Ionescu Hosts Youth Camp In Eugene
EUGENE, Ore. — She was a Bay Area kid who found stardom in the Pacific Northwest, before taking her game to the bright lights of New York City.
Sabrina Ionescu's star shines on an international level at this point. The 24-year old could have hosted her first youth basketball camp pretty much anywhere she wanted. She chose the place where she became the national college player of the year.
Ionescu was back in Eugene with friends and family on Sunday, to host the first edition of what she intends to be an annual camp for local youth.
"I definitely want to start spreading it out to the Bay Area, New York — areas where I play that mean a lot to me, which might have underserved communities that don't have camps," Ionescu said. "But this was gonna be the first camp that I had, no question. I watched these kids grow up at my games, so I definitely wanted to give back to them."
The former three-time Pac-12 player of the year welcomed a total of 250 kids between fourth grade and eighth grade to a pair of three-hour sessions Sunday at the Kidsports Fieldhouse on Amazon Parkway. A few wore New York Liberty jerseys bearing Ionescu's name and iconic No. 20, and many more attended in the green Oregon jersey Ionescu wore in becoming the first player in NCAA history — male or female — with career totals of 2,000 points, 1,000 rebounds and 1,000 assists.
"I think it's great she came back," said Andy Price, whose daughter Elsa, 9, participated in Sunday's morning session. "She means a lot to the young athletes here, including my daughter. We're always trying to find ways for her to have role models to look up to, and I appreciate that there's a female athlete who's so well-respected here in this community."
Campers in attendance Sunday rotated through stations focused on ball-handling, shooting and finishing. The camp was staffed by local high school players, as well as volunteers from Kidsports and friends and family of Ionescu, including her twin brother Eddy, a former UO men's player, and her boyfriend, former UO football star Hroniss Grasu.
While the rest of the staffers manned specific spots in the gym, Ionescu rotated throughout the facility, jumping into drills and encouraging the campers. Sunday's camp was originally to be held in January before being delayed by the pandemic, but Ionescu made sure to get it re-scheduled before she headed to training camp with the Liberty in three weeks.
"Just seeing the expressions on their faces when I walked in and getting high-fives, it's priceless, and why I wanted to make sure I did it before the season started so I could be here in person," she said. "They showed up to my games and cheered for me, so I wanted to make sure I could cheer for them."
Another parent on hand Sunday, Jennifer Kalata, said Ionescu was an "idol" to her daughter, Emerson, whose birthday wish was to one day meet Ionescu.
"Seeing someone excel the way she has, it changes my daughter's mindset — she thinks the sky's the limit," Kalata said. "It's changed the whole dynamic of sports (for local kids), has them totally interested in sports and going to college sporting events. And that expands beyond the court as well. It just motivates them to give 100 percent, no matter what they're doing."
Price said his younger son would have attended Sunday's camp had he been old enough. The morning session was attended primarily by girls, but a couple of dozen boys as well.
Price and his family have attended both men's and women's games at Oregon for several years, he said. He recalled sparse crowds for women's games just a few years ago, and the explosion of attention the program garnered during Ionescu's career.
"Four years earlier, you could have thrown your bingo ticket and not hit a single person," Price said. "And in four years it just transformed, and it was amazing.
"It's great for my daughter because she can look at going to Oregon and playing at Oregon as a dream, and playing in a big arena filled with fans. Where four years before that, it wasn't something that looked cool. We'd go to the men's games and they'd be packed and exciting, this great atmosphere. Sabrina played a big role in changing that, but Ruthy (Hebard) and Satou (Sabally) too, all of them. It's great, because my daughter has something to aspire to and dream about."
Sunday's camp served to benefit the Kidsports Emerald Scholarship Fund, which helps remove financial barriers for low-income families. Kidsports' executive director is Bev Smith, herself an all-time great player in UO women's basketball history, who watched Ionescu's Oregon career up close.
"It means the world to these kids just to be in the same facility with her, and to have her spend so much time with them and make it personal," Smith said. "This is what it's all about, is people giving back. I hope what these kids see, both the boys and girls in here playing hard, is that she's a really humble, ordinary person doing extraordinary things because of her commitment to the game of basketball, because of her commitment to her studies — she got a master's degree — and because of the character she has.
"That's as important as anything. Not all of these kids are going to go play in the WNBA, or the NBA. But if you can take after the qualities you see in someone like her, you can go a long way in your life."