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Commentary: You can be sad about Breanna Stewart leaving the Seattle Storm. But don’t be mad.

Feb. 2, 2023 Updated Thu., Feb. 2, 2023 at 6:21 p.m.

The Storm selected Breanna Stewart with the first pick of the 2016 WNBA draft. On Wednesday, she left for the New York Liberty.  (Tribune News Service)
The Storm selected Breanna Stewart with the first pick of the 2016 WNBA draft. On Wednesday, she left for the New York Liberty. (Tribune News Service)
By Matt Calkins Seattle Times

SEATTLE – You can be disappointed, maybe even depressed, but you shouldn’t be angry.

You can mourn the departure of possibly the WNBA’s best player, but it would be wrong to malign it.

Free-agent forward Breanna Stewart is moving on from the Storm and signing with the New York Liberty, ending a seven-year relationship with Seattle that produced two championships and a list of individual accolades. And though fans may feel sad, they shouldn’t feel spurned – Stewie delivered just about everything for which the die-hards could have hoped.

The Storm picking Stewart first overall in the 2016 draft almost instantly reinvigorated the franchise. One of, if not the greatest women’s college basketball players of all time joined forces with established star Sue Bird and upstart guard Jewell Loyd, the first overall pick from the previous draft.

Within three years of finishing with the worst record in the WNBA, the Storm surged to a league title in 2018, when Stewart won the regular-season and Finals MVP awards. They won it all again two years later (Stewart missed the 2019 season with an Achilles tear), as she took home Finals MVP once more.

Seattle was competitive in each of the past two seasons, too, and likely would have knocked out eventual champion Las Vegas if it didn’t let Game 3 of the Western Conference finals slip away in the final second. And though Bird was the fan favorite, Stewart was the engine – dominating the WNBA in all the advanced stats, even if she wasn’t bringing home the individual hardware each year.

Lead your team to one championship in 20 years, you become a franchise legend (see: Dirk Nowitzki in Dallas). Lead it to two over seven years and you’re in more distinguished territory.

Still, as impactful as Stewart was to the Storm, and as much as she seemed to embrace the city, she did have a wandering eye. Two offseasons ago, she sparked speculation about her long-term loyalty to Seattle when she met with the Liberty’s owners and head coach. She is a Syracuse, New York, native after all, and spent four years at UConn. She’s an East Coaster. It was reasonable to think that she’d want to get back to the East Coast (although Bird, a New York state native and UConn product, never left the Emerald City).

But there are likely more tangible reasons than simply wanting to be close to home. ESPN reported that charter flights were a factor in Stewart wanting to wear a New York uniform. Chartering has been a point of contention among several players, and though the Liberty were fined $500,000 for doing so – they did break bargaining-agreement rules by having their flights chartered last season.

More so than the potential comfort in the air, though, is the company Stewart would have on the court. Bird retired from the WNBA, so the allure of coming back to one of the greatest point guards of all time is gone. And the Liberty may sport the best point guard playing today in Sabrina Ioenescu, who averaged 17.4 points, 7.1 rebounds and 4.3 assists in 2022. They also added another of the greatest point guards of all time, Courtney Vandersloot, on Thursday. Vandersloot had been rumored to be heading to Seattle in recent days.

Most significant, they landed 2021 WNBA MVP Jonquel Jones in a trade with the Connecticut Sun in January.

The team also plays in a city populated by over 8 million people, something that seemed important to Stewie (even if the Storm’s attendance is almost double that of the Liberty’s).

“I feel like, why not go to the biggest market in all of sports,” Stewart said on SportsCenter Wednesday. “And I’m really excited to go after their first championship.”

I’m thinking of what the Storm crowd will be like when Stewart returns to Climate Pledge Arena, imagining the reception will be somewhere between Russell Wilson’s and Bobby Wagner’s return to Lumen Field. Wilson, who forced his way out of Seattle with two years left on his once-record deal, was booed emphatically. Wagner, who was released after 10 years in Seattle, had the stadium chanting his name.

Stewart is somewhere in between. Took her team to the mountaintop and never asked out of her deal – but didn’t want to finish her career in Seattle. You don’t have to be happy about that. It’s just hard to be mad.

Championships are difficult to come by. The Mariners haven’t won a World Series in any of their 46 seasons and the Seahawks needed nearly 40 to win their first Super Bowl.

Stewart brought two titles to this town. She is to be celebrated, not scorned.

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