HARTFORD, Conn. — UConn alumna Breanna Stewart glanced over at her teammates with a smile, soaking in the moments after winning the Seattle Storm’s third WNBA title Wednesday night. She had just accepted the WNBA Finals MVP trophy, and was still in shock from the 98-82 Game 3 win over the Washington Mystics.
They had done it. After years of work and planning and back-to-back No. 1 draft picks, the franchise had found a way to bring the trophy back to Seattle. And for Stewart, the second of those No.1 picks, there was one person above all others that she wanted to share the moment with.
Fellow former Husky and 16-year veteran Sue Bird.
“Sue’s done everything for me,” Stewart told ESPN reporter Holly Rowe after the game. “She’s kind of helped me get to this point, and like you said, if there was one person on this team that I wanted to win it with it was her. And I hope that we can do it many, many more times.”
Fans of the former Huskies paid close attention to the championship game. For a game featuring teams from Seattle and Washington D.C., Hartford-New Haven had the second highest viewership for markets watching the championship behind only Seattle-Tacoma, according to ESPN.
Stewart and Bird have each had a remarkable year, culminating in a magical end to the season that’s been years in the making for their franchise.
For Bird, the season was proof that she made the right decision a few years back when her contract was nearing its end. She had always wanted to spend her entire career with one franchise, but the Storm’s last championship was in 2010 and before that 2004. The team was young, and Bird knew they were rebuilding, but she chose to stay.
With Bird, the Storm added 2015 No. 1 draft pick Jewell Loyd and then Stewart a year later. Loyd and Stewart would prove instrumental, and Bird’s continued success and leadership late into her career have been a key to the team’s development over the past few years.
“I didn’t think I’d be back,” Bird told Rowe, holding back tears. “And to do it with this group, the way we did it, I don’t even know how to react to be honest.”
Bird hasn’t talked about retirement, and based on her success this season and Stewart’s hope that they win more titles together, it isn’t coming for at least a few more years. Despite that, the basketball legend has been trying her best to help her young teammates prepare for when she’s no longer there.
“I didn’t ask them to do anything for me,” Bird said. “This wasn’t about me. This was 100 percent about them, and just trying to grow them up quick. I just wanted to bridge that gap as fast as I could, and they’ve been great. They trust me; they trusted me from day one. And that’s all a point guard needs. From there they made it pretty easy.”
The Storm got their first taste of life without Bird in the semifinals when she broke her nose and had to sit out the remainder of Game 4 against Phoenix. Seattle ended up losing that game by two points, and in an essay for The Players’ Tribune, Bird said that she was proud of the team for proving it could do it without her — something she’s been pushing them to realize all season. She’s confident in this team, whether she’s on the floor or not.
Out of all of the crazy moments in the Storm’s series against the Mercury — arguably the most intense five games of the entire playoffs — Bird’s Game 5 takeover will likely be the most memorable. Donning a clear face mask to avoid any more damage to her nose, Bird got tied up with Phoenix’s DeWanna Bonner and Briann January in the fourth quarter and got up off the floor yelling that her face mask had been shoved. It was a rare show of emotion from a normally reserved Bird, and the 14 points she dropped in the fourth, including four 3-pointers, to send the Storm to the finals set social media ablaze.
Lost in all of that Game 5 commotion was Stewart’s strong performance, something that Bird said happens often. Stewart is fairly reserved on the court, and her quiet dominance can be taken for granted. In Game 5 of the semifinals, she had 28 points. For any player in the league, that’s a lot, but for Stewart it’s become almost expected.
Stewart was named the WNBA MVP ahead of the playoffs after averaging 21.8 points, 8.4 rebounds, 2.5 assists and 1.4 blocks. On Wednesday night she had 30 points and eight rebounds, and throughout the series she averaged 25.7 points.
The season has not only been her most successful, but her most transformational. A little over a year ago Stewart opened up about her past, sharing with the world that as a child she had been sexually assaulted by the husband of a relative. The decision to speak publicly about a very private part of her life and the outpouring of support afterward have given her a sense of freedom, she said.
In July Bird said that she believed Stewart opening up about her past had a connection to the maturity she’s seen in her this year, also noting that on the court, she seemed more confident and driven.
In the past year, Stewart has spoken up about her assault, posed for ESPN’s Body Issue (as did Bird) and won both the league and finals MVP trophies. It’s been a year of vulnerability and strength for the young star, and as she stood on the court clutching her trophy, all she could do was smile and shrug.
“It doesn’t feel real yet, honestly,” she said. “ … We had a goal and that was to win a championship and every one of us, 1 to 12, the coaching staff, our entire staff helped us reach this point. I mean, we’re the champs.”
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