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Sabrina Ionescu talks comebacks, growth, and much more with Rich Kleiman of Boardroom

New York Liberty v Phoenix Mercury Photo by Barry Gossage/NBAE via Getty Images

Life can be incredibly heavy. The weight of the world is on your shoulders, yet the weight never lessens. There’s always more pressure waiting for you and the worries begin to pile up. It can be a lonely, isolating experience at times. When you’re going through it, it’s hard to see a way out of it. If you’re able to make it out of the storm, the hope and brightness can help you build a more positive future for yourself and the community you’ve built.

Sabrina Ionescu has been through a lot in the past three years. She lost her friend and mentor in a tragic accident. Her dream of winning an NCAA National Championship to honor her friend and put a bow on a sparkling senior season at Oregon was dashed thanks to COVID-19. And her career in the WNBA didn’t start the way she wanted it to.

In a recent cover story with Boardroom, Ionescu spoke with Boardroom and 35 Ventures’ co-founder, Rich Kleiman. The conversation was wide ranging and covered a whole host of topics from her career to growing the game, and everything in between.

Los Angeles Sparks v New York Liberty Photo by Steven Freeman/NBAE via Getty Images

After being taken first overall in the 2020 WNBA Draft, Ionescu didn’t have a chance to get settled into her new home as the wubble called and she had to head down to Bradenton, Florida to begin her professional career. Thanks to COVID, there wasn’t an opportunity to properly transition from college to the pros. In her conversation with Kleiman, she mentioned she had to rely on the training staff from the University of Oregon as she trained in her garage as strength coaches were not allowed in the wubble. As that was happening, everything was changing for the Liberty. They had begun their transition to new governors, Joe and Clara Wu Tsai, and a new, first year head coach in Walt Hopkins. It was a new adventure for not only Ionescu, but the world around her.

If you ask most NBA or WNBA players, they’ll tell you their bubble experience was draining and isolating. Being away from their friends and families and having to be focused on their jobs 24 hours a day took a lot of them. When you combine that with the fact that the world outside of the bubble was as uncertain as ever, athletes had to bring a sense of joy to millions of people while they themselves didn’t have an opportunity to have their own peace of mind. Kleiman asked her about the culture shock of going from being toast of the town at Oregon to the unfamiliar world of the wubble:

“I think the main thing was just the fact that you were thrown into this world of just basketball and there was no escape. Everyone there that you ran into, you were competing against. I think that was the major difference. “You didn’t really have a safe space to just go and detach from the fact that you’re playing every other day, you’re practicing every other day. You’re seeing the players that you’re playing against. And for me, I’m so competitive. I didn’t want to hang out with the other teams and I didn’t want to go to the pool … I was there for business and wanting to win. I would just go back to my hotel room and stay there all day until practice or the game the next day.”

For a lot of people, the early days of COVID were incredibly disorienting. You couldn’t really go outside and be around your friends, peers, and community in the ways you normally were. You’re alone with your thoughts and didn’t have a chance to get away from all the stresses of the day and the new crises coronavirus wrought. Along with that, there was no separation between work and your personal life. Your job stayed with you 24 hours a day and when you’re tasked with saving one of the league’s original franchises, even more went on Ionescu’s shoulders.

Without the full trappings and amenities of the pros, Ionescu had to rely on her game in college as she moved up a level. She started to figure things out over her first couple of games in the wubble. However, it was an incredibly challenging experience for the then 22 year old. To complicate things, she sprained her ankle in her third game, which was the first serious injury she had ever experienced. It wound up having even more long lasting effects

Sitting out really sucks, and it sucks even more when you’re all alone while you’re out. Her new teammates were in Florida getting used to each other, Hopkins’ new system, and dealing with COVID. When the 2020 season ended, the Liberty revamped their roster and brought in Natasha Howard, Sami Whitcomb, and Betnijah Laney while selecting Michaela Onyenwere and Didi Richards. The team was finally back in New York after many years away and Ionescu wanted to In the interview, she revealed she received an injection in her ankle three weeks prior to the start of training camp as she rushed back to make her return. She spoke on her second season and said

“Looking back now, I learned a lot. I shouldn’t have come back and played as soon as I did, but I’ve never gone through an injury so I just thought “Alright, I’m in pain but this is kind of the growing process of getting your ankle used to that load again.” I wasn’t really sure how much pain and discomfort I should be feeling. Looking back, I shouldn’t have played as early as I did and through as much pain as I did. It was hard dealing with a lot of people that thought I wasn’t playing [like a star] because I wasn’t capable.”

Even though she was compromised, she still finished third in the WNBA in assists in 2021 as she played in 30 of the team’s 32 regular season games plus the playoffs against the Phoenix Mercury.

The thing about pressure is it causes you to make decisions that may not be the best for you long term. You feel that responsibility to step up for those around you even when you yourself are not at your best. You try to work through the pain and stress because you feel the need to be out there no matter what.

Part of her rehab was expanding her workouts to doing new activities beyond basketball like yoga, swimming, and other sports along with doing her treatments. The recovery time allowed her new, exciting ways to get better while preparing for her comeback season in 2022.

As she spoke about her rehab and recovery, I thought back to a fascinating story from a few years ago. In 2019, ESPN’s Baxter Holmes wrote about the wave of injuries affecting youth basketball players. The story discusses the injuries young basketball players have suffered as a result of playing too much hoops without proper breaks and the consequences it had for boys and girls. In his reporting, he found that players overexerted themselves, which led to serious injuries you see in older players with decades of pro experiences. It’s an incredibly worthwhile story and this part stood out:

Their conclusion: Those who were highly specialized in one sport (at the exclusion of other sports) and played it year-round were at a significantly higher risk for serious overuse injuries, such as bone and cartilage injuries and ligament injuries. How much higher of a risk? About 125%.

There’s something to be said for giving yourself a break. Everyone wants to get better at their craft, but if you push yourself too hard and for extended periods without taking a timeout, all those gains you made will be wiped out. You put extra strain on yourself physically and mentally and when it’s time to get to work, you can’t meet the high standard you’ve set for yourself. As Ionescu aptly put it, “sometimes more isn’t always the answer.”

Summer Renaissance

2022 WNBA Skills Challenge & MTN DEW 3-Pt Contest Photo by Kena Krutsinger/NBAE via Getty Images

2022 has been a return to excellence for Ionescu. She was named to her first All Star team and is a good bet to be named to the All WNBA first team when awards are announced. In the interview, she spoke of the advice and support Candace Parker gave her during a game in 2021. It’s something we learned about during the All Star festivities in Chicago this summer

The great thing about having stewards of the game like Parker, Sylvia Fowles, and Sue Bird is that they represent the game with pride and lay the groundwork for the next generation of hoopers to succeed. They’ve been excellent for decades and have inspired boys and girls around the world to play the game of basketball.

Ionescu has been sensational for the Liberty and has the potential to be a star that leads the next generation of the WNBA. She’s already set tons of records, plays with the fire you want from your franchise player, and can get even better. This offseason will be her first in a while where she’s not rehabbing an injury so she can just train and prepare for 2023. She’ll likely get a chance to make the United States women’s team in FIBA competition in September, which would give her another opportunity to test her skills against some of the world’s best and soak up some more game as well.

The future

New York Liberty v Chicago Sky - Game One Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images

With the on court success, Ionescu has felt greater comfort in working with brands. They stayed with her during her injury battles, and now that she’s playing to her potential, she has the potential to become an even bigger star. She mentioned to Kleiman that the WNBA has been gaining more visibility, grown more fans, and the looming expansion will help the game grow even more. Brands like Nike have been investing in the next generation of players and other major companies like Xbox have partnered with the WNBA to help grow the game as well. Women’s sports have been making steady gains in recent years and

The late stages of game one vs. the Chicago Sky were clutch time, and like the advertisement said, it’s go time

The Liberty have a chance to pull off a historic upset and dethrone the champs in Brooklyn, and it would be a crowning achievement for a player and franchise that has fought back from so much adversity. Ionescu suffered personal and professional setbacks over the past few years, but has continued to fight and work hard to succeed. With Ionescu leading the way on and off the court, New York basketball will have the superstar it needs and deserves to inspire fans for many years to come.