CICERO, New York -- The sound of leather on pavement was all too familiar to the residents on an otherwise quiet street marked with brick houses and finely groomed landscape in this town just north of Syracuse. One by one, neighbors popped their heads out of front doors as the noise instantly took them back in time.
And sure enough, Breanna Stewart was dribbling a basketball on a nearby driveway.
Yes, the best player in women's college basketball -- who already has won three consecutive national championships and is trying to become the first woman to win four in a row, the senior All-American at the University of Connecticut who is expected to be the No. 1 overall pick in the WNBA draft this spring and then make her Olympic debut in the summer -- was back on the street where she grew up, literally walking and dribbling down memory lane.
"I knew that sounded familiar," said a woman on her front porch two houses away. "How are you Breanna? What brings you back here?"
Directly across the street from where Stewart stood, another neighbor smiled at the familiar scene.
"I thought that sounded like [you] ... but it couldn't be, and here you are," she said in disbelief.
Before classes started last fall, and in between USA Basketball camps and competitions, Breanna, her parents Brian and Heather Stewart, and younger brother, Conor, had the rare opportunity to go home again -- or at least to the home Breanna lived in for the first 13 years of her life. The 6-foot-4 forward/center, who is now the face of women's college basketball and the future of the game, fell in love with hoops in this house, the place she watched her first game side-by-side with her dad, and where she developed that dribble that makes her one of the world's most versatile players.
"I think of all of this as a story," Heather said. "And it all started here."
So on that Monday evening in August, Stewart -- often referred to simply as "Stewie" by women's basketball followers -- re-enacted the drill that originated on this sleepy street and helped drive her ascension story: Typical suburban kid discovers her acumen for basketball and through tremendous hard work molds it into a superstar collegiate career.
It became a daily routine: dribble four laps around the neighborhood loop, one with the right hand, one with the left, one executing spin moves, and one while dribbling between her legs.
"Dribbling around the block definitely started things. It made me realize if I could get better at dribbling, I could get better at shooting and do other things that would make it tough to play against me," said Stewart, who has helped the Huskies run their winning streak to 58 straight games leading into Monday's showdown with No. 2 South Carolina (ESPN2, 7 p.m. ET). "... It separated me."
The other families on the street could set their watches by Stewart's laps and the echoing of those basketball beats became comfort food for the ears. No wonder the sound was so recognizable some eight years after its last appearance.
Matt and Mary DeGroat have owned the house since the Stewarts sold it, and had never met the former owners. But because of their collective love of sports -- the DeGroat's sons, Joe and Mikey, have a baseball card collection to rival anyone's -- the household connection to the Stewarts and Breanna's status as a local hero, the DeGroats have become big women's basketball fans. When asked to open their door to the Stewarts, the DeGroats didn't hesitate.
The DeGroats, in fact, preserved something uniquely Breanna in the basement.
A much-shorter-than today Breanna and her cousin, Tyler, decided to measure themselves on one of the wooden beams. The pencil markings remain there today and are an early indication that she wasn't self-conscious of her height, she was proud of it.
"We did this ourselves, which you can tell because the line isn't very straight," Stewart said. "We didn't even tell my parents we did it. We just wanted to see."
The basement, the room Brian professed to be his favorite in the house, was another creative place for Breanna to work on her skills.
"When I started with the Syracuse Stars [her first AAU team], I couldn't dribble between my legs. Everyone else could, but I couldn't," Stewart said. "It was winter so I came down here and worked on it.
"I learned to dribble between my legs in this basement."
Not long before Breanna began taking an interest in basketball, Brian Stewart discovered his own love for the game. He began playing regularly at the local YMCA, and it wasn't long before 9-year-old Breanna started tagging along on weekends.
"Her interest really picked up then, playing at the smaller gym they had for the kids there," Brian said.
But early on, Breanna's favorite team was not the local Syracuse Orange or even UConn, which was in the midst of winning four NCAA titles in five seasons in the early 2000s. Breanna was a die-hard North Carolina fan.
"If it was allowed and in sixth or seventh grade and North Carolina offered me [a scholarship], I probably would have went there then," Stewart said. "I had North Carolina shirts, North Carolina shorts. It's the only thing I would wear."
At 10, she rooted for Raymond Felton as the point guard led the Tar Heels men to a national championship. All while wearing a Rasheed Wallace jersey.
"Everything was blue," Heather Stewart said through a smile.
Long before she was being recruited, Breanna wrote a letter to UNC women's coach Sylvia Hatchell. During a family vacation, the Stewarts visited the campus and met with some of the coaches.
"This was before anyone knew who she was, before she was being recruited. They gave us a lot of time when we were there and we told them she's pretty good," Heather said. "Then when we went back a few years later and they said, 'Aren't you?' as they recognized us."
Stewart committed to UConn during February of her junior year of high school.
As Breanna and her family took a retrospective tour through a house that belonged to them until moving out in 2006, memories of mischief rushed back.
There was the hardwood floor downstairs Breanna and her friends would douse with Pledge and sock-surf on down the hallway. The sled rides they'd take down the stairs -- with the dog. The giant area of the front lawn Breanna and her cousins would flood to create a slip and slide.
"Dribbling around the block definitely started things. It made me realize if I could get better at dribbling, I could get better at shooting and do other things that would make it tough to play against me."Breanna Stewart
Practical jokes gone wrong -- and usually involving frightening someone -- also were commonplace. After 1-year-old Conor was tormented with a Coneheads mask, the mask was never allowed to appear in the house again.
When she wasn't busy dribbling around the block or playing volleyball and softball, Stewart and some friends found great fun in watching scary movies and then locking each other out of the house to punctuate the idea of fear as fun.
"We thought we were so cool watching those scary movies during the day," said the 21-year-old Stewart, no longer impressed with the 10-year-old version of herself.
But it's the sort of innocent, youthful fun that sheds some light on the origins of the "goofball" many of Stewart's UConn teammates refer to.
She once even called the police to the house over simple family fun.
"My Dad was tickling me and I told him I would call 911 if he didn't stop. He didn't, so I punched in 9-1-1," Breanna recalled as she looked around her old bedroom. "I didn't know that you didn't actually have to hit send for the call to go through. Next thing I know the police are in the driveway. He wasn't too happy."
Breanna and Heather never wanted to leave this house, but Brian's job at the downtown Syracuse hospital was a long commute he wanted to shorten. The Stewarts planned to build a new house in nearby Liverpool between Breanna's seventh and eighth grade years. When that fell through the family began house shopping -- and a lot of people were paying attention.
"Her name was starting to get around," Brian said, "so some coaches were on edge as to where we were going to end up."
When they ended up just a mile on the other side of the district border in North Syracuse, Cicero-North Syracuse coach Eric Smith won what ultimately became the coaching lottery.
"At the time it was a bummer that we were going to be losing a tall kid with some talent, but as she progressed, obviously, the story became greater," Smith said. "It's still a running joke with the Liverpool coach."
"Her mental ability is what sets her apart. ... Nothing gets to her which is why she is so good in pressure moments. She is so comfortable in her own skin."Eric Smith, Breanna Stewart's high school coach at Cicero-North Syracuse
Smith kept Stewart on the varsity at C-NS that year and her trajectory took off from there. He recalled her big improvement that summer -- and then a moment during her freshman year cemented her status.
"We were at a tournament in New York City. Breanna made a shot, got a steal and a layup in seconds," Smith said. "Then she shot a 3-pointer, missed, but chased it down on the baseline and scored. Lower-level Division I schools started offering her right there."
That's also the time that she was discovered by the Philly Belles AAU team and really started playing against elite competition. The legend was being born, but it never got the best of her. Stewart's temperament, which was shaped in those early days just as her dribbling and shooting were, is another area in which she excels.
"Her volleyball coach once asked us, 'When is she going to get angry?' but she never did," Brian said. "She earned a lot of respect of people that way. She was almost embarrassed when people were applauding after a blocked shot."
At UConn, Stewart has settled into a casual confidence, strong in her belief of self and comfortable with her success, but in a way that never offends and does not become a barrier to more success.
What other way is there to understand that the same young player who declared she wanted to win four national championships upon her arrival in Storrs was also the same young woman who was so casual about her national letter of intent that she signed it in a parking lot on the hood of her father's car, barely getting it in on time. No news conference. No cameras. No big deal. She had to get to practice. It was just something else to do that day.
"Her mental ability is what sets her apart. She is so even-keeled, even when she isn't playing well," Smith said. "Nothing gets to her, which is why she is so good in pressure moments. She is so comfortable in her own skin."
Long ago, before AAU, before making the varsity team as an eighth grader, before championships became the norm -- and without any influence -- she asked her dad if she could watch a game with him. So there she sat, in the living room in the house in Cicero, cross-legged on the floor next to her father, really watching her first basketball game on television.
"I can't remember the exact game, but I remember sitting here and she wanted to watch with me and that was the beginning. From then on it was just basketball all the time," Brian said. "This is where it really started, right here in this house."