Editor’s note: Over the next three days, we’ll examine the Storm with a series that explores what went wrong during the 2021 season, what went right and what’s next?
If Breanna Stewart were to write an autobiography depicting her past year, it would be titled: “Outlier.”
According to Merriam-Webster, “outlier’ is defined as “a person or thing differing from all other members of a particular group or set,” which aptly describes the 27-year-old Storm star who has seemingly crammed a life’s worth of adventures into the past 12 months.
In the past year Stewart has collected an impressive haul of hardware, including the 2020 WNBA title, a EuroLeague championship, a Russian Premier League Finals title, a Tokyo Olympics gold medal, WNBA inaugural Commissioner’s Cup and five MVP awards.
Off the court, Stewart married Marta Xargay Casademont, and the newlyweds welcomed a baby daughter, Ruby Mae, who was born via surrogate Aug. 9.
Additionally, Stewart has dealt with the pain and disappointment following a season-ending left foot injury that ultimately doomed the Storm’s bid to repeat as WNBA champion.
The day after Seattle was eliminated from the WNBA playoffs following an 85-80 overtime loss to the Phoenix Mercury, Stewart talked for the first time about her injury, and how her desires to play in the postseason were ultimately overruled by doctors and trainers.
“The best way I would describe it is terrible timing,” she said. “It was something where it was a high-risk, high-reward type of thing. The potential of going on the court and damaging my leg to a point where I would have to have a serious return time or take a cautious approach and hoping that I could be back in the later end of the playoffs if we were to make it that far. Unfortunately, we’re not there.”
Stewart initially injured her leg during the third quarter of the Storm’s 105-71 win over the Washington Mystics on Sept. 7.
“I agitated my leg,” she said. “I think there was a play, it looked like I felt something in the back of my leg. It’s feeling much better, but I haven’t played basketball since the Washington game.”
Internally, Stewart and the Storm were targeting a possible return in early October while publicly the team said there was a chance she’d play Sunday.
“If you ask me, I would have liked to have played on Sunday, but the real timeline would have been the later, end of semis,” Stewart said. “I wouldn’t have been ready for Game 1 or Game 2 (in the semifinals), but I was hopeful to be like playing at some point in the semis if we would have gotten there.”
Without their MVP candidate who led the team in scoring (20.3 points per game), rebounding (9.5), blocks (1.8) and steals (1.2), the Storm was overpowered by Phoenix and ran out of gas in overtime while being outscored 12-7 in the extra period.
It was an early exit and somewhat of a surprise ending for the Storm, which had the WNBA’s best record at 16-5 at the Olympics break before finishing with a 5-6 regular-season record and tumbling to fourth place in the standings at 21-11.
When asked if she had any regrets about the season, coach Noelle Quinn said: “I would have obviously wanted us to remain healthy with no Olympics.”
Guard Jewell Loyd added: “I wish Stewie was Iron Man and had never gotten hurt.”
Of course, the Storm’s demise is more complicated than just Stewart’s absence.
Before the season, Seattle made questionable personnel decisions, which notably included allowing defensive stalwart Alysha Clark to leave via free agency and replacing her with veteran forward Candice Dupree, which proved to be an expensive mistake.
The Storm gave Dupree a one-year, $170,000 contract, which was the richest deal in franchise history for an incoming free agent. However, the 36-year-old forward, who ranks fourth in WNBA history, could never find a suitable role with the Storm and was waived July 2 after agreeing to a $142,000 buyout, according to HerHoopStats.
Following the Olympic break, the Storm rested Stewart and point guard Sue Bird for two games — both losses during an arduous five-game East Coast road trip that included a trip to the White House just 24 hours before a loss at Minnesota.
Following a 2-5 stretch that dropped Seattle from first to fourth in the standings, Bird admitted the Storm had gotten sidetracked.
Still, Seattle won the next two games by an average of 22 points and had shown signs of morphing into a championship contender before Stewart injured her foot.
“I had to really have a sit-down with myself and with the team figuring out what was going to be the approach to the playoffs,” she said. “It sucked, because I was like, ‘I’ll go on the court no matter what happens.’ I’m like, ‘Whatever.’ But I had to have a mature approach to things, because my body is what makes me be able to do what I do.”
Stewart, who won four NCAA championships at Connecticut, isn’t accustomed to losing. She began her WNBA career with consecutive first-round playoff losses in 2016 and ’17, a source of embarrassment and motivation that put her on a path to becoming one of the league’s best players.
“I’m tired of losing,” the 23-year-old Stewart said in 2017. “It’s time to start winning.”
Four years later, Stewart has two WNBA titles, two Finals MVPs and a little more perspective after another early playoff exit.
“Sue is someone obviously I talk to a lot, but she made a point (and said) she’s played 18-plus seasons or whatever the case may be and she’s only won four times,” Stewart said. “So you’re not going to win every single year. As bad as I want to be like, ‘Yes I am.’ Sometimes there are other things going on and it’s just not going to happen that way.”