AFTER LOSING MORE IN HER FIRST TWO WNBA SEASONS THAN SHE HAD IN HER LIFE, BREANNA STEWART RESUMED HER ÜBERACHIEVING WAYS BY BECOMING BOTH STRONGER AND MORE VULNERABLE
BREANNA STEWART realizes that having too many trophies counts as a first-world basketball problem. Her solution: send most of the hardware to her parents' house. "It's kind of insulting how we have them," says her father, Brian. "They're downstairs in the storage room. Huge pile."
The 6'4" Stewart is far from the richest or best-known athlete in the world—but it's impossible to find one who is more successful. Even calling her a winner fails to capture the frequency and magnitude of her triumphs.
Growing up in Syracuse, Stewart won two state championships at Cicero-North High as the honors piled up: National Gatorade Player of the Year, Gatorade Female Athlete of the Year, McDonald's All-American—all in 2012. At UConn her teams went 151--5 over four seasons, and she claimed four national titles—and four Most Outstanding Player trophies. After being drafted by the Seattle Storm with the No. 1 pick in '16, she was voted the WNBA Rookie of the Year and earned an Olympic gold medal in Rio. She's a two-time All-Star.
In a five-week stretch beginning on Aug. 26, Stewart, 24, won league MVP honors, led the Storm to the championship, nabbed Finals MVP honors and went straight to the FIBA World Cup in Tenerife, Spain, where she boosted the U.S. to victory—and was named MVP for that tournament too. Then she went to Kursk, Russia, where her team was undefeated through Dec. 6. So no, it doesn't get old, Stewart says, the victories and the titles and the trophies and the accolades. Still, her father admits that "honestly, it's a little embarrassing at times."
That beats the can't-win-'em-all reality of Stewart's first two WNBA seasons, which only helped her appreciate the success she's had. "I'm back in the position I want to be in," she says. "I want to be the best player in the league but also the best player in the world."
STEWART CRAMS her willowy frame into a booth at Etta's, a seafood restaurant in Seattle's Pike Place Market, while on a quick trip home from Russia. She's trying to explain what it felt like to lose 18 games in her rookie season and 19 more the next. She hadn't dropped that many games, combined, over her entire career. "Definitely hard to get used to," she says.
During the Storm's 2017 season Stewart would text her best friend, former George Mason point guard Corey Edwards, after losses. These were paragraph-long messages, lamenting all that went wrong. "She doesn't take losing well," says Edwards. "It was hard on her. But it was even harder on her friends."
During the winter of 2017--18, when she played in Shanghai, Stewart began to rebuild her confidence. She texted Edwards sentiments like, I'm going to prepare myself for the best year I've ever had and This is going to be an MVP year.
To that end, she started working with Susan Borchardt, a sports performance consultant recommended by Sue Bird, Seattle's star point guard and a fellow UConn alum. Stewart has always been skinny; her high school teammates called her Bean. Borchardt made sure Stewart's body could withstand the pounding of year-round basketball, with tailor-made workouts that combine Pilates, yoga, weight work, steam rooms, saunas and hot and cold tubs. Stewart also overhauled her diet, removing chips, cookies and candy from her kitchen cabinets and cutting out junk food except for one guilty pleasure, doughnuts. (Edwards has to bring his own snacks when he visits.) The hope was that Stewart would emerge as the WNBA version of Kevin Durant—long, lean, angular and versatile.
Which is pretty much what happened. But it wasn't just because of Stewart's improved health and revamped training regimen, or the Storm's upgraded roster, which was made over by new coach Dan Hughes. Far more important was Stewart's decision to reveal in a personal essay for The Players Tribune that she had suffered sexual abuse for two years as a young child. It wasn't easy, but she saw the impact of the #MeToo movement—how far it was spreading, how many other survivors were sharing their stories—and she wanted to add her voice as well. "That was the first step for me to really be like, I'm doing the things I want," she says.
She conducted the interview for the piece while in China, reliving those terrible events for the first time in years, then spent the rest of the day in bed. She had to tell her story again for a segment she filmed for ESPN's E:60. The response was both overwhelming and overwhelmingly positive.
What Stewart didn't expect was that baring her soul would have such a positive impact on her basketball career. Becoming more comfortable with herself and letting go of the secret she had been carrying allowed Stewart to play more freely. That made her the best version of herself. "When I opened up my life," she says, "I could just play basketball."
The Storm finished 26--8 this year. Stewart averaged 21.8 points, 8.4 rebounds and 1.4 blocks. She had career highs in points, steals (1.4 per game) and field goal percentage (52.9) and three-point percentage (41.5). "The #MeToo thing was huge for her," her father says. "It inspired her to be confident in who she was, and that carried into everything." He cites an example from early December as proof. On Stewart's most recent trip back to Kursk, he called her just before takeoff. "Be careful," Brian told her, "and text me when you get there."
"Dad, I think we're kind of past all that," she responded, and he laughed.
"See, it's not just basketball," Brian says. "It's everything."
While Stewart remains unassuming despite all her achievements, she knows they have given her a platform. She wants to continue her social activism work and to take on a more significant role in negotiating a new collective bargaining agreement for the WNBA. "People on the outside think we're fighting for millions and millions in salary increases. We're not," she says. "But why is the NBA players' percentage of revenues at 50 and ours is 25? Why do we have to go overseas to make so much more money? Why am I going to be the reigning MVP and still on a rookie contract?"
Stewart would like to repeat as WNBA champion, too, of course, but she need look no further than Bird to see that's not as easy as it might sound. Bird has won three titles, but there have been extensive gaps between them; the first came in 2004, the second in '10. Stewart, whom Bird refers to affectionately as Stewie, wants to become the league's first back-to-back MVP since Cynthia Cooper in 1998. "There's no reason why we shouldn't repeat," Stewart says.
There's also no reason to doubt that Stewart will win again. History says it's not only possible, but likely.