Stewart and Loyd take an excursion to the top of the Space Needle that gives a glimpse into their burgeoning relationship, which may define the Storm and the WNBA for years to come.
Breanna Stewart asks, “You’re not afraid of heights, are you?”
Jewell Loyd flashes a quizzical look. “No. Not really,” she says.
“Then you’re going to love it,” Stewart replies. “Trust me.”
All WNBA team: Tina Charles, Maya Moore, Nneka Ogwumike, Elena Delle Donne and Breanna Stewart.
Player of Year: Tina Charles
Rookie of Year: Kelsey Plum
WNBA champion: Minnesota over Washington 3-1 (best-of-five series).
After a 41-second elevator ride to the observation deck, maneuvering through two winding metal stairwells and climbing a nine-step ladder, they pop out of a square hole onto the roof of the Space Needle.
Welcome to the view.
Immediately the iPhones come out.
Time for selfies, panoramic pictures and video shoutouts immediately uploaded to their various social media accounts. They text and call their Seattle Storm teammates, whom they left behind at a rooftop barbecue in Lower Queen Anne.
Standing at the base of the spire, Stewart looks up and points to the aviation beacon. “I want to climb up there,” she says to Alan Maxey, the Needle’s director of facilities.
He shakes his head no. Stewart frowns.
Meanwhile, Loyd walks to the edge, leans over the rail and playfully yells: “Swords! (to Storm newcomer Carolyn Swords) Can you see me?”
From here – 560 feet in the sky – you can see for miles and miles.
It’s a postcard-perfect Pacific Northwest afternoon. The sun is hanging over the Olympic Mountains and bathing the Seattle skyline in a luminous glow as Mount Rainier towers in the distance.
“It feels like we’re on a date or something,” quips Stewart. She’s been here before. A year ago, the Storm’s star forward did a photo shoot on the Space Needle roof for an endorsement.
Now she’s back with Loyd on an excursion that gives a glimpse into their burgeoning relationship, which may define the Storm and the WNBA for years to come.
They agree that these moments are rare. The lives of two of the brightest and youngest stars in women’s basketball don’t leave much time for fun and frolic – or introspection.
They’re constantly on the go. Moving quickly through a year-long schedule filled with commitments to the Storm, their respective Chinese league teams, the U.S. national team and various endorsers and sponsors, including Nike.
Any free time during the WNBA season is usually spent surrounded by teammates. They play cards and listen to music. They enjoy shopping and dining out.
Last year, almost everyone went paddle-boarding on South Lake Union to celebrate forward Jenna O’Hea’s 29th birthday.
“Other teams are jealous of our chemistry,” Loyd says. “We don’t have drama.”
Stewart adds: “They’re like, ‘I wish I had a team like yours.’ To be cool on the court and at the same time be able to hang out on an off day.”
Says Loyd: “No drama. No egos. No pettiness.”
This is a fun day. In the morning, the Storm clobbered Phoenix 86-64 in its exhibition opener without Sue Bird and Stewart, who sat out due to knee injuries.
Hours later, Stewart and Loyd are popping photos atop Seattle’s iconic relic from the 1962 World’s Fair like 20-something tourists on vacation.
“Going up the stairs I was thinking, ‘Man, we’re really lucky to be where we’re at,’ ” Loyd says. “We’re really blessed. We’re up here acting like little kids again. That almost never happens. In this business, it’s always work, work, work. So this is like awesome.”
Stewart finishes the thought.
“Being up here, I think about the opportunities that we’re given through basketball,” she says. “Obviously a lot of it is hard work and that type of thing. But it’s moments like this when you’re on top of the Space Needle, where people don’t get to go, that you really cherish.”
After a rooftop photo shoot, they scale down the ladder and stairs to SkyCity, the Needle’s rotating restaurant, for a bite and a deeper dig into their relationship. They share meals and swap stories, often finishing each other’s sentences.
“People always want to know if we get along,” Loyd says. “For the record, yes, we get along. We’re friends. Really and truly. … Like I said before, honestly there’s no jealously on the team. Not between anyone.”
Stewart, who carefully spoons a spicy mixture of clams, nods in agreement and chimes: “What she said.”
They first met in 2010, a pair of teenagers among two dozen hopefuls in Colorado Springs vying for one of the 12 spots on the United States under-17 women’s basketball national team.
Loyd, a quiet and introspective 5-foot-10 guard from Lincolnwood, Ill., still remembers the first time she stepped on the court with Stewart, a bubbly 6-4 phenom from Syracuse, N.Y., who was all arms and elbows.
“Walking up and seeing how long and lanky she was, I was like, ‘Dude, I’m only taking jump shots against her,’ ” Loyd said. “I knew right away that she was going to be a star. How could she not?
“She worked hard all the time. She was everywhere. She was still figuring out her body at the time, but she was a baller then and now.”
The star-studded American team, which included Storm forward Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis, won eight straight games by an average of 37.4 points and cruised to a gold medal in the inaugural FIBA U-17 World Championship in France.
Back in the States, they took divergent paths to fame that often intersected in spectacular fashion.
Stewart joined the long lineage of Connecticut greats under the tutelage of coach Geno Auriemma, while Loyd rose to prominence at Notre Dame, where she had three-time All-American Skylar Diggins-Smith as a mentor.
“The biggest thing Skylar taught me was to compete and to play with heart,” Loyd said.
As a freshman in 2012-13, Loyd posted a 3-0 record against Stewart in their first three meetings.
Notre Dame captured a one-point win and a triple-overtime thriller during the regular season before toppling the Huskies with a last-second buzzer-beater to claim the Big East tournament title.
However, Stewart extracted sweet revenge in the NCAA tournament national semifinals. She delivered a stellar performance (29 points, five rebounds and four blocks) and UConn conquered its conference nemesis in an 83-65 victory.
Over the next two years, Notre Dame and Connecticut met in the NCAA tournament championship game.
Each time, Loyd finished painfully short against the Huskies and Stewart, a four-time winner of the Final Four Most Outstanding Player award.
The day after a 63-53 heartbreaking defeat to UConn in the 2015 NCAA tournament title game, Loyd declared for early entry to the WNBA draft.
The two-time All-American posted a 108-6 record during a stellar career that admittedly feels incomplete without a national championship. She finished 3-3 against Stewart and Connecticut.
“I had enough of her,” Loyd says with a wry smile.
Had Loyd remained at Notre Dame, she probably would have run into Stewart in the title game once more. But we’ll never know if Loyd and the Fighting Irish would have prevented the Huskies from winning it all in 2016 and denying Stewart a record four NCAA tournament championships.
Loyd said she has no regrets on forgoing her senior year of eligibility or how she handled the situation.
Still, she received scrutiny throughout the basketball community, including criticism from Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw.
“I thought it was kind of crazy because you just didn’t see it,” Stewart admits. “But at the same time, she wouldn’t leave if she didn’t think she was ready.”
Before Loyd, former Tennessee star Candace Parker had been the most prominent female basketball player who left school early, and she was the No. 1 pick in the 2008 draft.
“My whole life I’ve always done things differently,” Loyd says. “That’s always been my thing. If someone wanted to go left, I went right. … If I can leave early and be the No. 1 pick in the draft, why not? What’s stopping me? It just made sense.”
The Storm selected Loyd No. 1 overall in the 2015 draft and, after a slow start that included a voluntarily demotion to the bench, she captured Rookie of the Year honors while averaging 10.7 points and 3.5 rebounds.
However, the Storm finished 10-24 in 2015, its worst record since its inaugural season in 2000.
Fortune smiled once again on Seattle, which won the draft lottery for the second straight year and used the No. 1 overall pick on Stewart.
“I was super excited,” Loyd says. “After playing against her so many times and seeing what she can do, you know what, it’s about time we’re on the same team. And the last time we were on the same team, we won a gold medal.
“Why would you not want to play with her? She can do everything.”
A year ago Stewart, the 2016 Rookie of the Year winner, averaged 18.3 points (sixth in the WNBA), 9.3 rebounds (second) and 1.9 blocks (third).
Stewart also averaged 3.4 assists and 1.2 steals per game while shooting 45.7 percent from the field and 83.3 percent on free throws.
“That’s a good start,” she says matter-of-factly. “I’m not trying to be conceited or anything, but that’s what I expect of myself. Now it’s about where can my game go from there.”
Near the end of the late-afternoon lunch, it feels like a good time to bring up Lauren Jackson and Bird, the Storm’s original dynamic duo who delivered WNBA titles in 2004 and 2010.
Loyd chuckles as if she’s been anticipating this question all afternoon. Stewart doesn’t shy away from the comparison.
“I don’t think we’ll ever get tired of it,” Stewart says. “They’re legends. They’re the best of the best. That’s what we’re trying to reach. That’s what we’re trying to get to. But we’re also trying to be better than them.”
Entering her 15th season, the 36-year-old Bird cautions the Storm’s young stars against forging false chemistry and letting their relationship develop organically.
She remembers never engaging with Jackson socially off the court as a rookie in 2002.
“It wasn’t until halfway through our second year that we started to become friends off the court,” Bird said. “And truthfully a lot of it had to do with our team.”
Basketball marriages – and their subsequent breakups — are notoriously famous for the tabloid drama that’s produced by ill-fated tandems. Think of Shaq and Kobe. Or Westbrook and Durant.
Despite acrimony, bickering and distrust among Hall of Famers Cynthia Cooper and Sheryl Swoopes, the Houston Comets won four straight WNBA titles.
“You can win without chemistry if you have good talent,” Storm coach Jenny Boucek said. “(But) if you want sustained success and not just win a championship and to be in the hunt year after year, then you have to have chemistry.”
With Loyd and Stewart playing together for the first time as professionals, the Storm finished seventh in the WNBA at 16-18 last year.
It was a six-game improvement for a team that snapped a two-year postseason drought.
Year 2 together figures to be better mostly because Stewart believes a 94-85 upset playoff loss at Atlanta provided Seattle with an extra incentive that hadn’t existed.
“Once you get a taste of what it’s like to be in the playoffs, there’s no going back from that,” she says. “It’s about getting back there and going further than we did last time.”
Stewarts starts to segue into a story about the championship mentality exhibited by her Connecticut teams when her phone buzzes.
It’s a text from Storm forward Alysha Clark, who is back at the rooftop barbecue.
“They want to know where we’re at?” Stewart says.
“They miss us,” Loyd says.
“Of course they do,” Stewart says, laughing. “That’s because we’re the life of the party.”
|Percy Allen’s WNBA preseason rankings|
|1. Minnesota||Lost in the final seconds in Game 5 of the WNBA Finals last year. The league’s oldest team returned all five starters for a run at a record-tying fourth championship. Seimone Augustus, Maya Moore and Lindsay Whalen stayed home in the offseason while Rebekkah Brunson reduced her overseas workload.|
|2. Los Angeles||The reigning WNBA champions were the last team to win consecutive titles in 2001 and 2002. The Sparks return four starters, including last year’s MVP. Nneka Ogwumike. and two-time MVP Candice Parker – two of the most versatile and productive forwards in the WNBA.|
|3. New York||Despite 44 regular-season wins the past two years, the two-time Eastern Conference champion has just three playoff wins and flamed out early in the postseason recently. The Liberty wins with stingy defense and MVP candidate Tina Charles, who led the WNBA with 21.5 scoring and 9.9 rebounding averages last season.|
|4. Seattle||If healthy, there’s no reason why the Storm shouldn’t finish in the top half of the playoff race and capture its first winning season since 2011. Still, it needs young stars Breanna Stewart and Jewell Loyd to continue to mature. Sue Bird returns from offseason knee surgery and veteran role players will provide support.|
|5. Washington||Acquired three-time All-Star and 2015 MVP Elena Delle Donne in perhaps the biggest offseason trade in WNBA history. Delle Donne joins All-Stars Kristi Toliver and Emma Meesseman, which makes the Mystics an Eastern Conference contender after finishing 10th last season at 13-21.|
|6. Phoenix||Perennial title contender is starting to dismantle. In the offseason, traded five-time All-Star Candice Dupree while three-time WNBA champion Penny Taylor retired. Second-leading scorer DeWanna Bonner is pregnant and will miss 2017 season. Star players Diana Taurasi and Brittany Griner and coach Sandy Bordello missed preseason due to overseas commitments.|
|7. Atlanta||Four-time All-Star forward Angel McCoughtry is sitting out the 2017 season citing a need to rest after playing a year-round schedule the past eight years. It’s a big blow for the WNBA, which loses the league’s fourth-leading scorer, who averaged 19.5 points. Expect a nose dive for the Dream, which compiled a 51-51 record the past three years, including a 17-17 mark last season.|
|8. Indiana||A streak of 12 straight playoff appearances is in jeopardy after a tumultuous offseason. Leading scorer and WNBA legend Tamika Catchings retired, new coach Pokey Chatman took over and Dupree was acquired in trade with Phoenix.|
|9. Chicago||Life after EDD (Elena Delle Donne) could be rocky for the Sky, which fired Chatman and hired first-time coach Amber Stocks. First-round pick Alaina Coates (ankle) will miss the start of the season. After four straight trips to postseason, wouldn’t be surprised if Chicago falls to bottom of the league.|
|10. San Antonio||Not sure how new coach Vickie Johnson will find minutes and shots for Kelsey Plum, the former Washington Huskies star and No. 1 overall draft pick, in a backcourt that includes Moriah Jefferson and Kayla McBride – both top-five picks in each of the previous two drafts.|
|11. Dallas||It’s Skylar Diggins’ team now. She’s 100 percent healthy after suffering a knee injury that interrupted a MVP-caliber 2015 season and spending most of 2016 working back into All-Star form. Still, the Wings’ biggest concern is improving a woeful defense that gave up a league-worst 88.2 points per game – the most in the WNBA since 2010.|
|12. Connecticut||Won 11 of its final 19 games last season, but five-year playoff drought will likely continue after losing Chiney Ogwumike, who underwent Achilles’ surgery in November and will miss the 2017 season. It’s the second season-ending surgery for the 2014 Rookie of the Year winner.|