Breanna Stewart paused for a few seconds and admitted, this is all a little surreal.
After self-quarantining the past week in Seattle and undergoing WNBA-mandated coronavirus tests, the Storm star is jumping on an airplane Monday morning and flying to Florida with the hopes of resuming her professional basketball career inside of a bubble.
“It’s a little weird,” Stewart said. “I still can’t believe I’m going to the bubble. … I’m excited to see everybody, but it’s still hard to believe this is what’s happening.
“The league is trying to prepare us as best as possible for this, but it’s super unexpected. I don’t know what’s going to happen. I don’t know what to expect in the bubble. I know they tell us what we’re going to have access to and what we’re not, but I don’t know.”
There are more questions than answers at this point as the WNBA brings its 12 teams to the IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida, to start a 22-game regular-season during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Upon arrival Monday and Tuesday, players will be administered a coronavirus test and placed in quarantine for four days before the start of a two-week training camp this week.
Last month, the WNBA and its players’ union agreed on a 26-page plan that regulates testing and safety procedures, lodging accommodations, meal plans and the league’s social advocacy agenda.
Players will receive 100 percent of their salaries if the WNBA is able to complete the abbreviated season that’s scheduled to begin July 24, including a standard playoff format culminating in early October.
It’s a daunting and ambitious venture considering the WNBA is hoping to avoid exposure from the coronavirus in Florida, a COVID-19 hotspot that reported a daily state record 11,445 new cases on Saturday.
“Every time I turn on the news and I see the news out of Florida, I’m like ‘Are you freaking serious right now?’ Storm star Sue Bird told ESPN’s Mina Kimes during a June 29 interview. “If we can get into this bubble safely and negatively so to speak, I think the bubble the way it’s set up – and people don’t really like to call it a bubble, it’s called a clean site – the clean site is set up for success.
“Now that doesn’t mean something can’t happen. But even if something does happen, there are protocols in place that are there to protect us.”
Bird, who is the WNBA Players Association vice president, added: “You could maybe even make the argument that as a player you’re safer in the clean site than you are in your own home. … At the end of the day, you have to trust people. That’s what this protocol is really all based on, trusting people.”
Still, the health risks are too great for some, including 65-year-old Storm coach Dan Hughes, who will not return this year and will be replaced by assistant Gary Kloppenburg.
“I feel for Dan,” Stewart said. “We have to be careful. You have to understand we’re doing something that’s still pretty risky and you don’t want to jeopardize anybody’s health.”
So far, about a dozen WNBA players have decided to opt out of playing this year due to a variety of reasons, including health concerns and the desire to focus on social justice issues.
The reigning WNBA champion Washington Mystics will be without guard Natasha Cloud and forward LaToya Sanders. And it’s unclear if Mystics star Elena Delle Donne, the 2019 league MVP, will play considering she’s recovering from offseason back surgery and has history of Lyme disease.
Other notable WNBA players sitting out include Las Vegas Aces center Liz Cambage, Connecticut Sun center Jonquel Jones, Los Angeles Sparks guard Kristi Toliver and forward Chiney Ogwumike and Atlanta guards Renee Montgomery and Tiffany Hayes.
“There’s a whole spectrum of reasons and decisions to be made on whether to go to this bubble,” Stewart said. “I don’t think it’s an easy decision for anybody to make. We’re all basketball players and we all want to play basketball, but at the end of the day it’s not the only thing we do.”
The Storm is considered by many as the preseason favorite to win it all this season in large part because all of the key players are returning from an injury-riddled team that finished 18-16 and advanced to the second round of the playoffs last year.
Seattle bolstered its roster in the offseason with forward Morgan Tuck, who was acquired in a trade that sent Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis to Connecticut, free-agent guard Epiphanny Prince and the addition of 2019 first-round draft pick Ezi Magebor, a 20-year-old center who sat out last season.
“Our entire team is going with the intention of being ready to go,” Stewart said. “We have a lot of potential.”
This is an anticipated return for Bird, the league’s oldest player who turns 40 in October. The future Hall of Fame point guard didn’t play last year following arthroscopic surgery on her left knee.
And Stewart is also coming back after a long layoff. The 2018 league and WNBA Finals MVP tore her right Achilles in April 2019 while playing overseas, which forced her to sit out the WNBA season last year.
It will be interesting to see if Stewart and Bird can reclaim their old form alongside ascending stars Natasha Howard and Jordin Canada, who seamlessly stepped into their vacant roles and racked up career highs in every meaningful category.
Two-time All-Star Jewell Loyd, defensive ace Alysha Clark and sharp-shooting reserve Sami Whitcomb round out a veteran-laden and formidable supporting cast.
Washington, Connecticut, Las Vegas and Los Angeles were considered title contenders before the coronavirus pandemic put Seattle on top of the league’s power rankings before a season unlike any other.
“This bubble is going to be interesting,” Stewart said. “It’s going to be a lot of games in a short amount of days.
“Its’ going to be tough, but this two-week training camp is going to be super important. It’s going to be important not to kill our bodies. To get as much as we can, but not overdo it. The big thing is going to be conditioning … and injury prevention.”
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