men,” one Wall Street Journal piece describes her, the way you might a debt instrument.
Men should watch and tweet about whomever they’d like, but when they become the story, when Sabrina Ionescu is more interesting for having shared this sentence with Steph Curry and LeBron James, it hardly seems a win for women’s basketball. One of the more mystifying comparisons Ionescu’s routine triple-doubles have earned her is to Russell Westbrook—banal, performative praise with no other use than to reveal its bestower’s inattention.
Ionescu is special for the way she goes against type. Imagine, a deliberate college basketball player, a slow point guard. Russ is the life of the party, but Sabrina Ionescu is its diabolical DJ, gently lulling her defenders into some rhythm they’ll soon regret. She sniffs out, terrifyingly fast, an opponent’s split second of carelessness, and makes good use of it, finding the passing lanes, taking whatever shot she wants from three, attacking the rim, head always up and eyes ahead. Take my word for it or a man’s. It’ll be a thrill to watch her in the WNBA, whenever she next gets the chance.