September 27, 2023
Inside Breanna Stewart’s first day as reigning 2023 WNBA MVP
She won — with a little help from her friends
BROOKLYN — Just after 11 PM on Tuesday night, Breanna Stewart was exhausted. She let out a sigh of relief. She and her team accomplished what they set out to do. The Liberty evened the series by defeating the Connecticut Sun 84-77 in Game 2 of the WNBA semifinals.
This wasn’t an average game on a Tuesday night. This wasn’t even a typical day during the playoffs. Following shootaround at 10 am that morning, she and her teammates gathered on the Barclays Center floor for a mysterious video announcement.
Suddenly Liberty legend Teresa Weatherspoon appeared on the screen. Moments later, Jonquel Jones jumped up and down. She knew exactly what this was. It was confirmed when Weatherspoon mentioned the Liberty’s history as a cornerstone franchise. Jones squeezed her friend in a hug as the video continued. Weatherspoon announced to Stewart and the team that she had won the first league MVP award in New York Liberty history. And from that moment, Stewart’s eyes welled up. It was overwhelming to be in a moment where the figurative torch of the organization was being passed to her.
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Once the presentation ended, Jones and Stefanie Dolson encouraged the group to surround Stewart in a group hug. This wasn’t the first or last time Stewart got emotional surrounding an event that meant so much for her career and the legacy of her team.
Stewart was on the podium hours later in a black double-breasted vest, taylored dress pants and black and white sneakers. Once she was asked to recall the moment when she got the call from WNBA Comissioner Cathy Engelbert and got to share it with her wife Marta Xargay Casademont and her daughter Ruby, the waterworks hit Stewart again.
“She knows what it takes to be great and to be able to balance both,” Stewart said of her wife. “And I wouldn’t be able to do it without her. So it was a moment for us to celebrate it all and let our emotions flow freely through.”
But it wasn’t all tears for Stewart. There was some unintentional comedy at the ceremony. Ruby stomped up and down the stairs to get to the podium to join her mother, she paced back and forth behind Stewart while she was trying to deliver her speech, and she stuck her tongue out when her mom was getting photos taken with her new MVP trophy.
While Stewart quipped that she, her wife and her daughter haven’t practiced this type of moment before, the chaos and cuteness of the ceremony fit the moment and represented how Stewart has evolved since winning the award for the first time in 2018.
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But then once Stewart finished her speech, she had to consider what she had to do once she left the podium, and the pressure that surrounded her and teammates. She noted that she took pride in “doing the hard things.” So how exactly would she propel her team to victory to tie the series against a team featuring Alyssa Thomas, the player that finished second in the MVP voting, and Stewart’s primary defender.
“It’s a juggling act,” she said about how she was going to keep her emotions and the task at hand at bay. “The ability to do many things and balance it all. Obviously [I’m] very happy to be up here. Happy to have my family here. But the moment I step off this podium, it’s time to lock in for the game. And that’s what I intend to do. Understanding that, like I said, with parenting, you’re thrown a lot of curveballs and you never know what to expect. So today was obviously an emotional day, happy day and I’m excited to be able to use basketball as my outlet which it always has and go out there and do what I do.”
How would she meet the moment this time? How would she throw her full being into the game that she called “her outlet”? Head coach Sandy Brondello had a prediction.
“She’s going to be great tonight,” she said. “We know that. It was not that she was terrible [in Game 1]. She wasn’t at her same level, but many of them were. So we just made sure to keep them confident. And then make sure that we’re staying together and doing it together.”
Less than an hour after that press conference had begun, Stewart had transformed into her work attire to get ready to get down to business. She emerged from the New York Liberty tunnel with a camera and TV tech people leading her onto the court. She was doing an interview with the ESPN WNBA Countdown Crew right before she got into her routine. Courtney Vandersloot was still finishing up her warmup and was trying to make sure that she didn’t get in the way of the camera crew that was surrounding Stewart.
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Once Stewart took off her earpiece and removed her microphone from underneath her warmup shirt, it was time to start her extensive pregame routine. First she began her stretching, led by sports performance lead Lesley Chandler. Stewart leaped across the width of the floor at center court, making sure her agility was in check. After ten minutes with Chandler, she moved over to assistant coach Olaf Lange. The pair sat on the bench for some moments. He pointed something out to her on the floor and then they began her 10 plus minute shooting routine. She began in the paint, outside to the midrange, on the perimeter and then finally at the free throw line.
As she began to walk back to the locker room, a man in a wheelchair approached her. She engaged with him briefly before encouraging Betnijah Laney, who often warms up alongside Stewart. “Yeah B,” Stewart yelled as she walked off the floor. Fans who were watching warmups, began yelling Stewart’s alias. “Stewie…Stewie…Stewie,” the collective screamed. Stewart had to keep moving. She had a job to do. She’d make the droves of fans proud later.
Before tipoff, Stewart had to engage in more pomp and circumstance. Her face remained stoic when the 10,000-plus crowd of people saw the video from earlier with Weatherspoon. While her teammates reacted joyfully to it once again, Stewart had to remain calm and focused. It was an awkward moment when Stewart was again presented the trophy, now in front of the fans. She hoisted the trophy up with her warm-up jacket and uniform underneath it this time. While she was honored, a disgruntled Connecticut Sun team watched from the sidelines. Thomas would be guarding Stewart shortly, following an MVP ceremony for Stewart flaunted in Thomas’ face.
The game began with Liberty echoes of their Game 1 performance. They established Jones to start and she was responsible for 9 of the Liberty’s 16 first quarter points. Connecticut’s defense continued to make Stewart’s looks anything but easy. She began shooting 0-for-5 from the field. Her threes weren’t as rushed as they were on Sunday, but she still missed her first two attempts.
While her shot still wasn’t falling, Stewart shifted her energy and focus to be aggressive in other facets of the game. That was an adjustment she also made on Sunday, but this time, she did everything with a little bit more verve.
She almost doubled her rebound total from Sunday afternoon. She pursued the ball with much more movement and video game-level control over her 7’1 wingspan. Connecticut’s Thomas and DeWanna Bonner had to fight for each rebound, something the Liberty applied much less pressure to on Sunday. Stewart and Jones combined for 24 rebounds to 15 from Thomas and Bonner.
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In the second quarter, the Liberty began to change course. Playmaking rather than shooting, Stewart quarterbacked the Liberty’s zone defense along with Jones and Laney. She made sure the Liberty upped their pace and created offense off Sun misses or turnovers. Her first of 5 assists came on a Sabrina Ionescu transition three on the right wing. Another one came as a result of her selflessness, whipping a pass to Courtney Vandersloot for an open corner pocket three in less than a second of receiving the ball.
And then there were the blocks: five of them. There were two on Bonner, one on Thomas and then two more on Olivia Nelson-Ododa, including a momentum-shifting rejection with four minutes left in the third quarter. The Liberty bench rose as one as Stewart pointed her right arm toward the Liberty’s side of the floor. She got dabbed up by teammate Ionescu and flashed a toothy smile.
While Stewart credited the block part due to the fact that the Liberty were in zone, unfamiliar territory for their defense, she did call that final one on Nelson-Ododa “pretty nice.”
Stewart only made three field goals on Tuesday night, but her final make of the night was a welcoming sight, she said following the game. She saw that the Sun were setting a drop coverage while she and Vandersloot were going into their two-person game. Stewart popped out and fired once she got the ball in rhythm and Thomas took too long to recover from being in drop. Stewart made her first three of the series.
“It was huge for me,” Stewart said. “For the momentum of the game and just helped everything, and to see my teammates react. It was exciting.”
So how was Stewart going to make it through one of the most draining days in recent memory? It was going to be her teammates. When Stewart missed another jumper in the paint while trying to elevate over Thomas, it was Laney who rushed to the ball following the miss. Laney needed to keep the possession alive especially after Stewart tipped her own miss to her teammate. Stewart set a screen on Hayes, Laney fired and hit. It was now a ten-point game.
“I relied on my teammates and I think that’s really it,” Stewart said. “They continued to have my back on and off the court and, and helped make an impact in this game until I could find my way a little bit and it just shows the strength that we have of this team.”
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And Laney felt strongly about playing this game for Stewart. She warmed up in the Stewart MVP T-Shirt that the team had given out once Laney and her teammates arrived in the locker room. Laney and her teammates were used to the high expectations, especially following the team’s worst loss of the season. She knew who she was playing for on Tuesday night: for Stewart, for themselves, and for the fans.
“It was emotional,” Laney said about the day. “We were super happy and excited for Stewie. She’s done amazing things coming here and we’re happy to have her as part of the team. So we took that and we just ran with it.”
With a lot on the line in that current moment and franchise history to acknowledge at the same time, the Liberty and Stewart didn’t care how it all happened. She didn’t have to have a 40-point game to prove her worth. But a career-long pattern continued: Stewart paired a personal achievement with a team win.
Written by Jackie Powell
Jackie Powell covers the New York Liberty and runs social media and engagement strategy for The Next. She also has covered women's basketball for Bleacher Report and her work has appeared in Sports Illustrated, Harper's Bazaar and SLAM. She also self identifies as a Lady Gaga stan, is a connoisseur of pop music and is a mental health advocate.