May 22, 2023
Breanna Stewart’s dazzling home debut shows how everything’s changed in New York
Inside Stewart’s record-setting 45 point day in the Liberty's sold-out home opener
BROOKLYN, N.Y. — Whether she knew it or not, Sandy Brondello was looking into a crystal ball in real time last June.
Back then, her New York Liberty team lost 81-72 to the Seattle Storm at home, a performance that was Sue Bird’s final WNBA game in her home state of New York. Brondello’s team didn’t show the toughness that she wanted in the first half. There wasn’t a sense of urgency until the third quarter.
Brondello explained how the Liberty had allowed Storm wing Gabby Williams to put up 23 points on 10-15 shooting, were able to keep Jewell Loyd in tow for the most part, only allowing 9 points but also 7 assists. And then she referred to Breanna Stewart who scored 18 points, 7 of which she scored in the final quarter.
“I used to always say that in Phoenix: we have Diana Taurasi, and they don’t.” she said on June 19, 2022. “They have Breanna Stewart and we don’t. You throw it into Stewie and she’ll make something happen.”
Brondello used the same exact same phrase 336 days later. But the context has completely changed.
This time? It’s the Liberty who has the sport’s best player in Stewart — and she sure reminded everyone of that fact in her first home game with her new franchise.
“Stewie, she was … we have Breanna Stewart and they don’t,” Brondello said. “I suppose that’s how it comes down to. Yeah, she was pretty special tonight.”
“Pretty special” might be underselling what Stewart did on Sunday as the Liberty crushed the visiting Indiana Fever. She broke the franchise record for points in a game (which was 40 points from Cappie Pondexter), scoring 45 points on 71 percent shooting in just over 30 minutes. She also secured 12 of the Liberty’s 36 total rebounds, had three assists, a block, a steal and one measly turnover.
When a team has Stewart rostered on it, a lot changes. And in the 90-73 win on Sunday, a lot in Brooklyn looked new and unlike anything fans of this franchise have ever seen in the team’s 27-year history.
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Barclays Center was transformed
Home court looked very different for the Liberty. The tan-looking hardwood floor was replaced with incremental shades of gray, akin to the XBOX floor the team used for their series last season against the Sparks (though the new court was easier on the eye, at least). It had seafoam spritzed across the baseline, within the keys and all along the bench line. There’s even a gray crown that is placed on top of the bright blue Barclays Center logo that stretches up to the team’s logo at center court.
But the floor wasn’t the only thing looking new and improved for the Liberty. Bracelets were distributed to each seat, flashing in seafoam throughout the afternoon — no doubt matching the new Light it Up slogan for the Liberty this season.
The Liberty’s new hype video featured that slogan several times, which also had Jonquel Jones shouting, “It’s showtime,” Han Xu waving a finger in the air and Kayla Thornton yelling “Let’s go” before ending with Sabrina Ionescu saying: “New York, I hope you enjoy the show.”
“So I think the special effects, the way the jumbotron works and everything, everyone had a little light up, there was there a wristband or something like that,” Stefanie Dolson told The Next postgame about all of these new elements during home games. “It was just really fun and really great energy for everyone’s first game.”
The PA even announced every player on roster before the starters while the flaming torch from the video was live and in action on the court. If the Aces can use pyrotechnics, so can the Liberty.
Before tipoff, it was Stewart who took her place as the masters of ceremonies, an honor on the home opener reserved for a new player to the franchise. Stewart joined Betnijah Laney and Dolson who in years past were who welcomed the first home crowd to another season of WNBA basketball.
“Hello,” Stewart hesitated trying to make sure the mic was on. “Hello Brooklyn,” she said again. “It’s nice to be home. It’s nice for us to be home. I know we’re so excited to play in front of you guys. I can’t wait for your support tonight and all season long. Thank you for supporting the W and keep doing it.”
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Winning looks easy and enjoyable
Stewart admitted she felt goosebumps several times in her first home game — when watching that new and glammed out warm up video, when she heard the crowd roar after any of her 15 shots.
How does Stewart do this? Making 15 shots during an afternoon where expectations and the stakes were incredibly high?
In Jones’ eyes, Stewart’s high release point helps — in fact, it makes her unguardable.
“I don’t know what else to say,” Jones said talking about her friend of many years. “Like it’s just she’s gonna make tough shots. She’s gonna play through contract, everything like that. She’s just an amazing person. I’m happy to call her a teammate.”
Dolson, who has known Stewart since they were teammates at UConn, praised Stewart for her humility and how quietly she puts up numbers like this.
“She can go out there and just perform with ease,” she said. “I mean, tonight you saw that it was like, everything looks so easy. And I think she just, she makes the game look easy. She makes it come easy to everyone else that was playing around her and it was really fun to watch.”
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But don’t mistake being humble for lacking confidence, either — and with that confidence comes an audaciousness, too.
Stewart’s final make of the game, with 1:40 left in the third, came when Courtney Vandersloot whipped a pass over her head to Stewart. Standing 29 feet from the basket, Stewart didn’t hesitate for a single moment even as Lexie Hull contested the shot. It was a pure swish that rocked the arena.
Ionescu, who was on the bench for that moment, had a look on her face full of euphoria, and as did Liberty General Manager Jonathan Kolb.
“I knew I was going to shoot it as I was running down the floor,” Stewart said postgame about that final shot. Ionescu pipped in: “Me too.” Stewart looked back at Ionescu and the two stars laughed and smiled at each other.
And while the Liberty’s home grown player Ionescu wasn’t the night’s leading scorer, she was quite close to yet another one of her triple-doubles (nine points, eight assists and eight rebounds). As Brondello explained what she believed Ionescu did well in Sunday’s game, Stewart sat beside her at the podium nodding not only her head but her entire body in agreement with her coach’s assessment of the young combo guard.
When Ionescu arrived on the podium moments later, there was a lightness about her that she hasn’t had in her years playing for the Liberty. In past seasons, as the Liberty lost far more often than they won, Ionescu would only rarely let out a quip, barely showing her personality.
But that was not the case on Sunday afternoon. When Stewart was asked what she had for breakfast prior to her masterclass performance, Ionescu joked out loud that she also wanted to know what her new teammate had for breakfast. Once Stewart listed out all the food she ate, Ionescu piped up again: “Can you make me that? I’m going to come over next game.”
Being able to laugh and joke after a big win? One reckons Ionescu could surely get used to this, if that’s what you get when you have Breanna Stewart on your team.
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Raised standards and new expectations
But Ionescu sounded more business-like when she explained the standard the Liberty need to hold themselves to, now that they have Stewart and others in the fold.
“We know that we’re capable of playing like this and we’re holding ourselves to the standard every single night,” Ionescu said.
In Ionescu’s view, though, this first game was the most important game of the season, a game that proves to fans that the Liberty are capable of putting on the show. It keeps the Liberty a perfect 3-0 in home openers since moving to Barclays in 2021 — and while these weren’t last-second, thrilling wins led by Ionescu, the show on Sunday was still top-notch, thanks to Stewart.
“We want to be the best that we can, especially in front of our home crowd and tonight was electric being able to see the growth of the fan base throughout the last couple years,” Ionescu said. “And just the commitment from the organization. There were people buzzing inside already two hours before the game started.”
Flashing back to almost a year ago when the Liberty welcomed Sue Bird home for the last time, the attendance capped off at 6,859 people. At the time, Brondello thought that was an encouraging number, but she knew that it could get even larger.
“I was in Phoenix for eight years and the X-Factor was such a big asset for us there and I think that’s what we want to bring to the Liberty and get it back to the early days and make it a hot ticket,” Brondello said back in June.
On Sunday, the Liberty boasted 8,575 people in Barclays on Sunday, which was categorized as a sellout because the upper level of Barclays was closed off. It was the largest number they’ve accumulated on an opening day since 2017, their final full season in Madison Square Garden.
Sure, other organizations have had larger showings that were considered sellouts, including in both Brondello’s former home in Phoenix and Stewart’s in Seattle.
But Stewart chose New York because of what she wants to build, not because of what already exists.
Stewart’s goal is to always be a change agent in the league — and on Sunday, her words and on-court performance showed why she can be just that.
“Yes, the 45 points is great. But if I didn’t score 45 points, and we still had the win and the same fan engagement, that’s what we want,” Stewart said. “And that’s what shows that I made the right decision in coming here. And we’re here to win, obviously, but we’re here to also push the needle, and in many ways, the WNBA needs that, women’s sports need that.
“So, we have a lot of work to do, but it’s a challenge and we’re embracing it.”
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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.
Great Story, Jackie.