Breanna Stewart of Cicero-North Syracuse (Cicero, N.Y.) caps one of the most decorated high school girls' basketball careers ever with appearances in the McDonald's All-American Game on Wednesday and the Women's Basketball Coaches Association (WBCA) All-American Game on Saturday. These come on the heels of being awarded the Gatorade National Player of the Year, the Morgan Wootten Player of the Year, the Naismith Award and USA Basketball's Female Athlete of the Year -- an unprecedented quadruple, leading staff members at ESPN HoopGurlz to relate the moments from her high school or club basketball career that they best remember.
The most memorable period of the Breanna Stewart's high school days, to me, is the evolution of her swag. On Oct. 28, 2010, I wrote a story about Stewart's top 10 schools list. She told me more than anything, "I just want to get a swagger. I think it's going to come as my confidence grows."
This was not long after Stewart returned from France with the USA Basketball U17 national team that won gold at the FIBA World Championships. On the court, Stewart wasn't the focus of the offense; that was Elizabeth Williams. Still, even in a role that was maybe Tina Thompson to Sheryl Swoopes or Swin Cash to Lauren Jackson, Stewart's star was undeniable. She cracked 20 minutes just one time in eight games, yet she averaged less than a point a game and 0.1 rebound per game fewer than Williams. She simply was waiting her turn like so few wannabe superstars want to do.
A year later she led the USA Basketball U19 national team in scoring and rebounding on the way to another gold medal.
Off the court it was clear that she was becoming more comfortable in the spotlight, being surrounded by equally hyped teammates from 2009 on. Eye contact with her interviewers became a normal thing and she began taking expectations in stride. Thinking back on that October 2010 article, I remember the fan message boards keying on that particular quote and many did not like it, saying she sounded "cocky". If they only knew how hard it must have been for her to even try to sound cocky at that stage of her career, they wouldn't have been looking down on those comments, but praising them.
Seeing her in the Spring of 2011 with her Philly Belles club team, with the confidence to do just about anything on the court and face the expectations head-on was memorable because it was all part of the process of becoming a star. She played point, wing, post, created offense, took some bad shots she wouldn't have dared in her red, white and blue uniform the previous two years. It wasn't her best basketball but it was the next step.
-- Chris Hansen
The spring of 2009 was the first time I got to see Breanna Stewart live and in person. This was the first year that Nike was to focus its Nike Skills process on younger athletes as opposed to previous years where the camp had featured an abundance of the sport's best upperclassmen. I flew up to the Nike Skills Academy in the Philadelphia area that weekend and was prepared to take in 40-50 of the best 8th-, 9th-, and 10th-grade players in the northeastern United States.
One of the players in attendance was Stewart, a long lanky freshman who impressed with her size alone. I watched her go through two days of drills and walked away from the gym that weekend liking, not loving, her game. She was athletic and had a lot of physical talent, but for me, at that time, something was missing. Maybe it was the camp setting as opposed to the usual summer tournament schedule that provides us with more insight to a player's full ability, maybe she just hadn't put it all together yet.
Throughout the next year I got to see Stewart from time to time and continued to appreciate what she brought to the table. Then came the USA Basketball trials at the end of her sophomore year. Stewart was one of the more impressive players in the gym, and her head-to-head matchup with Elizabeth Williams was something I would have paid to see. Offensively Stewart continues to get better and better from the day I saw her first at Riverwinds Community Center in West Deptford, N.J. Her length and athleticism made her a presence on the defensive end from Day One, but it is her polish and poise on the offensive end that has grown exponentially over the years. She is going to be a joy to watch grow over the next four years.
-- Keil Moore
Lighting up the big stage
ESPN HoopGurlz obviously is closely involved with the Nike Tournament of Champions, and we were strong advocates of Cicero-North Syracuse (Cicero, N.Y.) being put in the Joe Smith Division this year. The idea immediately was met with resistance as tournament director Steve Kozaki vets the Smith and John Anderson entries thoroughly. One prominent opinion voiced to Kozaki, "They'll get crushed."
I believe strongly in the star factor in basketball, and the Nike TOC always provides a stage on which the biggest stars never fail to shine. Over the years, the likes of Tina Charles, Maya Moore and Jacki Gemelos have dazzled. Even if Breanna Stewart did not have the strongest supporting cast (Cicero's second-best player is Brittany Paul, whose primary sport is softball), I believed that she at least would figure out how to put on a show. I remembered how Elena Delle Donne used to own the TOC with a similar set of teammates at Ursuline Academy (Wilmington, Del.).
Kozaki agreed to place Cicero in the Smith Division. In Chandler, Ariz., another writer accosted my colleague, Chris Hansen, over Cicero's inclusion. I ran into Stewart's father, Brian, before Cicero's first game and even he didn't seem totally convinced they belonged. I reminded him that they belonged because of his daughter. The first day, of course, Cicero knocked off Bolingbrook, which not only was the country's No. 6 team at the time, but also one that had played in the TOC during all four years of the career of Morgan Tuck, Stewart's future teammate at Connecticut. Cicero further shocked by advancing to the TOC semifinals and finished the season at No. 10 in the nation -- almost completely because of Stewart.
The point here is not to crow about being right with regard to having Cicero in the TOC. The point is that Stewart and her teams are easy to dismiss because Stewart and her family are so unassuming. I remember a time when they were wondering if she was worthy of a scholarship from UConn. Breanna Stewart is easily the most humble superstar I've ever covered, and that's during a long career with long stints covering pro and college athletes, men and women.
-- Glenn Nelson
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Chris Hansen is the national director of prospects for ESPN HoopGurlz and covers girls' basketball and women's college basketball prospects nationally for ESPN.com. A graduate of the University of Washington with a communications degree, he has been involved in the women's basketball community since 1998 as a high school and club coach, trainer, evaluator and reporter. Hansen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Keil Moore is a contributor and national recruiting analyst for ESPN HoopGurlz. He is also the Director of Scouting for the JumpOffPlus.com National Scouting Report - a division of Peach State Basketball, Inc. Moore has been involved in the community since 2007 as a recruiting analyst and trainer. He can be reached at email@example.com or you can follow him on Twitter @keilmoore.
Glenn Nelson is a senior writer at ESPN.com and the founder of HoopGurlz.com. A graduate of Seattle University and Columbia University, he formerly coached girls' club basketball, was a co-founder and editor-in-chief of an online sports network, authored a basketball book for kids, has had his photography displayed at the Smithsonian Institute, and was a longtime, national-award-winning newspaper columnist and writer. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.