The last time anyone saw Breanna Stewart on a WNBA court, the 2018 Player of the Year cradled the league’s championship trophy like a baby in one arm while clutching the Finals MVP award with her other hand.
It was a triumphant moment for the 25-year-old superstar at the height of her basketball powers.
Fair or not, the next time Stewart steps on the court, she’ll be judged by her former self who delivered a warning to the rest of the league a year ago in Fairfax, Va.
“We’re just getting started,” Stewart said after leading the Storm to a 3-0 sweep over the Washington Mystics and claiming the third title in Storm history. “I’m greedy. I want more than one, and there’s no reason why we can’t be back here again next year.”
Of course, back-to-back championships weren’t in the cards for the Storm, whose season ended with a second-round playoff loss to the Sparks on Sunday.
Not after Stewart ruptured her right Achilles tendon on April 14 while playing for Russia’s Dynamo Kursk in the EuroLeague championship game, just five weeks before the start of the WNBA season.
And not after Sue Bird, an 11-time WNBA All-Star, underwent arthroscopic knee surgery and sat out the season.
Additionally, coach Dan Hughes underwent surgery to remove a cancerous tumor from his digestive tract, which sidelined him for the team’s first nine games.
“Basically anything that could have happened to us, happened to us,” Stewart said. “But they never gave up. We made the playoffs, which is a huge victory for us because in the beginning nobody knew what was going to happen.
“But now they found themselves and what makes them go. I’m proud of them.”
Following her injury, the Storm and Stewart mutually agreed that Seattle would suspend her. The move barred her from team activities and allowed Seattle to fill out its 12-player roster. (Unlike the NBA, WNBA teams do not have an injured-reserve list.)
Soon after, the WNBA created a job for the fourth-year veteran, who served as a league ambassador with duties that included promotional appearances. The league paid Stewart in excess of the $65,000 salary she would have earned from the Storm. Stewart, who is a free agent this offseason, said she plans to return to Seattle and pick up right where she left off.
“When I come back, I’ll be better than what I was,” she said. “Obviously going off of last year, I was doing everything and I was on a great high. Obviously this injury makes things a little difficult, but next month I’ll be able to be back on the court and working out.
“When was the last time I had two, three or four months to work on my game? In the beginning, I’ll have to work out some kinks, but when people see me back on the court, hopefully I’ll be better than what I was.”
Better than before?
That’s an optimistic projection considering the 6-foot-4 forward put together a historic season in 2018 while averaging 21.8 points, 8.4 rebounds, 2.5 assists, 1.4 blocks and 31.6 minutes. She started every game and shot 52.9 percent from the floor, 41.5 percent on three-pointers and 82 percent at the free-throw line.
A torn Achilles is the worst possible injury for a basketball player, but Stewart is inspired by retired WNBA star Tamika Catchings, who ruptured her right Achilles in 2007 and returned the next year to participate in the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
Catchings was 28 when she suffered her injury and the Hall of Fame forward played nine more years, which included five All-Star appearances, a WNBA Player of the Year award in 2011 and a league championship and Finals MVP in 2012.
“I looked at everyone from Tamika to Chiney (Ogwumike), to Kobe (Bryant), Rudy Gay and DeMarcus Cousins,” Stewart said. “The list goes on and on, and now obviously (Kevin Durant) and I are on it.
“But seeing how they came back. Tamika is a prime example. She got hurt and she came back and won MVP. Knowing that you can be back to what you were as long as you take care of it the right way. Don’t rush anything. The game will be there waiting for you when you get back.”
Stewart’s life irrevocably changed while performing a routine she’s done thousands of times. Only this time when she went up for a jump shot and felt a strange sensation in her lower right leg before landing awkwardly on the foot of Brittney Griner, who was defending her.
“Courtney Vandersloot was to my right and I remember thinking, Why would she hit me in my leg?” Stewart said. “Before I came down I knew something was wrong. I couldn’t come down on my foot.
“I was in shock at the beginning. I had 10 days left in Russia and you get hit with the most unexpected thing. I remember being in the back in the locker room and it was kind of like a blur.”
The next morning, Stewart flew to Los Angeles where she received an MRI that confirmed her fears. She had surgery two days later.
The early days of rehabilitation were the hardest. Stewart couldn’t stand in the shower for the first 10 weeks following surgery. And she couldn’t drive for 3½ months.
Stewart could manage the pain in her leg, but she wasn’t prepared for the depression that resulted from missing basketball – a game she’s played since her early days growing up in Syracuse, N.Y.
“It was hard to be away from that and also not be able to move,” she said. “I remember always wondering, Why is this happening? Why does this hurt? Why? Why? Why? Why? Why? And you don’t know why.
“I’ll never understand why I got hurt. It just happened.”
Four months after her injury, Stewart posted a video on Aug. 12 on her Twitter account of her running on an anti-gravity treadmill.
Eight days later, a video went viral of her draining five straight three-pointers while shooting off her left leg.
And two weeks ago, Stewart shared a workout clip via social media in which she’s jumping with two legs on a padded box.
“It feels good,” Stewart said. “Just getting on the court and seeing the progress is going well and knowing I’ll be back better than what I was. At the beginning it’s a mystery. You don’t know. You just have to believe and go along with it.”
Stewart plans to train in Southern California during the fall and winter with Storm teammate Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis with intentions of returning for the start of Seattle’s training camp next year.
“Absolutely, I’ll be back before the WNBA season,” said Stewart, a two-time Olympian who is also eyeing a spot on the USA National Women’s Basketball team heading to the 2020 Summer Games in Tokyo. “And like I said, I think I’ll be even better than what I was.”