June 13, 2024 

What the Team USA selections mean to Sabrina Ionescu and Breanna Stewart

How the duo learned they made the U.S. team that will compete in Paris

NEW YORK — When Sabrina Ionescu walked into a banquet room at the New York Liberty’s hotel in Atlanta on June 5, she thought she was doing an internal interview for the Liberty’s All-Access YouTube series “Liberty Unlocked” about her team returning to the Commissioner’s Cup championship game. 

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Breanna Stewart was told the same thing. While it was an off day for the players after flying into Atlanta the night before their Thursday game against the Dream, both Stewart and Ionescu agreed to the ominous interview they were asked to do.

Lo and behold, the two Liberty stars were punked that day and got an in-person surprise. USA Basketball CEO Jim Tooley was waiting there in the hotel meeting room to tell the players that they had made the 2024 Olympic roster, and he presented them with their official Team USA Paris Olympics red, white and navy-blue jerseys.

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“I walk in and I see all the cameras,” Stewart told reporters. “I see [Liberty general manager] Jonathan [Kolb], I see Jim Tooley, and I’m like what kind of All-Access is this right now?”

Ionescu felt like she was getting engaged again. It felt like a proposal. When her now-husband Hroniss Grasu proposed to her, it was also a surprise. He fooled her into thinking she had a GQ photo shoot to attend instead. When she saw Tooley standing there with her jersey, she zoned out in complete shock. She didn’t really remember what he had said to her, but she assumed he was asking her to be on the team.

That whole “gotcha” moment was quite serendipitous for the Liberty’s first-time Olympian. 

“I was in total shock,” Ionescu said. “Just because literally that morning Stewie and I were talking, and she was like, ‘Yeah, I heard like, end of June, early July.’ And so it was like it almost just came to life because we were just talking about it. So it definitely, completely caught me off guard.” 

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After Ionescu hugged Tooley, she sniffled and wiped her eyes. She told reporters Wednesday that she isn’t often surprised, and her emotions were as raw as they could be. Being an Olympian has been something that Ionescu has dreamed about since she was a kid. She religiously watched the Olympics and even had her phone background as the Olympic rings. She posted a video montage to her Instagram about how long she’s been in the USA Basketball system, dating back to her U16 days, a team she wasn’t even invited to compete to be on. She sent in an application and was one of the rare cases where a self-selected player made the team. 

“I mean, I’m really happy for Sab,” Stewart told reporters Wednesday. “Obviously for her to be going to her first Olympics, something she definitely deserves. She’s been in the USA pipeline for a long time and to see her get emotional like that, you don’t see often. You know that it really means a lot, and I’m proud of her. I’m excited to kind of be a part of her first Olympics.”

While Stewart’s emotions weren’t as dramatic, she too was still elated to be chosen for another Olympics, her third. It has been incredibly clear that Stewart would be going to Paris after all the marketing and promotion she’s done in the lead up to the Games. Between the segments she did during the offseason with Kelly Clarkson on her daytime talkshow and an appearance at the Team USA media summit in April, the writing has been on the wall for Stewart to be on the 2024 USA Olympic team for a long, long time. 

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Breanna Stewart celebrates getting gold at the 2022 World Cup in Sydney, Australia, in 2022. (Photo credit: Ned Dishman | USA Basketball)

Although the Games aren’t as shiny and new for Stewart as it is for Ionescu, there will be something different in Paris that the now-three-time Olympian is looking forward to. “What I’m most excited about is having my family alongside me,” Stewart said. “And obviously we played in Tokyo and it was under quarantine and those type of things, so to have family and friends come and just everyone feel that Olympic experience is like once in a lifetime.” 

An Olympic experience this summer was less a fait accompli for Ionescu. When Team USA ventured to Tokyo in 2021 for the postponed Olympics, the young Liberty guard was still rehabbing from the injury she sustained during the 2020 bubble season. When she participated in her first senior-team training camps following her major injury, she was nervous and a bit tentative. She wasn’t really sure exactly how newly minted head coach Cheryl Reeve would want to use Ionescu. 

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“I just asked her, like, what does she need from me?” Ionescu said. “Because obviously I’m able to do a little bit of everything in terms of like, I can shoot, I can drive, I can pass, and so I think it was understanding like what’s needed of me on this team?”

Ionescu learned that Reeve and her staff were going to need a combo guard who would be willing to allow presumed starting point guard Chelsea Gray to play off the ball too. Reeve, her staff and the selection committee made it clear to Ionescu that they wanted her to help lead this team. They wanted Ioenscu to be comfortable getting the players around her into offensive sets and actions. As one of the younger players who’s been giving time to training camps and qualifying tournaments — including the 2022 World Cup and the Olympic qualifier earlier this year in Belgium — that’s a daunting task, especially for a highly touted player out of college who dealt with a lot of early adversity in her professional career. 

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Sabrina Ionescu represents Team USA during the Olympic qualifying tournament in a match against Nigera on Feb. 9, 2024, in Antwerp, Belgium. (Photo credit: USA Basketball)

“We wanted her to be just as competent as a point guard as she was as a two-guard,” selection committee chair Jen Rizzotti said Tuesday. “Her passing and her shooting were assets to the squad and so the growth that I’ve seen from her from her World Cup experience to this last qualifying tournament in Belgium and the camp at the Final Four, she has prepared herself for this moment. She has improved. She’s gotten more comfortable. She’s taken the feedback that she’s gotten from Cheryl and applied it, and so it’s really rewarding to see that unfold. And to see her get rewarded for that work, because it’s just not an easy process.” 

Ionescu and Stewart will be the first Liberty duo to represent the United States at the Olympics. The last time the Liberty had a Team USA representative was when Tina Charles competed in the 2016 Games in Rio de Janeiro. 

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The Liberty’s representation in the Olympics also includes head coach Sandy Brondello, who will serve as the head coach of the Australian Opals for the second time in her sixth career Olympic games, including her days as a player.  Nyara Sabally, who is still working her way back from a back injury, and Leonie Fiebich will also both be competing in their first Olympics as members of the German national team. Marine Johannès and Han Xu, who aren’t on the 2024 roster but whom the Liberty still maintain the rights to, will be representing France and China, respectively. Oh, and don’t forget about New York’s head athletic trainer, Terri Acosta. She will be an athletic trainer for Team USA. 

“I knew that one, so that was the secret,” Stewart said about Acosta. “But I think it’s amazing for Terri to be able to also representing Team USA and coming with us, and we’ll have a little bit of our own little Liberty posse in Paris.”

Written by Jackie Powell

Jackie Powell covers the New York Liberty and runs social media and engagement strategy for The Next. She also has covered women's basketball for Bleacher Report and her work has appeared in Sports Illustrated, Harper's Bazaar and SLAM. She also self identifies as a Lady Gaga stan, is a connoisseur of pop music and is a mental health advocate.

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