SEATTLE — When Breanna Stewart returns to Climate Pledge Arena with the New York Liberty on Tuesday night (9 ET, ESPN2/ESPN App), it will mark an unprecedented moment in Seattle Storm history. In the Storm’s 24 years of existence, never before has a superstar come back after leaving via free agency.
Sure, starters such as Alysha Clark, Natasha Howard, Sheri Sam and Tanisha Wright from championship teams have signed elsewhere. Seattle also welcomed back WNBA superstars who spent part of the latter stages of their careers with the Storm, including Katie Smith and Sheryl Swoopes.
Of the three players who have most defined Seattle’s WNBA franchise, however, both Sue Bird and Lauren Jackson played their entire careers with the Storm — 20 seasons, in Bird’s case, despite considering a move to her hometown Liberty before Stewart arrived in Seattle to help lead the team to championships in 2018 and 2020.
After Bird’s retirement last fall, Stewart chose a different path. In an era in which WNBA players feel more empowered to take control of their careers, Stewart signed with the Liberty as an unrestricted free agent. On Tuesday, she’ll be back for what she describes as a “weird” game.
“To be honest, when you look at it, it hasn’t happened often in the WNBA,” Stewart told ESPN after New York practiced Monday in Seattle. “We’ll all be feeling weird together. I hope there’s going to be tons of appreciation on both sides, and then once the game starts it’s going to be competitive as usual.”
The WNBA’s schedule-makers gave Stewart relatively little time to get settled in New York before coming back to Seattle for just her fourth game with the Liberty. Stewart is still at the point where, after seven seasons with the Storm — one of them spent on the sideline due to an Achilles rupture suffered playing overseas in 2019 — she’s getting used to thinking of herself as a member of the Liberty.
“The fact that it came so quickly, I’m still struggling with what team I’m on,” said Stewart, sporting a shiner on her left eye after being hit in the face in Saturday’s win over the Connecticut Sun. “Such a bittersweet feeling. … It’s going to be an emotional night just to be playing against Noey [Storm coach Noelle Quinn] and Jewell [Loyd] and the whole staff and everything like that, but this is why we love sports: the relationships, the things that change and the things that don’t.”
Part of the weirdness, Stewart explained, is staying in a downtown hotel with her team instead of the Belltown condo she and wife Marta Xargay Casademont — who made the trip, though daughter Ruby didn’t — called home in Seattle. During a quick trip, Stewart was hoping to get back to as many of her old haunts as possible, including Rocco’s for pizza. Her mom, Heather, is also in town for the game and came early to attend Friday night’s Storm loss to the Dallas Wings.
Having practiced Monday at Seattle Pacific University in the same gym used by the Storm, Stewart couldn’t help but reminisce about her time in Seattle.
“It’s a lot of great memories,” she said. “I was thinking about it when I was warming up. Really just love the people here and appreciate the city and the fans so much. Even though we’re starting a new chapter and I’m starting a new chapter on a new team, just nothing but gratitude for everything here in Seattle.”
How will fans react?
Stewart isn’t sure what kind of reaction to expect from Seattle fans based on the combination of everything she accomplished with the Storm — an MVP award, Finals MVP nods in both of the Storm’s title runs and also as the team won the inaugural WNBA Commissioner’s Cup — balanced against the disappointment of her departure.
“It could be a number of different things but from the people I’ve talked to, they’re just really grateful for everything that I’ve been able to be a part of in Seattle and that feeling is mutual,” Stewart said. “Really grateful for what the fans gave to us and helped us bring two championships while I was here.”
“She did nothing but great things for the city. She grew up here. She created her family here in a lot of ways. Ruby and Marta, but also her Storm family and the Storm community.”
Storm coach Noelle Quinn on Breanna Stewart
Although Storm fans might not have experience welcoming back a former star who chose to leave, Seattle sports fans have plenty. After signing what was then the largest contract in MLB history with the Texas Rangers as a free agent, former Seattle Mariners MVP Alex Rodriguez was showered with Monopoly money when he returned to Seattle in 2001.
More recently, Seahawks Super Bowl-winning quarterback Russell Wilson was booed on Monday Night Football throughout his first game back in Seattle last September after asking for a trade to the Denver Broncos.
The members of the Storm organization who know Stewart best hope she enjoys a better reception.
“I hope that the Seattle fans embrace her,” Loyd, drafted No. 1 overall by the Storm a year before Stewart was picked in the same spot, told ESPN. “She brought a lot to the city. She changed the mindset of the city. I hope they embrace her.”
Quinn, who was a teammate for Stewart’s first three WNBA seasons before retiring and becoming her head coach, expects it to be “great.”
“She did nothing but great things for the city. She grew up here. She created her family here in a lot of ways. Ruby and Marta, but also her Storm family and the Storm community,” Quinn told ESPN. “I feel like it’s nothing but love for her in that arena Tuesday.”
Jewell Loyd drains 3 vs. Dallas Wings
Jewell Loyd drains 3 vs. Dallas Wings
Having come to Seattle a year apart, Stewart played more games with Loyd (204 between the regular season and playoffs) than any other teammate, even Bird (185). They played against each other at times overseas, but Tuesday will be the first time they’ve been on opposite sides in a meaningful game on American soil since Stewart’s UConn Huskies beat Loyd’s Notre Dame Fighting Irish in the 2015 NCAA title game.
“We have a handshake before games that we’ve done,” Stewart said, “and I’m sure we’ll do the handshake (Tuesday) even though we’re on different teams.”
“Even though we’re starting a new chapter and I’m starting a new chapter on a new team, just nothing but gratitude for everything here in Seattle.”
Stewart had a hard time breaking the news to Loyd that she was headed to New York.
“We grew up together, we’ve been in this together,” she said. “I didn’t want her to feel like I was bailing on her, in a sense, because I loved every moment playing with Jewell and hope that we’ll continue it with USA Basketball. It was just a decision that I needed to make for my family and wanting to make sure that I’m in a position to continue to push the needle as a whole in the WNBA.
“She understood, and just the way that she took it, being a huge supporter of mine no matter what. I think that’s what makes me feel great. Through it all, the relationship stays the same. Neither one of us is going to like playing against each other, but it’s what we’ll do.”
As they’ve embarked on new adventures — Stewart with the Liberty and Loyd as the face of the Storm franchise with Bird’s retirement and Stewart’s departure — they’ve stayed in regular contact via text.
“I just want to see her healthy,” Loyd said. “As a friend, you want to cheer for your friends. I’m excited that she’s happy, she’s playing well and she looks good.”
Whatever the emotions on Tuesday, Stewart will be remembered as one of the greatest players ever to call Seattle home.
The city has experience with forgiveness, too. Any hard feelings about Ken Griffey Jr. requesting a trade to his hometown Cincinnati Reds after the 1999 season were long since past when Griffey made his first trip back eight years later to emotional standing ovations. (Griffey would ultimately return to the Mariners to finish his MLB career.)
“What I want people to remember about my time with the Storm is just being a competitor, a winner, somebody that really tried to look out for everyone, whether it was teammates, coaches, fans,” Stewart said. “I wanted to hopefully make a positive impact here and develop as many relationships as possible.”
To those who were alongside her throughout the journey, Stewart’s Seattle career was so much more.
“She built on to what Sue and Lauren started for us,” Loyd said. “We came in young together and were able to change the franchise and the city together. You think of Stewie, she’s a winner. That’s what she brought. She definitely should have her jersey somewhere in honor of what she’s done for this organization.”
Added Quinn: “Her legacy is strong. It’s intact. She did something for this organization that not a lot of players have done in a lot of ways. Won MVP, the championships, All-WNBA teams. She did an amazing job here in her career.”