Breanna Stewart was 10 when Sue Bird led the Seattle Storm to their first WNBA title in 2004. A dozen years later, after winning four NCAA championships, Stewart felt her pro career was getting started in the perfect place.
“When I got drafted to Seattle in 2016, that’s what I thought about: ‘I’m going to play with the best point guard in the world,'” Stewart said of Bird. “I’m not sure I’d be in this position here without her.”
Both New Yorkers — Bird from Long Island, Stewart from upstate — arrived in the Pacific Northwest from UConn. Geno Auriemma, who coached them separately as Huskies and together on the U.S. national team in the 2016 Olympics, knows why they are in this position, up 2-0 on the Aces in the best-of-five Finals.
“They know when it’s winning time,” Auriemma said. “They know how to win big games. Because they’ve been so successful in so many of them, they walk into every big game knowing they’re going to win. That’s a big difference than players hoping they’re going to win.”
Seattle is going for the franchise’s fourth championship — Bird was a starter on the 2004, ’10 and ’18 title teams, with Stewart beside her for the title run two years ago — which would tie Minnesota and Houston, a defunct franchise, for most titles in WNBA history. The Storm have excellent talent — another No. 1 pick, Jewell Loyd, is a strong scoring threat, and top defenders such as Alysha Clark and Natasha Howard also bring a lot of offense — and great team chemistry. Look no further than Games 1 and 2, as seven different players have scored in double figures. Seattle’s depth has been perhaps the most difficult challenge for the Aces to handle.
Bird has been part of two great point guard-post duos in Seattle. Her main target for her first decade in the WNBA was 6-foot-5 Lauren Jackson, a three-time MVP. Since 2016, it has been 6-4 Stewart, who has many similarities to Jackson. Stewart has averaged 19.9 points, 8.7 rebounds and 1.6 blocked shots in four seasons. Jackson averaged 18.9, 7.7 and 1.8 in 12 seasons from 2001 to 2012, although the last two were shortened and injury-plagued. Jackson will be inducted into the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame in 2021.
“These are two dominant post players who can shoot from the outside as well,” Bird said. “I’ve been lucky, to be honest, to have players like that on my team.”
Jackson, an Australian, didn’t go to a U.S. college; she was drafted No. 1 in the WNBA at age 19 in 2001. Bird, who is seven months older than Jackson, followed as the top draft pick the next year. They grew up in the WNBA together.
Jackson’s WNBA career ended in 2012, then Bird sat out 2013 after having knee surgery. In 2014 and 2015, the Storm went a combined 22-46 and missed the playoffs both seasons. The Storm had the best odds for the 2016 draft lottery — aka, the Stewie Sweepstakes — and got the first pick. Stewart’s arrival signaled the start of another great era of Seattle basketball.
“I’ve already experienced a lot of the things Stewie will go through, both from my own point of view, but also seeing Lauren go through it,” Bird said. “So, the difference is, I definitely try to be more of an advice-giver, whereas Lauren and I were just kind of like, I don’t know … ignorance is bliss.
“With Stewie, when I see moments where I can help her out, I try to give her a little tidbit. I wouldn’t necessarily call it this mentorship thing, but there’s definitely a big-sister vibe to it. Where I just try to take care of her in a way where she can continue to be successful for years and years, even when I’m not her teammate.”
The WNBA launched in June 1997, just before Bird was to enter her senior year at Christ the King High School in Queens, and Stewart was not quite 3.
— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) October 4, 2020
UConn wasn’t quite a dynasty yet when Bird arrived in the fall of 1998. The Huskies had been to the Final Four three times and won one title. But Bird’s senior class — including other future WNBA players Swin Cash, Asjha Jones and Tamika Williams — added three more Final Fours, two titles and the school’s second perfect season.
By the time Stewart arrived at UConn in fall 2012, the Huskies were seven-time champions and had four perfect seasons. Stewart went 4-for-4 in championships, adding two more perfect seasons, and was the most outstanding player at the Final Four each year.
Despite their age gap, Bird and Stewart right away had things in common. Especially the UConn pedigree.
“I think the fact that we had similar paths, from where we started to where we are now, definitely made the relationship stronger,” Stewart said. “And just made us understand each other in ways that other people can’t.”
Stewart was league MVP in 2018, and the Storm — who survived a five-game semifinal series with the Phoenix Mercury — swept the Washington Mystics. She was named Finals MVP, too. It was part of an amazing year overall for Stewart, who also then was the MVP in the FIBA Women’s Basketball World Cup, won by the United States.
It seemed nothing could stop Stewart, until she suffered a torn Achilles tendon playing overseas in April 2019.
“When I got injured in 2019, one of the things that I was most devastated about was not having an opportunity to play with Sue that year,” Stewart said. “Because, obviously, I didn’t know how many more years she was going to be playing, and that was a year that was gone.”
But Bird missed 2019, too, after surgery on her left knee. Earlier this year, they faced the uncertainty of the coronavirus pandemic’s impact, but the league played a shortened 22-game regular season in the bubble in Bradenton, Florida, followed by the playoffs.
Stewart was runner-up to the Aces’ A’ja Wilson for MVP after averaging 19.7 points and 8.3 rebounds in the regular season. In the playoffs, Stewart’s numbers are 25.6 and 8.6; her 37-point effort in Game 1 was just one off the WNBA Finals record.
“You kind of take her for granted, because she’s just so good,” Seattle coach Gary Kloppenburg said. “She was really conscientious and meticulous on her rehab. She really was 100 percent physically coming into the season. She just didn’t skip a beat.”
Bird has dealt this summer with a bone bruise in her left knee, which limited her to 11 regular-season games. But in the playoffs, she has shown her point guard mastery, averaging 10.4 points and 9.6 assists. Her 16 assists in Game 1 of the WNBA Finals marked a career high and playoff record, earning her an Instagram shout-out from the Los Angeles Lakers’ LeBron James. At 35, like Bird he is also in his 17th season and seeking his fourth NBA championship.
“Sue’s been training for these moments every single day since her rookie year,” Auriemma said. “Some people don’t have the stamina to be able to do that. They don’t have the discipline to do that.”
Stewart jokes that Bird might play “until she’s 50.” Bird, who will be 40 on Oct. 16, isn’t going that far, although she has said she intends to play next year and hopes to make another Olympic team with Stewart. She’s realistic about knowing that injuries are always a factor.
But now, at the most important time of the season, Bird and Stewart are feeling good. It has been great fortune for them and the Storm that their career paths intersected.
“Sue makes everything easy for everybody,” Kloppenburg said. “Especially a player like Stewie that is so skilled in shooting the ball. It’s a remarkable tandem.”