When an athlete suffers a significant injury, the first step on the road to recovery is convincing yourself that everything is going to be OK.
“It’s all mental at the beginning,” Storm guard Sue Bird said. “You’re getting as much information as you can, and then you go through the process, as they like to say.
“You start with denial, anger and depression. But once you get to acceptance, then you’re like OK this is what it is. And this is the plan to get better. And you move forward. Every athlete who’s ever been hurt kind of goes through that.”
The same might be said for the Storm, a severely wounded WNBA defending champion that starts the season at 12:30 p.m. Saturday at the Angel of the Winds Arena in Everett against its rival the Phoenix Mercury without its top two players — reigning MVP Breanna Stewart and Bird, a perennial All-Star.
Stewart will miss the 2019 season due to an Achilles injury while Bird needs surgery to repair her left knee and is out indefinitely.
It’s been one debilitating blow after another for the Storm, which is also dealing with the absence of coach Dan Hughes who is on medical leave after having a cancerous tumor removed from his digestive tract.
“It’s really an unusual situation to have that much adversity thrown at you in a really short period of time,” said interim coach Gary Kloppenburg, who will guide the Storm for at least the first four games. “Life throws some real ups and downs at you throughout. It’s about how do we react once you come to terms with what’s happened.
“They’re a very resilient group of players. They feel like everyone is going to discount them and count them out. But I think they’ll have a lot to prove.”
Despite what looks to be a dour forecast, clearly the Storm has no plans to rip a page from the Mariners’ “step-back” strategy and essentially take this season off.
But no one would blame them if they did.
With substantial gains in production from forwards Natasha Howard, Alysha Clark and Crystal Langhorne, maybe the Storm can find ways to overcome the loss of Stewart, a 24-year-old once-in-a-decade superstar who averaged 21.8 points, 8.4 rebounds, 2.5 assists, 1.4 blocks and 1.3 steals last season.
“She does so much that sometimes you forget the impact she’s having on the game just by being out there,” said Langhorne, a two-time All-Star who slides into Stewart’s spot in the lineup. “It’s going to be different. Our team is going to look totally different.”
Meanwhile, second-year veteran Jordin Canada has the difficult task of taking over for Bird, who is arguably the greatest point guard in WNBA history.
“No pressure, right,” Canada said, laughing. “I’ve played basketball my whole life so it’s just going out there and playing my game.”
Despite playing her 16th season, Bird had one of her best years in 2018 while averaging 7.1 assists and shooting 44.8 percent on three-pointers — both personal bests — and scoring 10.1 points per game.
The Storm selected Canada No. 5 overall in the 2018 WNBA draft believing that she’d one day take over for Bird.
“Well, that day has come sooner than expected,” Kloppenburg said. “Jordin has different gifts that we’ll take advantage of, namely on the defensive end and her ability to get to the rim.
“When somebody goes down, it’s an opportunity for somebody else to step into a bigger role. We’ll find out a lot early on. … It’s going to take us a few weeks to kind of get our feet wet and see where we’re at. I’m very optimistic that we can be an outstanding team still.”
The double-whammy of losing Stewart and Bird is a devastating gut punch that forces the Storm to redefine its identity and discover new ways to win on the fly.
“When you go through a season, you’re going to without a doubt hit some walls and going to have some hard times,” Bird said. “It’s just a chance to prove who you are. To find out what you’re made of and show people a lot about your character.
“For this team this year, it’s going to be tough because we’re the defending champions and people are going to come at us that way. But it’s not the same exact team. So they just have to write their own story. And the story has to be about who’s on the court, who’s able to play and what they’re able to do and not worry about the ones that aren’t there.”
Last season, the Storm ran roughshod through the 34-game schedule while compiling a league-best 26-8 record that was three games better than second-place finisher Atlanta.
Seattle never lost consecutive games during the regular season and had three five-game winning streaks. The Storm ranked second in the league in scoring and set a WNBA record with 307 three-pointers.
The game plan will need to be adjusted this season considering the Storm loses 37 percent of its scoring and 43 percent of its assists without Stewart and Bird.
“We have to really zero in and execute well with the team that we have at both ends of the court,” Kloppenburg said. “We have to keep the turnovers low. We have to get a good shot every trip down.
“Those two (Stewart and Bird) could kind of bail you out at certain times of a game. It’s going to be more by committee. Really playing together as a team. Playing tough defense. Rebounding. We really have to zero in and play fundamentally sound basketball at both ends of the floor. I think we’re going to get there. I think we can be a very good team regardless.”
The new-look Storm is also dealing with the uncertainty surrounding backup guard Sami Whitcomb and Clark, who are expected to rejoin the team Saturday after playing in France. Clark has been ruled out for the opener while Whitcomb is available.
Additionally, Seattle has to manage the logistical challenges of splitting home games between the Angel of the Winds Arena and Washington’s Alaska Airlines Arena this season due to the renovation of KeyArena.
Publicly, the Storm is defiantly saying all the right things and believes it is still the team to beat in the WNBA while most league observers think it’ll be a major achievement if Seattle finishes among the top eight teams and qualifies for the playoffs.
“The way I see it is, we’re the champions until somebody beats us,” All-Star guard Jewell Loyd said.
However, internally, the team is forced to recalibrate expectations.
“For this team, our goals aren’t going to change in terms of your day-to-day approach to things,” Bird said. “We have to get better every day. We don’t have the margin of error that we used to have. And that’s OK.
“There can be still ways that we finish the season on a positive note that doesn’t necessarily come in the form of a championship.”
— The Storm will participate in a pregame ring ceremony at noon to celebrate the team’s 2018 WNBA championship.
— The first 3,000 fans will receive a free “Ring Season” T-shirt.