NCAA Preseason Basketball

FILE - In this Sept. 30, 2019, file photo, Baylor women's coach Kim Mulkey, center, talks with players during the NCAA college basketball team's practice in Waco, Texas. The NCAA Division I Council on Wednesday, June 17, 2020, approved a plan to allow college basketball players to start working with their coaches for the first time since the pandemic wiped out March Madness. The summer access period for men's and women's players will begin July 20. (Jerry Larson/Waco Tribune-Herald via AP, File)

I must admit that I haven’t always been a fervent fan of women’s college hoops or the WNBA — something as a female sports journalist I am reluctant and embarrassed by. 

But this year’s potential NCAAW tournament really excited me. I’ve always respected the women’s game because those girls can shoot and guard like nobody’s business. Now throw Oregon guard Sabrina Ionescu into the mix, and I’m hooked.

She has always been great, from being named the national player of the year by both USA Today and Maxpreps after her high school senior season to bringing the first Naismith Award to Eugene, Oregon. 

And this — this was her year.

Ionescu wrapped up January by passing The Glove (Gary Payton), whose last name looked so fly on the back of his Seattle SuperSonics jersey that my mom and dad decided I should be his namesake, as the Pac-12’s all-time assist leader in both men’s and women’s basketball. 

The road to the national championship seemed clear and well within reach. But then, the unthinkable happened.

Jan. 26, 2020. Kobe and Gianna Bryant were two of nine people killed in a helicopter crash in Calabasas, California. 

Ever since the two sat courtside at a Ducks game the year before, Ionescu and the Bryants were extremely close. The past, present and future of elite basketball formed a mentor-mentee relationship that strengthened the love and understanding of the game for all those involved. 

Kobe instilled within Ionescu his Mamba mentality, texting back and forth with her after big games, sending pointers and wise words of encouragement through the airwaves. Ionescu’s tenacity on the court also inspired Gianna. While Kobe taught Ionescu his stepback, she taught Gianna what it takes to be the greatest women’s collegiate basketball player of all time.

But after Jan. 26, 2020, they were gone. Kobe Bryant — The Black Mamba, an invincible, untouchable basketball giant — lost. The women’s game lost its greatest ally and believer that day. And Gianna. Gianna would never get to play college ball. She’d never be on a WNBA roster.

Ionescu lost a mentor and a mentee that day. But most importantly, she lost two of her dearest friends.

Take a moment to imagine what that would be like — to sit on one of the world’s biggest stages and have the loftiest expectations. Now, your rock, your idol, is gone. Would you have the strength to carry on? I’d imagine the basketball would feel like it weighed a hundred pounds in my trembling hands if it were me instead of her.

But Ionescu felt she had only one choice, and it was not to cower under the hot lights, but to live out Kobe’s legacy.

“You will forever live through me, and be watching over me every step of the way, because you have the best seat in the house,” she said in an Instagram post.

And so Ionescu did. She started February with a big win over NCAAW royalty. After dropping 10 points, grabbing nine rebounds and recording nine assists, Ionescu and the then-No. 3 Ducks handed then-No.4 UConn its worst home loss since 2005. 

On Feb. 24 (2/24), regarded as Gigi (2) and Kobe (24) day, Ionescu spoke at their celebration of life. She stood tall and strong at the Staples Center in Los Angeles, recounting her friendship with the Bryants and delivering a call to action for others to magnify and keep shining their light.

Later that afternoon, Ionescu became the first NCAA player — male or female — ever to amass 2,000 career points (2,562), 1,000 career rebounds (1,040) and 1,000 career assists (1,091). While being interviewed after the game, she said hitting that milestone on 2/24 made it that much sweeter.

And after all of that, her senior season was cut short by the coronavirus pandemic, along with every other spring and winter college athlete.

“This year has been the toughest year of my life, and I wasn’t expecting to have to end my senior year like this,” Ionescu said on Instagram.

She thanked Oregon for four great years and signed off. “20, out.”

Instead of watching Ionescu take care of “unfinished business,” which she cited when announcing that she’d stay in college for her senior season, sports — and the rest of the world — were put on lockdown in March. 

Basketball fans everywhere should have rejoiced at the sight of green and yellow confetti falling at the buzzer of the national championship game for Ionescu, Kobe and Gianna. Instead, they were in quarantine. 

I miss life pre-pandemic. I miss sports. I miss basketball. I miss watching Ionescu. And I miss Kobe. 

Follow Payton on Twitter @petitus25 and contact her at [email protected]

Payton Titus is a sports writer covering softball this season. She has also written for Swimming World Magazine, Inside the Gators and Chomp Talk.