It was summertime in Eugene, but the kids were still lined up inside to catch a glimpse of their hero.
And an NBA champion, too.
Jordan Bell, the popular Golden State Warriors forward who was an integral part the Duck men's Final Four team two years ago, returned to Oregon for a youth basketball camp.
Sabrina Ionescu, who stopped by to catch up with her friend, also draws a crowd at Matthew Knight Arena these days.
“There were just as many in line to get Sabrina’s autograph, boys too, as there were Jordan Bell. That says something right there,” Oregon women’s basketball coach Kelly Graves said. “That says something when Kobe (Bryant) comes into our locker room and says, ‘Hey, these girls really want your autograph, would you mind spending a couple minutes with them?’
“That’s cool. That’s where we’ve gotten, and that’s who she is.”
Ionescu is the relentless national player of the year candidate who has helped Graves transform the program from a Pac-12 bottom-feeder to back-to-back conference champion.
Oregon, after making Elite Eight appearances in the past two NCAA Tournaments, will lean on Ionescu to lead a strong supporting cast to another deep bracket run.
The second-seeded Ducks face No. 15 Portland State in the first round at 6:30 p.m. Friday at Matthew Knight Arena.
“We’re right where we want to be,” Ionescu said. “Mentally, we’re focused and dialed in and on the same page. We’re all trying to achieve the same goal, regardless of what our roles are on the team. I think that’s what ultimately makes our team really great is this year everyone is on board and wants to achieve and get to those goals that we have as a team.
“I’m excited to see what March brings us.”
Ionescu is the NCAA’s all-time leader with 17 triple-doubles — an accumulation of a double-digit number in three statistical categories (usually points, rebounds and assists) in a game — shattering the previous mark of 12 held on the men’s side by BYU’s Chris Collinsworth.
The 5-foot-11 junior guard is averaging 19.6 points, 7.5 rebounds and 8.1 assists this season.
Ionescu’s stellar play has caught the eye of Bryant’s daughters, who the former Los Angeles Lakers great brought into the locker room after Oregon’s 40-point win at Southern California this season. Two-time NBA most valuable player Steph Curry also is a fan, posting a picture of himself with the “walking Triple Dub” on social media after a Warriors game Ionescu attended in Portland.
“She’s brought fans to the women’s basketball game because of who she is and how she plays,” Graves said. “It’s funny, I’m on the All-American (selection) committee, and as we discussed players, a lot of these coaches use the first and last names of the different players that are being mentioned. With Sabrina it’s one name. It’s Sabrina. It’s like Madonna, just the one name. Pele for the older fans there.
“She’s brought that notoriety to our game and certainly to our program. That’s pretty special.”
‘That’s not how she’s wired’
Ionescu has been competitive since birth, when she beat her brother Eddy into the world by 18 minutes.
“I think part of it is from us, mostly from her brother,” said Dan Ionescu, the twins’ father. “They’ve always been pushing each other. Sabrina always had to compete with him with everything, not just basketball.”
Dan Ionescu spent a lot of hours working to make his limousine business a success. When he got home he usually just wanted to plop down on the couch and watch some television.
“The only way I could do that was to get them tired,” he said.
So Dan and his oldest son, Andrei, would play basketball at the local park with the twins. Once Sabrina and Eddy became more independent, and entrepreneurial, they started hustling unsuspecting pick-up game victims to benefit their Slurpee fund.
“We just got left out at the park to play all day, so we’re like, ‘OK, we have no money, so let’s go try and make some bets and see if we can get any,’” Ionescu said.
Eddy, after spending the past two years playing at City College of San Francisco, has moved to Eugene and is living with his sister while deciding where to play his final two years of eligibility.
Ionescu, who puts a lot of pressure on herself to play at a high level, has enjoyed spending time with her old wing man again this season.
“It’s so fun just going home. We can talk about the game, and he can make fun of me about stuff he’s seen in the game,” Ionescu said. “He definitely kind of lightens the mood up with that situation. We’re obviously best friends.”
After Oregon’s loss to Stanford in the Pac-12 Tournament championship game in Las Vegas, Ionescu said it would be good for her teammates to take some time off to recover from injuries, but she would be in the gym.
So much for taking things lightly.
“I called her from the road because I know she was in every day shooting and working out to some degree. I said, ‘Listen Sabrina, it’s OK to take two days off, it’s actually more beneficial for you,’” Graves said. “That’s not how she’s wired. There’s a reason she is who she is, and that’s one of them right there.”
During Oregon’s road trip to play St. Mary’s in November, the team visited Ionescu’s childhood home in Walnut Creek, Calif.
The Ducks were able to get a taste of her heritage. Both of Ionescu’s parents, Dan Ionescu and Liliana Blaj, came to the United States in 1990 after the Romanian Revolution. Andrei also was born in Bucharest.
“My family made a bunch of traditional Romanian food, and (Graves) went crazy,” Ionescu said. “He had like thirds. And then he walked back to the hotel.”
‘She brought light to our program’
Ionescu and Graves can poke fun at each other at a postgame news conference or push each other during an intense practice. She also has a strong relationship with Kelly Sopak, who coached the basketball prodigy from third grade through her senior season as an elite club and high school player.
The Cal Stars and Miramonte High coach said there was “something unique” about Ionescu from the beginning, but it was in eighth grade when her skill set started to catch up to her lanky frame.
“Eighth grade, when she changed and developed her shot, that’s when I knew she was going to be a special high school player,” said Sopak, whose daughter is Ionescu’s other roommate at Oregon. “When I got her in high school, I knew from her first game that she was destined to be a pro.”
Before developing into a coveted recruit, Ionescu’s mom traveled with her to Colorado Springs, Colo., for USA Basketball's Under-16 national team tryouts, even though she wasn’t invited.
Ionescu still made the team and has been a fixture in the program over the years.
“That’s probably like one of the best moments I’ve gone through basketball-wise,” she said. “I just remember everything that happened. How they would go into the dorms, and I was confused why there were dorms there. Then I realized that they were invited. So just all these emotions and feelings going on with learning what’s going on. How they had gotten fed while me and my mom had gone to restaurants to eat.
“I mean, just seeing my name keep making the list … I didn’t think I was going to make it.”
Ionescu has won three gold medals and been a part of two FIBA championship teams during her international career with USA Basketball.
Now the two-time Pac-12 player of the year is focused on getting Oregon into the Final Four spotlight for the first time.
“We knew she was going to be good, but let’s face it, she’s been a transcendent Duck,” Graves said of Ionescu, the highest ranked women’s basketball recruit in Oregon history. “She’s got great teammates around her, there’s no question, but she’s the straw that stirs that drink and the conductor that makes it all run. She’s really put our program on the national map.”
Assistant coach Jodie Berry said Ionescu’s impact really hits home when she watches her sons, Tyson and Kyson, acting out their hoops dreams in the driveway.
“When they’re playing in the street, they’re not imitating boys, they’re imitating Ducks,” Berry said. “Whether it’s the best players on the men’s or women’s team, they’re always imitating these guys. It’s Sabrina, it’s Satou (Sabally), it’s Maite (Cazorla), Erin Boley.”
It’s not the cross-over dribbles, no-look passes and game-winning shots that Sopak misses about the Sabrina experience.
It’s moments like the one at the summer basketball camp in Eugene.
“I miss her involvement with our community, her involvement with our fans. She brought light to our program,” Sopak said. “She really built a following of all the little kids in the community, and she’s continued to do that at Oregon. It’s really neat to see at Oregon, but it’s also one of the things I miss the most.
“I miss, after the game, little girls awkwardly standing there for her autograph or a picture. In women’s sports, I just don’t think you can emphasize that enough, how important that is for younger girls to have a role model like her that they see and want to aspire to be some day.”