Breanna Stewart came to UConn with the goal of winning four national titles. The four-time Final Four Most Outstanding Player describes what that unprecedented accomplishment feels like, as well as her hopes for the WNBA and the Olympics
IF YOU asked me about the moment I'll remember most from winning my fourth national championship, the answer might not be what you expect. It wasn't the long pass I threw to Kia Nurse midway through the first quarter of our 82--51 win over Syracuse, though that was pretty sweet. I hit Kia in stride over the Orange defenders, and she finished the layup without dribbling, which really got our fans into the game.
No, for me it was being back in the locker room during the cooling-off period before we headed out to talk to the media. I was sitting across from my teammates and fellow seniors, Morgan Tuck and Moriah Jefferson. We are three individuals, but when we are together, we act like one person. It's always been that way among us because we shared so many of the same struggles on the way to success.
No words were spoken. We started laughing, but then something like a deep breath came over us. Each of us knew what the other two were thinking:
We did it. We did exactly what we wanted to do.
I had the perfect ending to a college career. My goal coming in as a freshman at UConn was to win four national championships, and I made that known to Coach [Geno] Auriemma. Then I put it out there when people asked me about it—if you ask me a question, I will answer you honestly. I don't think this could have happened with any other group at any other school, and I credit a lot of that to Coach Auriemma and our other coaches. They pushed us to levels that we didn't know we could reach.
As I write this two days after the game, I have not been in the same place for 12 straight hours since we left the floor [of Bankers Life Fieldhouse] in Indianapolis. I haven't had much of a chance to process things. It doesn't feel real. It doesn't feel like my college career is over. I'm not one to keep a lot of souvenirs from the Final Fours, but I do keep the part of the net I've cut down from each of the national championships, as well as the hats we've gotten after each title. I've tied my pieces of the net to each hat.
After the title game we didn't get back to the team hotel until about one in the morning. There was a huge celebration in the lobby with our families, friends and fans of the team. I had about 50 members of my family at the game. My grandmother Jeanniene Baldwin organized two box suites for everybody who came. In the lobby I shared a big hug with my parents because they have been on this journey with me. After the team met with family and friends, we went back to my room and hung out with the practice players and team managers. We spent the night reminiscing about the season, the final game, and listened to a lot of Rihanna. I finally got to sleep at around 5:15 a.m. I woke up about five hours later, and I remember lying in my bed thinking, Wow, did this really just happen?
WE LANDED at Bradley Airport in Hartford around 4 p.m. that day, and it's about a 40-minute drive to our campus in Storrs. We had a police escort all the way, and there were cars lined up on the side of the road, with people waving to us all along I-84. It was pretty amazing. We usually have a parade after we win, but because the weather was bad, we had a rally at Gampel Pavilion instead. But I was out of there quick. I had to fly to Los Angeles at 8 a.m. on Thursday morning for the Wooden Awards. [Stewart won as the nation's top female player for the second straight time.]
It's surreal to think that the WNBA draft is this week. WNBA training camp starts on April 24, and I'll be finishing my degree in sport in society at UConn before I go to my new team. At this point I know a lot more about the Seattle Storm [who have the No. 1 pick] than I did at the beginning of the year. When the WNBA lottery came out, I started paying really close attention to the league. Everything is happening so fast, but it's also very exciting. I have similar championship aspirations for the WNBA, even if I haven't made them public. I am the type of person who likes to set both individual and team goals. It's going to be a completely different team and organization than UConn was, but at the same time, I still want to have success and do what I can to help. I think because of all the national team experience I have, playing and practicing against the best players in the world, I'll feel really comfortable going to the next level.
Something I know I can bring to my new team is positive energy. When I went to the Honda Awards in L.A. last summer, I bought a book called The Energy Bus by Jon Gordon. Once I started reading it, it shifted my outlook on things. In the story there's a guy having a terrible day. His car has a flat tire—the least of his problems—so he has to take a bus. He gets on, and the driver refers to her bus as the Energy Bus. The book talks a lot about how you portray yourself and how that rubs off on the people around you. It teaches you about how you want people to see and react to you. It was an interesting book, and though it wasn't written about sports, it made me think more deeply about how to create positive energy and have that rub off on my teammates. It's a book used by a lot of coaches, including [the Clippers'] Doc Rivers and [Clemson football coach] Dabo Swinney.
One of my major goals is to play in the Olympics. I'll be honest: If I don't make the team for Rio, it would suck. But I know this year is one of the most competitive years we've ever had for a U.S. women's Olympic basketball team. I realize I'd go from playing a lot of minutes to getting not so many, but that's what happens when you're with so many great players. I can learn so much just from watching and practicing.
I'VE BEEN asked often to define my legacy at UConn, but it's hard for me to do. The fact that some people put me in the same class with Cheryl Miller, Diana Taurasi and Maya Moore is crazy to me. Watching players like that growing up and then hearing people call you the GOAT, I mean, I feel in awe because I don't know how many compliments are better than that. But it's an impossible question. Who would I choose as the greatest women's college player ever? I feel like it's too hard to decide.
People have told me that my game reminds them of [Chicago Sky forward] Elena Delle Donne and [L.A. Sparks forward] Candace Parker because of their versatility. All of us are able to play inside-outside. I can definitely see the similarities to Elena given that both of us are comfortable with our backs to the basket or on the perimeter. She is a great shooter, and I want to continue to get better and hopefully become that great a shooter. One of the things I talked to Coach Auriemma about is that Elena's shot is the same every time. She swishes almost every shot, and having that kind of release, where the ball is going up and not out, is something I'd like to have. I admire her demeanor on the court. She doesn't get rushed with any defense and gets the shot she wants.
Through all the championships and the awards, I have tried to remain a down-to-earth person. I know within me there is a confident and maybe even cocky person, but that doesn't need to define how I interact with people. I think this comes from my parents. My mom [Heather] works at SUNY Upstate Medical University in Syracuse in the human resources department. My dad [Brian] works there too. He's an MRI technician. They taught me to be humble and also made me recognize the good times will not always last, so you should take things in and enjoy it.
Away from basketball I like to shop for shoes. I probably own hundreds. There's a pair that I just got, and I love them so much that I don't know if I will ever wear them. I also like to go to the movies, and I like to bake. I've gotten pretty good at making chocolate chip cookies and snickerdoodles, but I'm not quite ready to take orders.
People think UConn has it easy, but I don't believe they know how hard we've worked to be successful. My freshman year at times was terrible, and I had to learn how to get out of funks. The lowest point in my college career came as a freshman after a 76--70 loss to Baylor [in February 2013]. I struggled leading up to the game, and it's the only game in my entire college career where I did not score. I played seven minutes and missed the only two shots I took. Knowing that I did not help my teammates in a game we could have won if I had showed up really hurt me. But I wasn't prepared and I got exploited. I had to get better and I did.
I think next year's UConn team is going to take it as a collective challenge when they hear—and they will hear it—that the Huskies won't be as good or dominant without Moriah and Morgan and me. But they know how to win, so it's about people stepping up and taking bigger roles and following in the path that was created for us. It obviously won't be easy, but nothing is easy.
"The fact that some people put me in the same class with Cheryl Miller, Diana Taurasi and Maya Moore IS CRAZY TO ME."
BY THE NUMBERS
Points averaged by Stewart in the Final Four against Louisville and Notre Dame, up from 12.2 in the regular season.
Points scored (out of UConn's first 14) in the title-game victory over Notre Dame. She finished with 21 and nine boards.
Most Outstanding Player awards, tying Kareem Abdul-Jabbar for most ever. Stewart added a fourth in '16.
Points scored in the NCAA tournament, third all-time. She also ranks third in rebounds (207) and second in blocks (71).
Photograph by Larry Radloff Icon Sportswire/AP
THREE FOR FOUR The senior trio of (clockwise from near left) Stewart, Jefferson and Tuck went 151--5 at Connecticut, the most successful four-year span in women's basketball history.
ANDY LYONS/GETTY IMAGES
ORANGE, CRUSHED Syracuse defenders couldn't stop Stewart, who had game highs of 24 points and 10 rebounds in the 82--51 title-game win.