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WNBA

The Seattle Storm’s Championship Wasn’t Always So Inevitable

Sue Bird #10 of the Seattle Storm walks across the court after winning the WNBA Championship following Game 3 of the WNBA Finals against the Las Vegas Aces at Feld Entertainment Center on October 06, 2020 in Palmetto, Florida.
Photo: Julio Aguilar/Getty Images

The WNBA championship belonged to the Seattle Storm the minute Breanna Stewart shambled to the bench with foul trouble early in the second quarter of Game 3, and her teammates managed not only to preserve a lead but to extend it. It was theirs in Game 1, when guard Jewell Loyd exploded for 28 points and a 39-year-old Sue Bird wove herself flawlessly through the offense. It was theirs as soon as the Storm, a team 12 women deep, were slated to play this series against the Aces, a disaster of roster construction. It was theirs back in late July, when Stewart made her season debut, a year after tearing her right Achilles tendon, and looked as though nothing had changed.

But what about before that? The Storm’s romp, a three-game Finals sweep that ended 92-59 on Tuesday, belies a year of questions about whether the things being asked of this team were possible. To win, a team must first have a season, and that seemed in doubt as late as May. As the threat of full-blown cancelation loomed, players understood the possibility of a two-year absence from play and from the public eye to represent an existential crisis for the league and for its players’ small but growing platforms.

The Storm arrived in the bubble as the rare team with a roster fully intact, but the questions for Seattle stretched beyond who would show up, to in what shape they’d show up. Bird, this team’s heart, is of an age in basketball where nothing is certain, and she’d missed all of last season with a knee injury. She cites strict adherence to a Bradyesque regimen of exotic recovery technology, intermittent fasting, and anti-inflammatory dieting as her secret to life extension. Any eagle-eyed playoff watcher monitoring these games for the smallest signs of an imminent retirement was sorely disappointed. In Game 1 of these Finals, Bird broke the single-game playoff assists record with 16, 10 of those in one half.

As the maddeningly selfless Bird would be the first to say, an assist takes two. On the other side of no-look outlet passes and dimes whipped inside were the best bunch of starters in the WNBA, all of them deserving of All-Star designation, and the best bench, too. In Stewart’s and Bird’s absence last season, every player on the Storm improved, forward Natasha Howard and backup point guard Jordin Canada especially, but team chemistry is not so simple as the additive property. Without head coach Dan Hughes, deemed too high-risk to enter the bubble while he recovers from cancer, the job of calibrating last year’s breakout players and this year’s returning stars fell to assistant Gary Kloppenburg. He handled the task with aplomb.

Photo: Julio Aguilar/Getty Images

That still left the most nerve-racking roster question of them all: What would Breanna Stewart’s return to basketball be like? In April of 2019, just a month before the season began, Stewart landed awkwardly on a defender’s foot in the championship game for the EuroLeague, where she played for a salary in the mid-six figures, or 10 times more than what she made on the WNBA rookie deal she was supplementing. Stewart, then a reigning champion, MVP, and Finals MVP, missed the entire season.

A cheery, neutralizing coda can now be affixed to that episode, but the end of the story now makes what happened to Stewart all the more upsetting to think about. At the time, the injury said alarming things about the year-round toil and precarity of a life in women’s basketball. In these Finals, we saw exactly what we might have missed had the chips of recovery not fallen Stewart’s way. Her stats—37 points in Game 1, 26 in 25 minutes last night—might bring the league higher-ups some relief, but they raise far more important questions than they answer: What will the WNBA do to ensure that women who play in this league are not put in that position again? Not every woman will be so lucky as Stewart. After all, she is once in a lifetime.

The women’s basketball fandom throws around “GOAT” with all the precision of abstract expressionists, so cold statistics help here: Stewart shot 62 percent from the field and 65 percent from three in this series. In two WNBA Finals and four NCAA Tournaments, she has never lost a game. A few teams will try to change that next season. To the east, Elena Delle Donne and the Mystics lie in wait. Bill Laimbeer’s Aces won’t have taken this loss as anything but an invitation for revenge. Maybe Maya Moore returns to the Lynx.

We could hedge and dither about the Storm’s uncertain road ahead, but that would be a cowardly waste of your time and mine. Stewart’s college coach Geno Auriemma put it best 17 years ago, in a season where Diana Taurasi took a sorry, rebuilding UConn team to a title. Why was Auriemma so sure they’d win? “We have Diana and you don’t,” he replied. For the next few years, at least, a chasm will define the WNBA, between the team that has Breanna and the teams that don’t.