Michael Jordan and Shaquille O’Neal were among the basketball royalty invited to eulogize Kobe Bryant during a memorial service on Monday in Los Angeles.
Sabrina Ionescu, the sport’s reigning queen, fit right in as much more than just a face in the crowd at Staples Center.
Oregon’s superstar spoke eloquently about her friend and mentor, Bryant, and his daughter Gianna, who were among the nine victims killed on Jan. 26 in a helicopter crash.
Ionescu has brought Bryant’s “Mamba mentality” to the women’s game while leading the Ducks’ rise from Pac-12 also-ran to national championship contender.
“Growing up, I only knew one way to play the game of basketball — fierce, with obsessive focus,” Ionescu said. “I was unapologetically competitive. I wanted to be the best. I loved the work, even when it was hard, especially if it was hard. I knew I was different, that my drive was different.
“I grew up watching Kobe game after game, ring after ring, living his greatness without apology.”
Bryant brought Gianna to Oregon’s road game at USC last season. Gianna was a rising star on the Amateur Athletic Union circuit who dreamed of playing for UConn and carrying on her dad’s legacy on the court.
Ionescu stayed in regular contact with Bryant and worked out twice with Gianna over the summer.
“If I represented the present of the women’s game, Gigi was the future,” Ionescu said. “And Kobe knew it. So we decided to build a future together.”
The crowd laughed when Ionescu shared a story of Gigi aggressively stepping over a player on the court, and Bryant wondering aloud, ‘Where did she learn that?' ”
Ionescu is the face of college basketball this season, regardless of gender.
The senior point guard extended her NCAA record for triple-doubles to 26 and became the first player to reach 2,000 points, 1,000 assists and 1,000 rebounds in a career during No. 3 Oregon's 74-66 victory at No. 4 Stanford on Monday night. Ionescu finished with 21 points, 12 assists and 12 rebounds to help the Ducks clinch at least a share of their third consecutive Pac-12 championship.
“I wanted to be a part of the generation that changed basketball for Gigi and her teammates,” Ionescu said. “Where being born female didn’t mean being born behind. Where greatness wasn’t divided by gender.
“You have too much to give to stay silent. That’s what (Bryant) said, that’s what he believed, that’s what he lived through Gigi, through me, through his investment in women’s basketball. That was his next great act — (being) a girl dad.”
Ionescu said she was feeling the weight of great expectations after putting the WNBA on hold to help the Ducks take care of the “unfinished business” of cutting down the nets at the Final Four.
Bryant helped her steer through the choppy seas of a long season.
“His vision for others is always greater than what they imagine for themselves,” Ionescu said. “His vision for me was way bigger than my own. More importantly, he didn’t just show up in my life and leave. He stayed.”
Bryant won’t be forgotten. Certainly not by Ionescu, who sent the Los Angeles Lakers legend a final text:
“I miss you. May you rest in peace my good friend.”
Follow Ryan Thorburn on Twitter @RGDuckFootball and email questions to email@example.com. For more Oregon sports coverage, visit DuckSports.com.