When the WNBA Skills Challenge participants were announced a few days ago, I started reading the names to my daughter, Zoe Brooks.
Before I could finish, she had already heard the one name she needed to hear.
“I hope they match me up with Sabrina Ionescu,” Zoe said. “No disrespect to anyone else, but we would win it.”
The skills challenge featured eight WNBA players and partnered them with Elite Youth Basketball League (EYBL) players who were also in Chicago for the 2022 Nike Nationals.
Zoe’s EYBL team, Philly Rise, played in Louisville last week, so we flew into Chicago at the crack of dawn Saturday for the WNBA All-Star event. As she started to pack her basketball gear to head over to the gym, she had a dilemma that sneakerheads around the world face on a daily basis.
“Dad, which kicks should I wear?” Zoe said. “I should probably play in my Sabrina’s in case they put me with her, right?”
It was at this moment I gave my rising high school senior some bad advice. You’ve worn No. 35 in honor of Kevin Durant since the third grade, you can’t go wrong showing him some love on ESPN.
And just like that, Zoe packed up her pink KDs and left her Sabrina kicks behind.
After catching an Uber to the gym with her friend Taylor Derkack, Zoe and I split up as she went to check-in. Five minutes later, Zoe’s first dream becomes reality.
“Dad, guess what, I’m with Sabrina,” an excited Zoe said. “I can’t believe you told me not to wear her sneakers … “
The day wasn’t without other dramas. Zoe was supposed to wear one of her Rise uniforms but that was back in Louisville with her mom who was on laundry duty and was on a later flight.
Regardless of sneaker-gate, uniform issues, and technical delays – yes, I got everything taken care of with plenty of time to spare – and not having her coveted No. 35 uniform, everything worked itself out. I was courtside taking videos and photos before the event started and Derkack gave Zoe one of her other Rise uniforms.
The skills challenge, where the main objectives were shooting, passing and ball-handling, were a perfect fit for my kid and Ionescu.
After talking with Ionescu before practicing on the obstacle course, Z (Zoe) felt confident. During the post-competition press conference, Ionescu jokingly said while Zoe wasn’t nervous beforehand, she was.
Meanwhile, Zoe got to spend time with someone who has already accomplished some of Zoe’s basketball goals – a successful college and pro career.
“She’s so good,” Zoe said of the New York guard. “She was really nice, too.”
I really believe Zoe is one of the top passers in the country. Still, all three of her passes missed their mark and Chicago’s Azurá Stevens smacked the ball away from Ionescu during the layup part of the skills challenge in Round 1. Sound like a recipe for disaster? Nope, Brooks and Ionescu still won to advance.
In Round 2, Zoe’s ball-handling and layup were fine, but her passes once against didn’t reach their intended target. Since she first started playing, she has always been able to put the ball wherever she wanted it to go. She never gets rattled and while she was smiling with every off pass, I was triggered but had to play it off like it was no big deal. Luckily, Zoe was partnered up with the most skilled player in the WNBA and they eliminated Las Vegas’ Kelsey Plum and her teammate.
This set the stage for the final round, where Zoe was flawless, including finally throwing a perfect pass, and Ionescu hit the sealing triple to knock off Indiana’s NaLyssa Smith and her teammate. It was the fastest time of the event.
My proud dad moment had been activated and Zoe was interviewed by ESPN’s Holly Rowe at midcourt and said, “I know how to do what I do. I just came out here and I had fun.”
Me and my wife, Milicent, are both communications majors. We’ll work on her interview answering skills later (joking, sort of). I love the fact that even though this was just an exhibition, Ionescu was all about winning.
“I had a great partner which helped,” Ionescu said. “I told myself I wasn’t going to get too competitive, but I got really competitive so I’m happy we won. Zoe and I went into the skills competition confident and looking to have fun. We’re happy about winning a championship against some really great competition.”
Zoe is a North Carolina State commit. She has been named all-state numerous times, won a state title at St. John Vianney and received other accolades. With that being said, watching her compete on this stage with these great players is a memory I will never forget and hopefully, neither will she. The WNBA is her ultimate goal, and for one day, it was cool for her to see that her dream is a lot closer than she actually thinks.