Breanna Stewart doesn’t remember the name of the fancy Los Angeles restaurant she attended with New York Liberty owners Joe and Clara Tsai, but the Storm star recalls ordering fish.
“I’m a pescatarian,” she said smiling. “What can I say, I’m a cheap date.”
Maybe so, but Tsais went all out and spared no expense in an attempt last January to entice Stewart, an unrestricted free agent, to leave Seattle and become the centerpiece of the Liberty’s offseason makeover.
In addition to the Tsais, first-year Liberty coach Sandy Brondello made the trip to L.A. along with the several front-office staff members for a recruiting trip that included a PowerPoint presentation for Stewart, her wife Marta Xargay and their baby Ruby Mae.
“It’s great when people take you out to dinner,” Stewart said. “It was a great experience to go through the free-agency process. It was something that I think I needed to do as far as being a true free agent.
“Obviously, I knew where my heart was and what I’m comfortable in Seattle, but wanting to have the opportunity to talk to other organizations to see what they’re about and how they run things. I just felt like I would be doing a disservice to myself if I didn’t ask those questions and also to everyone else in the league. We can’t always just go back to what we know without asking questions.”
Ultimately, Stewart returned to the Storm on a one-year supermax deal worth $228,094.
The Stewie-to-New-York storyline will resurface again next year in part because of her dinner date with the Liberty and a budding relationship formed with the team’s ownership.
“The best part of the visit was just getting to know them,” Stewart said of Joseph Tsai, the WNBA’s richest owner who is reportedly worth $8.4 billion, and his wife Clara. “Having a conversation with the Tsais. That was my first time meeting them. They’re really great people and really trying to elevate the WNBA.”
Stewart will be an unrestricted free agent once again after the season and the three-time WNBA All-Star, who has spent her entire seven-year career in Seattle, is noncommittal about returning to the Storm.
“More dinners,” Stewart said when asked about what she anticipates from free agency next year.
It’s a “stressful” scenario for Storm fans, guard Sue Bird said. But it’s also exactly what the vice president of the league’s players association executive committee had in mind when she helped negotiate the WNBA’s collective bargaining agreement.
“It’s great for our game,” Bird said. “It’s literally why we wanted the CBA to be the way it is. I think all of us involved knew that there would be some growing pains, which I think we’re still seeing. I knew at that point, the GMs and agents were going to earn their money. This is really on them.
“From a players’ standpoint, the wining and dining is attractive. To have a billionaire fly and come and meet you and do all these things, it reminds me of college home visits. … We needed more player movement, which didn’t really happen before.”
Presumably, New York will take another run at Stewart next year with a sales pitch that includes playing with rising young stars Sabrina Ionescu, Betnijah Laney and Rebecca Allen. Stewart could also possibly reunite with former Storm teammate Natasha Howard and former Connecticut Huskies teammate Stefanie Dolson.
“They have a lot of talent over there,” Stewart said. “I don’t know. We’ll see what happens.”
For now, Stewart will get a chance to evaluate the Liberty (1-5) up close and personal with a pair of games, starting 7 p.m. Friday night at Climate Pledge Arena. The teams play again Sunday at 3 p.m.
The Storm (3-3) are looking to extend a two-game winning streak during their eight-game homestand while reviving a dormant offense that ranks last in the 12-team league in field-goal shooting (39.9%) and 10th in scoring (78.2 points per game).
“We’ve had this mini training camp this week to work some things out,” Bird said while noting the Storm had a six-day layoff. “We needed it.”
The time off has helped Stewart recover from COVID-19, which forced her to miss two games two weeks ago.
“It’s still early in the season where teams still finding out who they are,” said Stewart, who would lead the WNBA in scoring at 19.8 points per game if she played enough games to qualify. “We’ve had people in and out of the lineup, myself included. So we’re getting comfortable with all of the changes that we’ve had to deal with.”
The same could be said for the Liberty, who have tumbled to the bottom of the league standings and have lost five straight games.
“Some of these players are still, they’re still learning and still young,” Brondello said this week during a Zoom interview. “They’re learning a new system, and it takes time. We just have to have a little bit of patience.
“We have to make sure we focus on the process, and it’s not about the result. Do the little things well and hopefully that will lead to a good result.”
Stewart said she hasn’t spent much time this week thinking about her brief courtship with the Liberty.
When asked how close she came to leaving Seattle, she said: “I wanted to hear a different side of things, but for me to leave Seattle with everything that we have going right now and this potentially being Sue’s last year, that wasn’t going to happen.”
But what next year?
The 27-year-old Syracuse, New York, native who starred at the University of Connecticut admits returning close to home is an undeniable attraction.
“That’s a real thing,” Stewart said. “I’m from upstate and yes it’s a little bit of a drive from the city, but as my grandparents are getting older, people in my family are getting older and closer to Spain (Xargay’s native country) — those are real things that make you think about it for a moment.
“But we’ll cross that bridge when it comes.”
- Forward Stephanie Talbot has entered the league’s health and safety protocols and will miss Friday’s game. She’s doubtful for Sunday.
- Center Mercedes Russell who has not played because of an undisclosed non-basketball injury is also out Friday. The Storm is not planning to sign anyone on a hardship contract and will have just nine players versus New York.