The whistle blew and she knew she was done. With 4:27 seconds left in the 4th quarter of the Seattle Storm’s recent game against the New York Liberty, Breanna Stewart fouled out for the first time. ‘First time since when?’ you might be wondering. No, not this season, or last season. Nor her four years of college ball prior to that. Yes, this was Breanna Stewart’s first time ever fouling out in her young basketball career.
Before she fouled Kiah Stokes while trying to block a layup, Stewart had pieced together a dazzling mosaic of deep pull-up treys and foul line jumpers. Her early season magnum opus, 23 points, 10 rebounds and 2 blocks, had the Storm striding step-for-step with the streaking Liberty. But as she is learning in her sophomore season, there is a first for everything – even for a four time NCAA National Champion and reigning WNBA Rookie of the Year – and thus Stewart, lanky arms loosely dangling at her sides, trudged to the bench, a grimace stretched across her face.
Without their offensive dynamo, the Storm began to crumble in the final minutes of the game. Veteran point guard Sue Bird, her jersey slick with sweat and clinging to her body like Saran wrap, almost willed the team to victory with 21 points and 10 assists.
But the Storm’s series of poor shot selection, missed free-throws, and turnovers in the waning seconds allowed New York to sprint ahead at the final buzzer, winning 94-86.
At 36, Sue Bird is the veteran leader of the Storm and, unequivocally, she runs the show. Even after an off-season knee surgery, she still has the ball on a string, pulling yo-yo-like dribble moves that send defenders bolting in one direction while she goes in the other. Bird frequently dishes gravity-bending passes to Jewell Loyd, the Storm’s third-year shooting guard, who has emerged as an All-Star caliber player. But make no mistake, as Breanna Stewart goes, so goes the Storm.
After winning Rookie of the Year last season while averaging 18 points per game, Stewart has been facing another first: the faintest trace of a sophomore slump.
It started in the second game of the season with a 3-13 shooting performance, followed up by a 3-14 showing in the next game. Overall, Stewart’s field goal percentage, compared to last season, is down by about 5 points and her three-point percentage is down by almost 2.
All players go through ups and downs during the course of a season. Even though Stewart’s field goal percentage has dipped, she has still been putting the ball in the hoop. She is averaging about 17 points a game. For most players, that would be fine. But Stewart doesn’t know what it means to be just fine. At UConn, she won four consecutive National Championships and was named Most Outstanding Player all four times. After all the wins, awards, and recognition, Stewart is accustomed to only one kind of basketball – the engine-screaming, will-breaking, foot-on-your-throat kind.
Stewart and Bird’s time playing together predates the rainy coast of Seattle. Ironically, it began on the opposite side of the country at a practice gym in Connecticut, under the watchful eye of Geno Auriemma.
Stewart was only six years-old when Bird won her first national championship while at UConn in 2000.
Twelve years later, Stewart arrived in Storrs aiming to start her own legacy. She was shocked to find that Bird, already a two-time WNBA Champion, would be practicing with UConn to get in shape for the upcoming WNBA season.
“At first I was kind of like, ‘Oh my god! It’s Sue Bird!” Stewart told WNBA.com.
But while Stewart was star-struck by Bird, Bird was mesmerized by Stewart’s unlimited potential.
“Right away at practice at UConn, I saw that Stewie had a special skill set,” Bird told WNBA.com. “When she wants to play the way she can, there’s no stopping her. You could see that right away.”
Gradually, “Stewie” became accustomed to seeing her star practice mate: “As she continued to come, it became more like, “Hey, What’s up Sue?”
After the Storm won only 10 games in 2015, they won the Draft Lottery and thus the 1st pick in the draft. Who they planned on selecting was a foregone conclusion. After all, there is only one Breanna Stewart.
During her rookie season, Stewart became more familiar with her elder statesman, Bird.
“I think our relationship has grown a lot. [It started when] I saw her around at UConn but [it has grown even more] now playing with her,” Stewart said. “And getting that first year under my belt and having her still help me on the court is great.”
Storm head coach Jenny Boucek noticed the two stars growing together.
“I think they’re two very smart basketball players with very good instincts,” Boucek told WNBA.com. “They have a lot of mutual respect and that probably goes back to their college background so they get better and better together all the time.”
“I know any criticism or any advice that Sue has for me is going to help me more than if someone else said it,” Stewart said. “I think especially when I’m going through a similar situation as she has. It could be anything from talking to her on the court to talking to her on the bus. She helps me a lot.”
As for Stewart’s slight shooting slump, Bird said it’s nonexistent:
“I wouldn’t classify her as going through a tough time. We’re 8 or 9 games in. I think the one thing I try to tell the entire team, not just Stewie, is that it doesn’t matter what the last play was, the last half was, what the last three quarters were. You’re always going to have a chance in this league.”
It seems like Stewart has been taking Bird’s advice to heart. Her 23 points against the Liberty marked the third time in 3 games that she has scored 20 or more while also shooting close to 50% from the field. It’s this type of performance that Stewart usually delivers and everyone has come to expect.
“Sometimes they fall, sometimes they don’t,” Bird said. “I think a lot of times, shooting can become very mental. You miss a couple, get a little hesitant, and that affects what you’re doing out there. So for her, it’s been the first time all year you’ve seen her come down and hit pullup 3s in transition. It’s just like, ‘F*** it!’ I think Stewie has had that attitude and you can see it.”
Postgame, Seattle’s players take the liberty of stretching out along the expanse of the benches in the visitor’s locker room. Amidst the hung heads and slumped shoulders, Stewart’s 6’4″ frame sits stoic and erect, bags of ice taped to both the front and back of her knees. After her strong scoring performance, there is a glimmer in her eyes. It feels like she has not just weathered the storm but become the calm in the middle of it.
“I am confident and the ball feels good coming off my hands,” Stewart says. “I just try to do whatever I can to help the team.”
She gingerly adjusts the ice bags on her knees.
“Well, fouling out didn’t help that much but…” She pauses, a smirk flickering across her lips. “Debatable calls.”