As thousands of people piled into the Staples Center in Los Angeles on Feb. 24 to honor the late Kobe Bryant and his daughter, Gianna, those close to Kobe came to the podium to speak about what kind of impact this star made on them. We saw Michael Jordan, Jimmy Kimmel, Diana Taurasi and of course his wife, Vanessa. Another person who came up to the podium was someone Kobe took a liking to.

That was Oregon’s star women’s basketball player, Sabrina Ionescu.

As tears formed in her eyes, not only did she speak with gratitude about her friendship with Kobe, but in sorrow of what could have been with Gianna and her teammates.

“I wanted to be the generation that changed basketball for GiGi and her teammates,” Ionescu said at the memorial service. “Where being born female didn’t mean being born behind.”

Ionescu has left her mark on the college basketball world while leading the Oregon Ducks during her senior season. Since she first stepped on the floor of Matthew Knight Arena, she has continued to make a bigger impact. Ionescu became a star of her own, scoring over 2,500 points in her career. She even was voted as Associated Press women’s player of the year this season.

Now that the coronavirus pandemic has ended her career with the Ducks prematurely, before they had a chance to try to win a national championship, Ionescu looks into the next chapter of her story. Oregonians are beaming with pride to see what she will accomplish in the rest of the world.

Next month the WNBA will have its yearly draft in New York City, and with Ionescu right alongside her teammates Satou Sabally and Ruthy Hebard, Oregon is being represented quite well. Many people have Ionescu as a lock to be the first pick. Thus many people don’t see her getting past the New York Liberty.

“With her multidimensional game — she averages 17.1 points, 8.6 rebounds and 8.7 assists — name recognition and marketing potential, she should be a good fit in the Big Apple,” ESPN writer Mechelle Voepel said in her mock draft.

Ionescu will be highly sought after by different brands to use her name, image and likeness. Her No. 20 Oregon jersey was one of the most popular in sales the past couple of years.

As she enters her professional career, Ionescu will even have a larger podium to pursue other avenues. Not only will she be the face of different brands that we see daily, but her professional career can also jump-start a bigger conversation.

Gender equality in sports.

During the Ducks’ run in the NCAA tournament last season, Ionescu shared mutual feelings with WNBA star Breanna Stewart when people were slighting the women’s tournament over the men’s event.

After the U.S. women’s national team won the women’s World Cup, Ionescu tweeted out in support of the team who then began the fight of the indifference in pay they face compared to their male counterparts.

As a lot awaits her on the horizon, Ionescu will make an impact as someone who became nationally known due to her success at the University of Oregon. Those feelings are reciprocated, especially in a recent post on Instagram. Though saddened by the passing of her mentor, and the abrupt ending of her senior year, Ionescu expressed gratitude for her experiences.

“To my teammates, coaches, fans, and the University of Oregon, thank you for providing the best four years of my life,” Ioenscu wrote. “Although our unfinished business will remain just that, I have been blessed to have been a part of this journey. Thank you for all the memories that I will forever hold close to my heart. DUCK NATION, THANK YOU!!”

Now that college will be in her rearview mirror, Ionescu is set to continue to set the basketball world on fire. Where her career trajectory will be, well, I don’t have a crystal ball for that.

However, what most sports fans will be able to appreciate is that once Ionescu plays in the WNBA, she ventures into business, and fights for gender equality in sports, they will remember where it truly began. Her star was born right there in Eugene, and she will make Oregonian sport fans proud for years to come.

Corey Kirk is the Baker City Herald’s sports editor.

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