One of Breanna Stewart’s close friends, Natasha Howard, wanted to believe her frontcourt mate injured her ankle, nothing more. It was April 14, and Stewart rose for a jump shot during the Euroleague championship game in Hungary. She landed on fellow WNBA star Brittney Griner, the crowd went silent, and Stewart’s peers held their breath.
As Stewart was carried off the floor, Howard – her teammate with Russia-based Dynamo Kursk on that day as well as with the Seattle Storm during the WNBA season – thought she’d be back on the court soon. At halftime in the locker room, Howard checked in on her.
“She’s like, ‘Tasha, I think I ruptured my Achilles,’” Howard recalls. “I was like, ‘No, you didn’t, stop playing with me.’ She was like ‘No, I think I did.’
“My eyes got watery,” Howard said. “She’s one of the greatest players to ever play in the WNBA.”
Stewart had indeed ruptured her right Achilles tendon. Two months have passed since the incident, which sidelined her for the 2019 WNBA season. She is expected to return in time for the 2020 Olympics, although the WNBA – and women’s basketball globally – hasn’t seemed right without her.
The Seattle Storm, which she led to the WNBA title last season, collecting the league MVP award on the way, hasn’t fallen apart. But the team misses her.
The defending champs are off to a respectable 6-4 start this season without their young star. Howard has stepped up to lead the team with career-averages in points (19.6) and rebounds (9.2) per game; she recorded 19 points and 11 rebounds last Friday in a 74-71 road win over the Washington Mystics, the team they defeated in the WNBA Finals last year.
It’s not the only significant loss the Storm suffered entering this season. Point guard Sue Bird, an 11-time WNBA all-star, will likely miss the entire season while recovering from knee surgery. The head coach, Dan Hughes, underwent surgery to remove a cancerous stomach tumor in May. Hughes made his return to the bench in Seattle’s 84-62 victory over Los Angeles on Friday.
But it’s Stewart’s absence that has created a temporary shift in the league’s balance of power. Gary Kloppenburg, who served as the Storm’s interim head coach without Hughes, recalled nearly breaking down in tears when he saw Stewart’s injury on TV.
“It was devastating,” Kloppenburg said last week. “She’s been a great voice for the game. She’s a humanitarian and an entrepreneur. She’s a great person trying to create some progress in the world.”
Everyone in the league seems to respect Stewart, 24, who won four NCAA titles at Connecticut before she was the No. 1 overall WNBA draft pick in 2016. She stands 6-foot-4 with a 7-1 wingspan, and creates problems for other teams by stretching the floor and luring defenders her way. She creates shots, hits 3-pointers, blocks shots, rebounds, takes the ball up the court, drives by defenders and, from time to time, throws down a slam dunk.
“It’s a huge blow,” Storm forward Alysha Clark said. Clark turned off the TV when Stewart was carried off the court. “I couldn’t watch it anymore.”
Stewart’s injury became about something else: that she was playing overseas in the first place. After the 2018 WNBA season, players opted out early from their collective bargaining agreement with the league. A new agreement is needed before the 2020 season, with salary increases part of the discussion. Players hope Stewart’s injury could move the needle toward better pay.
During the offseason, Stewart, the FIBA World Cup MVP, joins many of the other 144 WNBA players in playing overseas because salaries there are much higher than what they earn in the United States. WNBA rookies make between $41,265 and $53,537 in base salary, and no player is earning more than $120,000 this season. For that reason, many play in Europe or Asia.
“Having no break in the offseason, that’s not good,” said Storm guard Jewell Loyd, the 2015 rookie of the year. “NBA, hockey, they all have a break to recover their body. She had such a great season, won an MVP, then had to go play overseas. I think it makes more people aware of our lifestyle.”
Awareness became a priority under the leadership of former WNBA president Lisa Borders. She said one of her chief goals centered on attempts to turn WNBA players – unknowns in mainstream sports – to knowns. It’s not easy.
“The biggest thing I learned,” Borders said, “is that most people aren’t aware of the WNBA.”
Stewart is an exception, having been one of the more well-known names in women’s basketball since college. Her absence reignited the idea many of the players spend nearly the entire year playing basketball to earn money. Several of her Storm teammates said they are concerned about what the new collective bargaining agreement will entail.
As for the Storm’s prospects on the court, the roster remains skilled and experienced. The team might repeat. It might not. But her teammates know this: The league’s growth depends on stars like her.
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