Is the best yet to come for 24-year-old Breanna Stewart?
NEWPORT BEACH, Calif. -- Breanna Stewart was lifting weights in the hotel gym in the Canary Islands last month when she turned to Seattle and USA Basketball teammate Jewell Loyd with a bit of delayed amazement. Was it really possible that the Storm had just won the WNBA title?
Sure, they'd been through the champagne-soaked celebration in a tiny locker room after Game 3 of the WNBA Finals in Fairfax, Virginia, and then the parade back in Seattle. But it all seemed a blur, because the day after the parade they were on a plane to Tenerife, Spain, for the FIBA Women's Basketball World Cup.
That's why a quiet moment of reflection during a workout helped Stewart fully take in that it was all true. The goals she'd set for herself during the winter before the WNBA season started -- to be an MVP candidate and help lead Seattle to a title -- had been reached.
"The people close to me, I talked to them throughout this process," Stewart said. "Sharing the accomplishments with them was so great. It's not easy, but it's well worth it."
Truly, 2018 could not have been better for Stewart, who was named MVP of the WNBA regular season, WNBA Finals and the World Cup in the space of a little more than a month. She had two new championships, from the WNBA and the World Cup, to add to her collection.
Wednesday, she spoke at the espnW: Women + Sports Summit with the Sparks' Candace Parker, and picked up something else to fill her award-crammed shelves: a crystal trophy as espnW's 2018 WNBA MVP.
Stewart should be understandably jet-lagged after just returning from Tenerife -- where the United States won the gold medal on Sunday -- but she didn't seem so. She sat in a quiet room at the Pelican Hill Resort and said how much she was planning to relish the next week or so and have fun and chill out before she heads to Russia, where she'll play for Dynamo Kursk.
She'll attend a Beyoncé and Jay-Z concert at CenturyLink Field in Seattle on Thursday, and then a Warriors-Kings preseason NBA game Friday at KeyArena. Then she'll spend a few days in Mexico relaxing and reading by the pool.
"Right now, I'm reading 'Breakfast With the Buddha,'" said Stewart, who also spoke to espnW after her panel with Parker concluded. "It's interesting, about more real-life things. Kind of getting one with yourself, I guess."
I don't know that I'm in my basketball prime yet. I don't think I am; there's still a lot that I can do.Breanna Stewart
The novel is about a busy editor who reluctantly takes a long car trip with a spiritual guru after a family tragedy, and discovers -- to his surprise -- more ability to enjoy the moments in life.
It's understandable why Stewart would be intrigued by the plot, with a non-stop litany of basketball accomplishments dating to high school (and before) without much time to reflect on any of it. Four NCAA championships and Women's Final Four most outstanding player awards with UConn. The WNBA's No. 1 draft pick and rookie of the year, plus won an Olympic gold medal, in 2016. And now this trio of MVP awards.
Stewart just turned 24 in August and knows she has been on a rocket-ship ride of accomplishment. But personal growth has also come. She has spoken out about many things she didn't while at UConn, including the need for more respect for female athletes and her deeply personal story of coping with childhood sexual abuse, as recounted in The Players Tribune. In 2017, she also participated in a protest at Los Angeles International Airport against the U.S. travel ban of citizens from seven predominantly Muslim countries, and then addressed publicly why that was important to her.
That kind of transparency and advocacy takes both courage and energy. And none of it has taken anything away from Stewart's basketball success. She's literally at the pinnacle of her sport, while still improving.
"With everything you do that's really important, there is some level of fear involved," Stewart said. "Whether it's on the court, off the court, or saying something, or standing up for yourself. But it's about your ability to go out on a limb, overcome the fear, and understand you're doing something that's bigger than yourself.
"The reason you continue to go out and do it again is the people who appreciate you and thank you for using your voice because they couldn't. People come up to me of all ages, to talk about the ESPYS, or the LAX protest, or my #MeToo story, and it really resonated with them. These are real-life things. Basketball is, too, but basketball is put on the back burner when we're talking about things with such importance."
Part of the increased energy factor, at least this year, is that Stewart works with Susan Borchardt, a former Stanford basketball player who does personal training for other Storm athletes, including Sue Bird.
Bird, who turns 38 this month, began working with Borchardt a few years ago, and has said she wished she'd started earlier. Stewart heard that and realized it was never too early to improve her eating habits and exercise.
"It's maximizing my diet and how I take care of my body," Stewart said. "Even if that improves you a little bit, that can do a lot. I haven't worked with Susan for a full year yet. I can only imagine what that will be like after a year, because I've seen the changes after just the months we've worked together.
"After the World Cup, a lot of people were talking about what I've done, but I don't know that I'm in my basketball prime yet. I don't think I am; there's still a lot that I can do: continuing to develop and expand my game, and try to be unguardable."
No one has won back-to-back WNBA MVP awards since Houston's Cynthia Cooper in 1997-98, the league's first two seasons. So that could be a new goal for Stewart. And while she'll appreciate her brief down time, Stewart said she's not dreading going overseas to Russia.
"It's going to be my first season there and with EuroLeague," she said. "It's going to be great basketball. I'm looking forward to playing with and against the other best players in the world. Not only the American ones, but the international ones I just played against in the World Cup."
Then next summer, she hopes to help the Storm accomplish something no WNBA team has since the Sparks in 2001-02: back-to-back league titles. The Storm won't be in KeyArena next season, as it will be under renovation. They'll play at the University of Washington's Alaska Airlines Arena.
But the cheers Stewart and her teammates heard in a very noisy KeyArena during the 2018 playoff run will stick with her. It reminded her of her last year at Gampel Pavilion at UConn, the feeling of so much support.
"Back then, people were appreciating our last run as seniors," she said. "It was the same thing in Seattle; people were appreciating the playoff run we were making. When the season starts next year, will there be more people in the stands from start to finish? I think there will be because we made even more new fans in Seattle this year."
For Stewart herself, this journey to greatness -- even as far along as she already seems -- amazingly is still just getting started.