Sabrina Ionescu just wanted to play basketball. She started her foray into the sport at 3 years old by “just throwing the ball around.” From there she gained experience playing on her brothers’ 10-foot hoop. In middle school, she would bring her sneakers with her as she watched twin brother Eddy play on the boys’ team, not only because the school didn’t field a girls’ program, but because the boys’ team would need extra bodies from time to time.
One game Ionescu was shoved in the back by an opponent while going up for a layup; the player—and his mother who came on the court in protest—were ejected as Ionescu stood up, brushed it off and clapped at the foul call.
Opposing preteens unfortunately weren’t the only ones against a girl playing on a boys’ team. Ionescu’s middle school told her she “should be playing with dolls,” but instead, she went out and recruited classmates to form a girls’ team.
Unfortunately, Ionescu’s story is all-too-common. Whether it’s a lack of resources, support, role models or opportunity, girls are dropping out of sports at twice the rate of boys by the age of 14. In an effort to further promote equality in sports while empowering young girls to continue their athletic endeavors, Ionescu, Elena Delle Donne, Swin Cash, Sam Mewis, Arike Ogunbowale and Amy Rodriguez teamed up with Dick’s Sporting Goods and the Dick’s Sporting Goods Foundation to provide 15,000 gifts of sports equipment to youth athletes across the country.
“Something as small as just gear and even showing a level of giving, importance and value, and demonstrating acts of kindness can sometimes be a difference in helping girls continue to stick with it and pursue their dreams because of the representation and value other people see in them,” said Ionescu, a second-year guard with the New York Liberty. “From a young age if they’re able to be aware of that, see that and feel that, they can 100% be more empowered to stick with it and try to prove everyone who believes in them right instead of always trying to prove people wrong.”
In order to reach youth athletes around the country, the Dick’s Sporting Goods Foundation Sports Matter Giving Truck is hitting the road this summer on an eight-city tour throughout July with stops in Boston, Philadelphia, Washington D.C., Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Indianapolis, Kansas City and Knoxville.
The truck has provided 20,000 gifts of sports equipment across 16 U.S. cities on two previous tours in December 2020 and March 2021.
“A lot of people talk about how they want to help and how they want to make a difference but when you actually do it and see how young girls and peoples’ lives are changing, it’s really rewarding,” said Ionescu, who recently became an ambassador with Kevin Durant’s Thirty Five Ventures and its sports business media network Boardroom.
Growing up in the Bay Area, Ionescu idolized Golden State Warriors’ guard Stephen Curry. As she began to create her own headlines, including setting the NCAA Division I record for career triple-doubles (for men and women) while at the University of Oregon, she befriended the late Kobe Bryant, current Brooklyn Nets head coach Steve Nash, and current San Antonio Spurs assistant Becky Hammon.
It was through these experiences and relationships that the future No. 1 overall selection in the 2020 WNBA Draft understood the importance of being supported by the right people who wanted to see her succeed. The 23-year-old is doing her best on and off the court to continue to spread their inclusive and supportive philosophy, especially as a role model for young girls.
“I’m playing for more than just myself,” Ionescu said. “I go in every day, do my job and be the best basketball player I can be, but it definitely involves more than that—it’s inspiring the next generation of young girls who have someone to look up to and idolize and be able to see what I’m doing and what a lot of the other women in this day and age in sports are doing and want to be like them.”
Furthering the awareness and support for women’s sports and equality has grown in recent years. Brands like Amazon, Budweiser, Google, Nike and AT&T have hitched their wagons to the WNBA, NWSL and USWNT, while media outlets including Just Women’s Sports, Togethxr, On Her Turf and The Gist are rising to prominence covering and promoting women’s sports.
Yet despite these strides, much work is still to be done. The inequalities between men’s and women’s athletics are still prevalent as evident by the difference in weight room facilities and amenities that came to light at the NCAA men’s and women’s basketball tournaments, drawing reaction and outrage from basketball stars across the NBA and WNBA including Ionescu, Curry, CJ McCollum, Ja Morant, A’ja Wilson and Kyrie Irving.
“As those women there felt empowered to talk about those things, it brings awareness to everyone and those people are held accountable that need to be held accountable and it’s not swept under the rug,” Ionescu said. “You had everyone talking about that from college basketball players to NBA players to people of all walks of life saying how that wasn’t acceptable and how they don’t want their kids to go through something like that.
“It’s really awesome seeing change being made, but also understanding there’s a lot more that still needs to be done in the first place.”