'It does eat at you': How Sabrina Ionescu learned to embrace rehab

Finding new ways to reinforce her foundation and get better

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Sabrina Ionescu addressed reporters on Wednesday. Screenshot via Zoom

Before the 2020 WNBA season began, Sabrina Ionescu made it clear that she wanted to struggle. She even admitted that the prospect of being uncomfortable in her first professional season was something she was looking forward to. She was excited.

In 2020 she did indeed struggle, but maybe not in the way that she had imagined. Who would have predicted that Ionescu’s struggles would mostly take place outside of Bradenton, Florida? A season-ending third-degree ankle sprain during her third professional game against the Atlanta Dream sent her to New York briefly and then back to her native California to rehab and recover.

In reliving the moment from over two months ago, Ionescu told reporters on Wednesday that all she wanted to do was get her ankle wrapped up and finish the game.

“Because we would have won that game,” she said. “I don’t know whoever was watching, you guys know, we were going on a run. I know we would have won that game. So I think that was kind of my first instinct and was like okay, I'm not going to show them I’m hurt. I want to come back and play.”

Once she understood her new reality that included not returning to the #wubble to compete with her team, it was time to take a step back, learn about herself, and accept and embrace a situation she’s never experienced before. Could she escape the FOMO? How would she cope? And was there any silver lining to missing most of her first season in the WNBA?

I’m not sure anyone ever escapes FOMO, instead finding meaningful ways to cope with it. But for Ionescu, receiving text messages from teammates that said “wow, it would really help if you were here” and “you would have helped a lot in a lot of these situations” was uncomfortable. Also, not being able to honor Breonna Taylor by wearing her name three times a week or not being able to experience and feel the solidarity and unity in a candle-lit vigil organized by her own team was frustrating.

But, she adjusted and put her own internal emotions and competitiveness aside, learning how to compartmentalize. On the court, it was about being the best virtual teammate she could be. How could she help her teammates without actually being there?

She responded and stayed engaged. She didn’t shy away from providing her teammates and coaches with what she thought. She’d text head coach Walt Hopkins at halftime, typing to him something she saw from a bird’s eye view rather than from the sideline. One of those recommendations occurred on August 25 in the Liberty’s second meeting against the Chicago Sky, a meeting that the team had won.

“I was watching actually that Chicago game that, you know, we had won, and I was telling him some things that I saw, and then we ended up winning,” she said. “So I told him that I took that win from back home.”

On the social justice organizing front, Ionescu realized that staying engaged and always supporting teammates carries weight. Just because her involvement wasn’t seen didn’t mean it wasn’t heard. Her teammates heard her. Continuing to text and offer support was enough.

Sabrina Ionescu #20 of the New York Liberty drives to the basket against the Seattle Storm on July 25, 2020 at Feld Entertainment Center in Palmetto, Florida. Photo by Stephen Gosling/NBAE via GettyImages.

But embracing FOMO is easier said than done. While she’d watch her former teammates Satou Sabally and Ruthy Hebard when she could, Ionescu had to detach not only to be the best teammate she could be, but to be kind to herself as well.

But, that didn’t mean turning away from basketball completely, but rather quite the opposite. In the most Sabrina way possible, she’d turn off the WNBA and watch the NBA instead. For her, watching the W meant internalizing her disappointment, and that got her nowhere.

“So I know there were a few times where I was like, ‘Okay, I'm not going to watch the WNBA right now. I’ll watch the NBA tonight.’ And then I'll come back to the WNBA when a big game is on just to try and detach a little bit from that competitiveness because it does eat at you.”

Amid the angst caused by missing out, Ionescu had her tribe by her side. If it was talking to newly hired Brooklyn Nets head coach Steve Nash every day during her short-lived stay at IMG Academy, FaceTiming Steph Curry after her first game or even being able to turn to LA Laker great Pau Gasol and her family in California, Ionescu recognized that maintaining communication with those who care about her most builds resilience and is mental medicine going into her own rehab.

According to an interview with Michael Grady of YES, Ionescu’s even made a new friend in Naomi Osaka. Watching her latest US Open championship run was also a healthy way that she could detach from what she was missing in Bradenton.

In addition to building out her support system and understanding her own coping mechanisms, Ionescu shared some of the silver linings of her situation. She started her Wednesday morning with a new activity: yoga and pilates. And then what followed was the standard: cardio, a lift, and a basketball workout.

Ionescu, who’s even competitive in an activity like yoga, joked that during her morning class outdoors there was someone who wasn’t properly in a plank position. In her words, he was “cheating.”

“That doesn't count,” she said. “Yeah, it's got to be on your hip, right? Like you can't leverage, like, come on. On a plank, side plank, hands on the hip or up. You can't have it on the ground. So yeah, I was watching. Maybe they weren't, but I was watching.”

Incorporating new activities like yoga will in turn guide Ionescu as she continues to figure out “this foundation” of where she wants her career to go. That begins with proper nutrition and how she needs to train and prepare to be an elite WNBA player.

“I really have a very full day and week of just getting my body and everything right,” she said. “And so it's kind of been a blessing in disguise because I'm able to really focus on things that I never focused on before.” 

That preparation includes potentially a short stint overseas. Sabina noted to reporters that she’s still weighing her options and she’s talking to teams who she’d been in discussion with before the 2020 WNBA season began. But if she does play, it will be in January or February for a European team. She wouldn’t be going for the money, however, although the financial compensation overseas is still — amid new CBA and all— incomparable.

Ionescu would make the trip to ensure that she doesn’t go a year without playing competitive 5-on-5 basketball. While she’s training every day in California, she’s continuing to social distance and doesn’t have access to formidable opponents or even referees.

If going abroad doesn’t work out, she’ll continue to train for the 2021 WNBA season, which could include workouts with some of New York’s coaches. Walt Hopkins got to know Layshia Clarendon as well as he did when she decided to stay stateside rather than going overseas. The two trained together. (Although Hopkins might be overseas himself.)

However Ionescu can train, she will. She understands that in 2021 expectations won’t only be higher for her, but for her entire team. She noted that the Liberty have a group of young players who have a “year under their belt.”

“[They have] to be a lot better than they were this year, because you have to keep getting better every single season, every single year. And so I'm obviously going to hold myself to that standard.”

Pressure, that’s how Ionescu thrives. But pressure is how she learns as well. She had to experience how to cope with even more loss. When it’s all said and done, however, she doesn’t see her journey to only be about her. And yes, while she joked that she wants her jersey sales to reach number one in years to come, she’s thankful for the community that has continued to embrace her. And she’ll continue to give back what they’ve given her during the most trying year of her life.

“Because, you know, they inspire me, just as I inspire them.”