Two things have defined the past 10 months for Stewart: An MVP-caliber season that has lifted her team to the top of the WNBA standings, and a poignant revelation of sexual abuse as a child.
When you’re one of the most recognizable women’s basketball players in the world, and you’re having the best season of your WNBA career, fans are going to approach you after the game. And according to Storm forward Breanna Stewart, these are some of the things they say.
“Thank you for telling your story.”
“You helped me get through something similar.”
“You may have saved my life.”
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Two things have defined the past 10 months for Stewart: An MVP-caliber season that has lifted her team to the top of the WNBA standings, and a poignant revelation that has lifted a boulder off her chest.
Ten months ago, Stewart wrote a column for the Players’ Tribune detailing years of sexual abuse she suffered as a child. She said she was anxious up to the point of publication but has received an avalanche of gratitude since.
She didn’t realize such a disclosure could be so therapeutic. She didn’t know people could appreciate her as much for her words as they did for her skills.
“The fact that I was opening up to everyone, that this was more Stewie the person than Stewie the basketball player — it was a big deal,” Stewart said.
Given that Stewart was named Most Outstanding Player of the Final Four four years in a row at UConn, it’s hard to say that the piece she penned had much of an effect on her play. But given the numbers she is posting in the greatest women’s basketball league in the world, it’s not hard to say this is the best she has ever been.
Through 28 games, Stewart is averaging 22.5 points a game and 8.1 rebounds while shooting .533 from the field. More significantly, she has a league-high 6.6 win shares — an advanced statistic designed to measure a player’s overall value.
Even more significantly, Stewart’s efforts have helped lead the Storm to a WNBA best record of 21-7, which is 3.5 games better than anybody in the league. Those 12,064 fans chanting “M-V-P” for 40 minutes Friday night? They weren’t lying.
“I can think of three times off the top of my head where it literally just felt like Stewie won us the game this year,” said Storm point guard Sue Bird, who played much of her career alongside three-time WNBA MVP Lauren Jackson. “That’s what Lauren would do, just put us on her shoulders and away we went. (Stewart) is just point blank winning us the game.”
Winning games was all Stewart knew in high school and college. It can be a bit startling to be under .500 after capturing four straight NCAA titles.
But that was Breanna’s experience in her first two years in the WNBA, when the Storm went 16-18 her first season and 15-19 last year. For perspective, that’s more than seven times the number of losses she endured at Connecticut.
Stewart dubbed those seasons “eye-opening,” but adds that they were something she needed. Muscles can only grow so large without resistance, right? And now she is in a position where she can win the most prestigious individual honor while putting her team in position to win something far more satisfying.
“To me, MVP is an award you get when you’re playing at a high level but your team is doing something great, too,” Stewart said. “Honestly, the wins are what’s most important. Whatever happens from there is gravy.”
Stewart is either the next Meryl Streep or truly doesn’t care about the individual accolades. Friday, she said she tried to ignore the M-V-P chants, but couldn’t because “the arena is really loud.”
Her teammate Jewell Loyd, on the other hand, helped start those chants during a postgame interview last month and perpetuated them again Friday. Don’t think this campaign doesn’t matter to every other player in a Storm jersey.
Still, the wins that Stewart emphasizes is what’s likely to win her the MVP by season’s end. Her primary competition is Dallas Wings center Liz Cambage, who is averaging 23.1 points and 9.5 rebounds while shooting .592 from the field. All of those numbers are superior to Stewart’s, but Cambage does not match Breanna with the individual win shares (5.6), and the Wings’ 14-13 record is 6.5 games worse than the Storm’s.
“She has a great grasp of when we need to make a tough play. This is why I feel so fortunate to coach this great player,” said Seattle coach Dan Hughes. “She’s always willing. It could be scoring, but she’s just as willing to move that ball one more time.”
It’s been a remarkable 10 months for the 23-year-old. Never has she been so dominant, yet never has she been so vulnerable.
They say the true measure of an MVP is the ability to make those around you better. Usually that means teammates. Stewart has taken it a whole lot further.