SEATTLE — When Breanna Stewart entered Safeco Field to throw out the first pitch at a Seattle Mariners game, she was carrying with her some extra hardware.
“Please place your wallet, keys and all metallic objects in the bin,” said the security guard standing before the metal detector.
Stewart grabbed a bin, placed in her wallet and her keys – like everyone else would – but then reached into a pocket of her blue and red USA sweater and pulled out an object not normally seen in security lines, and one that caused the guard to do a double take.
Her gold medal from Rio.
It’s Sept. 17, a day before the Storm’s regular season finale, yet it’s already the second time that the Seattle rookie has arrived at Safeco Field to throw out a first pitch — the first time coming on April 30, about two weeks after she was drafted No. 1 overall out of the University of Connecticut.
This extra accessory, however, is just one of the many differences that has come in what Stewart called a “whirlwind” of the past six months.
And to get a better understanding of all that has changed since she’s been drafted, you don’t have to look much further than the day that preceded this night.
It’s 11 a.m. on Saturday and Stewart is already at the Royal Brougham Pavilion for practice. Located on the campus of Seattle Pacific University, the modest facility is about 10-15 minutes away from KeyArena, where the Storm play their home games.
This practice court – on a lower level of the facility and decorated with Storm championship banners – is home to what will be one of the last full practices of Stewart’s rookie season. With the regular season finale against the Chicago Sky scheduled for the next day, the Storm face an uncertain postseason future, both in who their first-round opponent will be and, of course, how far they will advance in this year’s new Playoff format. Seattle approached its finale knowing that the team would have to win two single-elimination postseason games on the road to then reach the best-of-five semifinals and eventually return home for a game.
When practice begins, Storm head coach Jenny Boucek preaches offensive spacing, a sign that even though this young team has been together all season, adjustments can still be made. The motivation behind this focus at the start of practice is Seattle’s sluggish loss a few days earlier to Phoenix on Sept. 15.
The team then goes through its stretches, followed by some offensive drills and then full court 3-on-3 drills, where Boucek stresses defense.
To the delight of many in the organization, Stewart is already the anchor of Seattle’s defense. In fact, her ability to make an immediate impact on the defensive end was a pleasant surprise to many.
“I think immediately what stuck out, believe it or not, was [Stewart’s] defense — just the way she can cover ground, affect people’s shots,” said Sue Bird, who has been with the Storm since she was drafted No. 1 overall in 2002. “Over the season, you’ve seen some amazing shot-blocking, but she also changes people’s shots. Her presence is always there. That, you saw it right away and knew it was going to translate.”
Stewart may not be the most physical defender in the post – like, for example, her Olympic teammates Sylvia Fowles and Brittney Griner – but her defensive instincts make her valuable at all points of the opposing team’s attack.
Stewart has made some highlight-reel blocks this season, and she also set a WNBA record for defensive rebounds (277) in a season, passing the legendary Lisa Leslie’s mark set in 2004. The 6-foot-4 forward added 1.8 blocks and 1.2 steals per game, as well, thus highlighting her case for being one of the league’s most complete defenders.
After defensive drills, Boucek instructs the team to scrimmage 5-on-5. To close practice, Stewart gets in additional post work. With many of the vets shooting on the outside, Stewart goes through post drills with Abby Bishop and Ramu Tokashiki.
Throughout this practice, it’s evident why the player everyone refers to as “Stewie” is such a dynamic force. In just one session, she displays her ability to run the floor, to make sound, instinctive plays on defense, and to score in diverse ways. Her offensive repertoire includes the ability to finish with either hand, to step back and hit an 18-footer or three-pointer, and, of course, the moves of pure athleticism that allow her to finish at the rim unlike almost anyone in the league.
Her talent translated to production, as she led all rookies in points, rebounds and blocks, while checking in at second among rookies in assists and steals. Her play, combined with a much-improved season by guard Jewell Loyd – the 2015 No. 1 overall pick – has given Storm fans a glimpse at their bright future.
“Stewie is obviously a tremendous talent,” Bird said. “The combination of her and Jewell being young, athletic, and exciting. They’ve got those alley-oop highlights — those will be shown for the rest of their lives, for sure. Those highlights are telling of what can be and what’s to come. I think the team is in good hands.”
It’s 2 p.m. and Stewart and the rest of her Storm teammates arrive at nearby Sandel Park for a barbecue with the team’s season ticket-holders.
The event – which drew about 250 Storm fans, most wearing team gear – underscores how this Storm team is a part of the Seattle community. A community that, quite frankly, Stewart did not know anything about until recently.
“I knew nothing,” said Stewart, when asked what she knew about the city before she was drafted. In fact, she had not been to Seattle until after being selected with the No. 1 overall pick in April.
All Stewart did know, actually, could be attributed to a fictional TV show.
“I watched Grey’s Anatomy,” Stewart said with a laugh. “So that was my first thought that I was going to be able to see the hospital, which is not even the hospital.”
The series, although set in Seattle, was actually filmed near Hollywood. But Stewart has broadened her interest in her new home city nonetheless.
“I really like being here in Seattle and hopefully this is going to be a place where I am going to be for while,” she said. “The city itself is beautiful. The organization, the team, everyone is great. And just realizing how welcoming the fans and everyone is, I think they are as excited as we are.”
A lifetime east coaster – Stewart grew up in North Syracuse, N.Y., and went to college in Storrs, Conn. – Stewart immediately noticed a change of pace living on a different coast for the first time.
“Things are a lot more slowed down in that kind of way and it’s a different vibe,” Stewart said. “But it’s a really good city. There’s a lot of things to do, there’s a lot of great places to eat. My favorite part is how pretty it is.”
“I really like being here in Seattle and hopefully this is going to be a place where I am going to be for while.” – Stewart
And while Stewart has started to learn Seattle culture – like the prevalence of Thai food – the Storm fan base has quickly discovered that they have a unique superstar on their hands.
At Sandel Park, Stewart starts by signing autographs, everything from t-shirts, jerseys and tickets as well as UConn and USA gear.
After that, Stewart mingles with the fans, taking pictures and smiling seemingly every step of the way. Then, as has become tradition at these events, the players participate with fans in a water balloon toss.
“She was cool and cooperated with me,” said Shauna Anderson, a six-year season ticket holder who wore Stewart’s jersey and was Stewart’s teammate in the competition. “I like that they’re all really personable. They’re not just stars; they’re people too.”
After the competition, and a few water balloons that left her grey hoodie wet on a cool, cloudy Seattle afternoon, Stewart continued to interact with fans of all ages. Earlier in the day, Loyd was even cooking hot dogs on the grill for her fans.
Their collective interactions with the fans are emblematic of the new order in the Storm franchise.
“It’s a real gift to the city and franchise, that our two cornerstones are such humble superstars and great teammates people want to play with,” Boucek said. “A lot of superstars come with a sense of entitlement and selfishness. Stewie and Jewell are exactly of the same breed, a rare breed of superstar where they’re humble, mostly focused on the success of the team and people that people want to play with. They want to win, and that’s more important than their individual success.”
The fans have noticed this as well.
“Everybody is amazed at all of [Stewart’s] athletic ability, so it’s really cool,” said Connie Hull, a Storm season ticket holder since 2005. “Everybody wants to see her play and watch what she’s going to do next, like that alley-oop with her and Jewell. It was such an amazing play and everybody is on the edge of their seat every time she steps on the court to see that again.”
On the heels of strong team play post the Olympic break, the Storm clinched their first postseason berth since 2013, so Stewart and Loyd have given their fans even more opportunities to watch them grow.
“It’s awesome, the fact that the fans are just so welcoming, and I’m just trying to embrace it,” Stewart said.
It’s 5:30 p.m. and Stewart is 60 feet and six inches away from Bird, her teammate and fellow Olympian, warming up in the back hallways of Safeco Field.
There are no nerves. In fact, there’s a few nice catches as the players have a game of catch while other members of the stadium staff pass blissfully by.
Minutes later, Stewart and Bird head to the field. The duo conducts a TV interview with Root Sports in the home dugout. They hang on the field – while the hometown Mariners, in a Playoff chase of their own, warm up – and sign the occasional autograph for fans. They even meet with Mariner Moose, the team’s mascot.
This portion of the day reflects Stewart’s other triumph this year – winning a gold medal with the U.S. Olympic Women’s Basketball team. Stewart was the youngest player on the roster, but managed to be a key contributor for her college coach Geno Auriemma, averaging 8.1 points in 10.9 minutes per game.
When she’s in front of the mound with Bird, being cheered by fans in her new city, it’s hard not to think of the journey she’s been on: winning her fourth consecutive national championship and being drafted No. 1 overall in April, starting her first pro season in May and winning a gold medal in August, before ultimately heading to the WNBA Playoffs in September.
“It’s definitely been a whirlwind, but it’s been really exciting,” Stewart says. “You have to enjoy it, because if you don’t, you’re going to miss the opportunity and you never know when that’s going to come back again.”
Stewart’s action-filled day has passed and the Storm eventually go on to beat the Sky, 88-75, the following afternoon at KeyArena.
The win earns the Storm the No. 7 seed in the Playoffs and a matchup with the sixth-seeded Dream in Atlanta. Seattle enters the Playoffs as one the league’s hottest teams; their 7-3 record since the Olympic break ranks behind only the defending champion Lynx.
“I think all we needed was a little bit of time,” Stewart said. “I think that when you’re with a team and you don’t have a lot of prep time, it’s hard to understand what everyone likes to do and get a feel and then it’s all different plays, all different styles, that kind of thing. Four months later, I think we’re starting to figure it out.”
As Stewart walks off of the court to cheers during Fan Appreciation Night, the team’s journey in the Playoffs is yet to be written. So too is Stewart’s next chapter: her first stint overseas, where she will play in Shanghai when the WNBA season concludes.
It’s yet another adventure, another challenge for the 22-year-old.
From Storrs, to Seattle, to Shanghai with plenty of accolades in between. How’s that for a rookie year?