Along with the rest of the world, athletes have had their careers upended by the coronavirus pandemic. They are giving The New York Times an intimate look at their journeys in periodic installments through the rest of the year. Read Stewart’s previous installments here and here.
At long last, Breanna Stewart’s W.N.B.A. comeback was set for Saturday, when her Seattle Storm were scheduled to face the Liberty and the vaunted No. 1 draft pick Sabrina Ionescu in the league’s nationally televised season opener. Big-buzz, showcase games like that one are nothing new to Stewart, of course. After winning an Olympic gold medal and four national titles at Connecticut, she led the Storm to the W.N.B.A. title in 2018 and was named the league’s most valuable player. Then came the biggest test of her career: a devastating Achilles rupture that caused her to miss all of last season.
Stewart spent months cooped up in Seattle, rehabbing and taking part in Black Lives Matter protests before trekking to Florida at the start of July for the new season. She joined the rest of the W.N.B.A.’s players at the IMG Academy, a 600-acre sports training campus 45 miles from Tampa Bay where all 12 teams are living, training, and sequestering together as they play a shortened 22-game regular season.
Stewart’s wait to return to the court has been long and unsettling, with the tedium of recovery stretched out by uncertainty over the league’s return. Having endured all of that, Stewart will finally try to get back to her old normal — winning championships.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Honestly, in a way I’m still shocked to be back and about to get back out on court in our league. It’s surreal. I was just thinking about it today, in fact. About how I’m going to put my Seattle uniform on and this time, finally, it’s not going to be for a photo shoot. How I’m actually going to go and play a game that counts in this league again. I’ve missed that so much. Missed being around my teammates and the kind of atmosphere we have and just fighting with them for 40 minutes. Now I don’t have to miss it anymore.
There’s a lot of change in the league, with some players opting out and others moving to different teams, and also some really exciting new players. We’re fortunate in Seattle because we have our entire roster here and we’re healthy and experienced. We’re going after a championship, no doubt about it. We’re just as hungry as we were in 2018, if not hungrier. This season has a different look to it, of course, different than any other season. We know some people want to put an asterisk on it, but we’re here and we want to do what we’ve come here to do.
I was the league M.V.P. in 2018, and then missed last year. Elena Delle Donne was the M.V.P. in 2019, and is out now because of her concerns about Covid-19 and a pre-existing condition. It’s definitely weird when I think about that. I have so much respect for Elena, who she is on and off the court, and, you know, the fact she wants to be able to play in an environment where she’s feeling comfortable. She’s one of the best and I always want to play against the best, but her situation is one of those things where there’s more to life than basketball and we get that in this league.
Me and a lot of my teammates basically have a bike gang at this point. We’re living on this campus in our bubble, and other than the games which will be about a 20-minute drive away, everything we’ll be doing will be on the campus. Since it’s so huge and sprawling, most players have been given a bike. I go to practice and the weight room on a bike. In the beginning, you should have seen all of us as players trying to ride around, because for a lot of us, we haven’t done it in forever. I can’t tell you the last time I rode a bike. I was probably about 10 years old.
We’re having fun with it. Seems like every time you turn a corner you see someone, some great player. Coming back from practice on my bike and I look around up and there’s Candace Parker, just passing me by. I’m like, “Hi, Candace!”
Outside of practice with our team, I don’t think we feel we’re 100 percent comfortable hanging out as a group in the same room. So really, we just don’t. No meetings in small conference rooms or indoors in small spaces like that. And we don’t find ourselves really socializing with other teams.
Got a shiner, a big black eye the other day. Just under the right eye, I took an elbow from a teammate. That shows how nobody is backing off when we’re on the court. We’re wearing the masks outside, but then we play we’re banging up against each other. We recently had a scrimmage with Dallas and it had all the normal physical play, but I’ve got to say, it’s weird to be so close to somebody else without a mask who is not on our team.
I mean, in the end, it’s like we’re contradicting ourselves with some of this. We’re told to be six feet apart, but when we’re on the court it’s impossible. We’re battling there on the court up close, but, then in the arena, you see that our seats are spread out for distancing.
So, the co-owner of the Atlanta Dream, coming out against Black Lives? [In mid-July, Atlanta Dream co-owner Kelly Loeffler was widely denounced by players for criticizing the league’s decision to honor the Black Lives Matter movement at games this season.] Well, I’m not going to say her name, so I don’t give her any type of power, but I think that from a political standpoint, what she did was just try to ruffle the feathers in the league and create more attention for herself because her Senate seat is up for grabs.
There’s so much going on outside the bubble at this time in history, and we’re still absolutely connected to it even though we’re here. As a league we know what we stand for, and what we stand by, and the Black Lives Matter movement is something that is very important to us.
I think as the co-owner of the Dream, to make those comments when you’re in that position in a league that is 80 percent women of color? We don’t appreciate that, we don’t appreciate that at all. Personally, I don’t think she should be an owner, but it is not my job to decide who should not be an owner.
This league is in good hands with all of the new, young talent coming in. Everyone has their eyes out for Sabrina.She’s just a natural hooper, and her pick-and-roll game is like no other. I know from experience that when you’re the No. 1 pick and coming out of college after a great career you don’t fly under the radar, and she definitely hasn’t. People are super excited about seeing her at the next level, and I’m one of them.