September 26, 2023 

Inside the room where Breanna Stewart accepted the 2023 WNBA Most Valuable Player Award

'Her greatness is not by accident'

BROOKLYN — Before Breanna Stewart could take the podium to accept the 2023 WNBA MVP Award, her daughter Ruby was determined to join commissioner Cathy Engelbert on the stage in the Barclays Center media room.

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“Come here!”, Stewart said sweetly to her daughter, eventually gathering her into her arms. Ruby came up with Stewart, while four generations of Stewart’s family, including her grandmother, parents and her wife, Marta Xargay.

And once she’d gotten a tight hold on Ruby, even as she accepted the trophy, she took a sigh and uttered a phrase making the generational great relatable to everyone: “Parenting is hard.”

So it was easy to understand why Stewart allowed herself to travel back in time as she accepted her second WNBA MVP Award, visibly emotional at times as she joined elite company. Lauren Jackson, Lisa Leslie and Sheryl Swoopes have each won it three times, while Cynthia Cooper, A’ja Wilson, Elena Delle Donne, Candace Parker and now Stewart have won it two times.

“Since I entered this league, I probably demanded more myself than anyone and I want to be great every day,” an emotional Stewart said. “I’ve been that way ever since I’ve traveled around the block over and over again as a tall lanky kid growing up in Syracuse, New York.”

The margin in 2023 was the closest between first and second, and even first and third, in WNBA history.

Stewart finished in first place with 446 points (20 first-place votes, 27 second-place votes and 17 third-place votes). Alyssa Thomas of the Connecticut Sun finished second with 439 points (23 first-place points, 12 second-place votes, and 25 third-place votes).

“It was so close and we were have so much respect for the other players, but to be the first New York Liberty player to win MVP, that’s amazing,” Stewart’s coach, Sandy Brondello, said Tuesday night, prior to Game 2 of the WNBA semifinals between Stewart’s Liberty and Thomas’ Connecticut Sun.

During the regular season, Stewart played 40 games for the New York Liberty, which she joined as an unrestricted free agent this past offseason. She had an impressive average of a career-high 23.0 points, 9.3 rebounds, and 3.8 assists per game, increasing her individual numbers even while playing amid the most talent surrounding her of her career.

“I think she just bought another level of professionalism,” Brondello said “The way that she prepares for the game, it’s not two hours before the game. It’s as soon as she wakes up, step by step how to get ready. The activation, the pilates, the yoga — she is very disciplined. So her greatness is not by accident. This has been earned.”

Stewart set a new record in WNBA history with 40 points in four games in a single season and franchise records for total points (919), the second-most in league history, and rebounds (371). And ahead of a game the Liberty need to win to avoid returning to Connecticut trailing a best-of-five series, 2-0, Stewart needed to manifest another great performance following a loss. It’s what she did in her second game for New York, scoring 45 in the Liberty’s home opener.

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Ultimately, both Brondello and Thomas’ head coach, Stephanie White, saw the closeness of the vote as a sign of the increased quality of not just the league writ large, but among its very best.

“The way this race was, I think it’s so great for this league,” White said pregame on Tuesday. “And knowing how tight this voting was, you have three players who have had MVP-caliber seasons, and it’s reflected in this vote. When this league continues to have multiple players involved in these conversations, it just shows the depth, the quality of play. The best players in the world are playing in this league night in and night out. And I think it’s a great representation of where we are and where we’re going.”

Stewart’s second award comes under very different life circumstances for her. She’s rehabilited an achilles injury since then. She’s moved across the country. She’s married Xargay, the former Phoenix Mercury guard, and had her first child, a second on the way. So in that moment after hearing official word from Engelbert, it was a time to reflect.

Breanna Stewart and her daughter Ruby listen to Cathy Engelbert speak ahead of giving Stewart the 2023 WNBA MVP Award. (Howard Megdal photo)
Breanna Stewart and her daughter Ruby listen to Cathy Engelbert speak ahead of giving Stewart the 2023 WNBA MVP Award. (Howard Megdal photo)

“The moment that I told her, shortly after Cathy called me, was was emotional for both of us just because as a former player, she knows what it takes,” Stewart said. “To be great and to be able to balance both. And I wouldn’t to be able to do it without her. So it was a moment for us to celebrate it all and let our emotions flow freely, because I wouldn’t be able to do this without her.”

For Stewart, the moment she left the podium, she explained, it was time to put the award aside for now and concentrate on the game, which she soon did, after a last bit of loving exchanges with her family, getting high fives from her assembled teammates in the back of the media room.

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With that, the Stewart family made its way out of the media room slowly as well. Brian Stewart, father of the MVP, has long been the repository for all her awards, from Player of the Week to her four Most Outstanding Player of the Final Four awards while at UConn. (The previous MVP, living with Stewart, Xargay and Ruby, had been perilously close to Ruby’s reach as well, Stewart said.)

With no small trace of pride, as he exited the room, Brian fielded a question on the status of Stewart’s ever-growing trophy room.

“Well, we’ll have to find a place for this one, too,” he said with a faux-sad shake of his head.

Howard Megdal contributed reporting to this story.

Written by Aya Abdeen

Aya Abdeen is a student in sports journalism at Arizona State University and has been a contributing writer for The Next Hoops since December 2022. Her work has also appeared on AZPreps365.

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