Video: Sabrina Ionescu - National Player of the Year
Larkey Park in suburban Walnut Creek, Calif., is an unlikely source for one of America's best basketball players.
It's purely suburban, surrounded by trees and grass, and populated by picnicking families, tennis players and swimmers. There are a few basketball courts, but they don't get the run of the 24-hour courts down the road in San Ramon, or the go-to-war beast mode on Oakland's asphalt playgrounds.
"The guys would kick me off because I wore a Tweety Bird T-shirt," said Sabrina Ionescu
, the MaxPreps 2015-16 Girls Basketball Player of the Year. "But I didn't leave. I played anybody who would show up. We would get there in the morning and stay all day."
And Ionescu wasn't happy unless she figured out a way to win, even playing against her twin brother or the older guys at Larkey Park.
"In any sport, in any game, I always wanted to be first. Second wasn't good enough."
Her teammate at Miramonte (Orinda, Calif.)
, sophomore Clair Steele
, sees that fire in every practice.
"Scrimmages are like games," she said. "It's not about scoring for Sabrina, it's about winning."
And Ionescu lets her teammates know what's important, a vital role in the Matadors finishing 12th in the MaxPreps Xcellent 25 National Girls Basketball Rankings presented by the Army National Guard.
"It takes a while for players to get used to a teammate demanding excellence," said Miramonte coach Kelly Sopak, who also coaches Sabrina on the Cal Stars' AAU team. "They know that if they make shots Sabrina will get them the ball. If they run the floor, she will get them the ball. But if they don't make shots and don't run the floor, they are not getting the ball – and she will likely let them know why.
"It is always about winning," he added. "Her teammates understand that, and her attitude is contagious."
"She pushes us to work our hardest on defense," Steele said. "She sets an example for us – she's the true definition of a leader."
Oh, and she can play a little too. She averaged 28.5 points, 8.3 rebounds, 9.7 assists and 5.5 steals per game for 32-1 Miramonte, and then set a scoring record in the McDonald's All-American Game just four days after the California state championship game – which Miramonte lost to No. 9 Chaminade after overcoming a 20-point deficit. Oh, and she had a triple-double in that one.
"I've had major college coaches tell me that when she plays the game, it looks like she's playing chess and everyone else is playing checkers," Sopak said.
That high basketball IQ made its presence known on the national scene when Ionescu came out of nowhere – actually, out of a field of 135 who were trying out – to make the 2013 USA Basketball U-16 team. She was one of the crowd, a slender girl who few had ever heard of, but survived cut after cut.
"I went, I practiced, I showed up on time and then I would look to see if my number was posted (which meant she hadn't been cut). I probably cried every time because I was so nervous," Ionescu said.
But she made that USA Basketball team, and the next, and now owns two international gold medals to go along with all of the other honors and awards. But one thing she hasn't done is decide on which college she's going to attend. She confirms it's down to Cal, Oregon and Oregon State, but it's been that way since before the season – and she remains the only Top 10 player who has yet to commit.
"I was not ready (to decide) in November," Ionescu said. "I had other things to worry about."
And even now, she's not setting a date.
"When I come to a conclusion, I'll come to a conclusion."
That conclusion will make one college head coach very happy, just as her four years at Miramonte made Sopak very happy.
"People ask me if I'm going to miss Sabrina and of course I say ‘Yes,'" said Sopak. "But not for the reasons they think. So many young players adore her, and not just the local kids – it's everywhere we go. I'm going to miss the fans seeking to get a picture with her … and I might miss having the best player on the floor every night."
And the best player from Larkey Park as well.Past MaxPreps National Players of the Year
2015 - Ali Patberg, Columbus North (Ind.)
2014 - A'ja Wilson, Heathwood Hall Episcopal (Columbia, S.C.)
2013 - Diamond DeShields, Norcross (Ga.)
2012 - Breanna Stewart, Cicero-North Syracuse (Cicero, N.Y.)
2011 - Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis, Mater Dei (Santa Ana, Calif.)
2010 - Chiney Ogwumike, Cy-Fair (Cypress, Texas)
2009 - Skylar Diggins, South Bend Washington (Ind.)
2008 - Nneka Ogwumike, Cy-Fair (Cypress, Texas)
2007 - Maya Moore, Collins Hill (Suwanee, Ga.)
2006 - Jacki Gemelos, St. Mary's (Stockton, Calif.)