When rapper and producer Jay-Z released The Blueprint 3, which included the hit single “Empire State of Mind,” on Oct. 20, 2009, Breanna Stewart was a towering, 15-year-old athlete who had already been shattering the competition with her elite basketball skills at Cicero–North Syracuse High School.
As Alicia Keys performed the chorus with the perfect blend of voice and harmony of the popular song, New York is what Stewart’s hoops dream was made of. But she couldn’t limit herself to central New York. Stewart would showcase her talents worldwide.
After playing for Team USA’s teen squads, she made the more than four-hour trips to Storrs, Conn., for four years to win four NCAA titles under legendary UConn coach Geno Auriemma before jetting 44 hours across the country to Seattle to spend six incredible seasons with the Storm. They weren’t orthodox WNBA seasons for Stewie.
SI Staff: Winners and Losers of WNBA Free Agency So Far
Seattle became Stewie’s home away from home. The fans who strolled into Key Arena and eventually Climate Pledge Arena loved her. In Seattle, she put the W on notice in 2016 as the league’s Rookie of the Year, became a four-time All-Star, a two-time WNBA champion, a league MVP, a two-time Finals MVP and the WNBA’s scoring leader in 2022. She played with future Hall of Famer Sue Bird as well as terrorized the opposition with her deadly midrange game, her clutch three-point shooting and her crafty moves in getting to the rim alongside four-time All-Star Jewell Loyd. Not everybody gets the chance to play with that caliber of greatness.
But after a couple of weeks of cryptic emoji tweets that captivated fans across Twitter and Instagram, somewhere in those days the wind blew off the Marmara Sea in Istanbul—where Stewart is playing for Fenerbahçe—and led her to bring her talents to the Big Apple and play for the Liberty in 2023. When she tweeted the clip of her name on the Empire State Building that included the Statue of Liberty emoji on Wednesday morning, the biggest domino of WNBA free agency had fallen. “I can’t believe it, to be honest,” Stewart told ESPN’s Malika Andrews during a segment on SportsCenter. “It’s been a roller coaster of emotions.”
Brennan: Breanna Stewart’s Move to the Liberty Leaves the Storm in a Tough Spot
While Stewart has not put on a Liberty uniform or taken a shot on the court inside the Barclays Center as the newest member of New York’s squad, the hype for New York becoming one of the WNBA’s biggest superteams took flight. Stewie joins a talented Liberty squad that could feature a starting lineup of her, 2021 WNBA MVP and four-time All-Star Jonquel Jones, ’22 All-Star Sabrina Ionescu, ’21 All-Star Betnijah Laney, and French standout Marine Johannes.
Each of these players brings a key ingredient that makes this team an early prime contender to compete for a WNBA title this season. Ionescu, who led the team in scoring (17.4 ppg) last season while finishing third in the league in assists per game (6.3), paved the way for the Liberty to earn their second consecutive WNBA playoff berth in 2022. But aside from Ionescu’s finesse and expertise—and despite the trade of Natasha Howard—both Laney (11.2) and Johannes (10. 0) averaged double-figure point totals while shooting better than 40% from the floor. Not to mention, Johannes, Stefanie Dolson and Han Xu finished in the top 16 in the league in three-point percentage.
Combine that with the impact of Jones, who ranked in the top 20 for points (14.6) and 12th in effective field goal percentage (57.3), as well finishing in the top 10 in offensive, defensive and total rebounding percentage and block rate percentage, per HerHoopStats. Last season, the Liberty as a unit, led by Sandy Brondello in her first season as New York’s coach, finished ninth in offensive rebounding percentage, eighth in both defensive and total rebounding percentage and at the bottom of the league in steal percentage.
Stewart, who finished as the MVP runner-up to the Aces’ A’ja Wilson, has the capability to take over a game at any moment, especially when playing alongside guards like Loyd and Bird, who liked to push the pace offensively. While Ionescu is not Bird by any stretch of the imagination (no one is), the fourth-year guard has displayed her astute ball circulation in orchestrating the Liberty’s offense as well as her power and capability to assert herself and score. It helps Stewart, which helps the Liberty, to have guards like Ionescu. If New York manages to land veteran point guard Courtney Vandersloot, who could be another critical piece in a fast-pace offensive set, her mastery of distributing the ball to potential teammates like Stewie, Jones and others will become scary, in a good way.
Stewart told Andrews that she supports Vandersloot in whatever option she chooses to continue her WNBA career, but she does want to team up with the four-time All-Star. “She knows I love to play with her,” Stewart said. “Hopefully, we will be gearing up together sometime soon.” Me too, Stewie. Me too.
But Stewart is not getting ahead of herself with regard to expectations. “This group has a lot of potential … but the selflessness is what’s going to help us,” she said. “Superteams are the new thing, so we’re trying to make sure we are as good as possible.”
Stewart is no stranger to playing with first-class talent around her. She went all the way across the country to come back home to play for a Liberty team with aspirations of continuing to be great and raising the standard. “New York is a basketball city. Everybody wants to come and show what they have,” Stewart told Andrews.
Who turns down an opportunity to play in the biggest sports market in the country? Not Stewie—or Kevin Durant, who actively recruited her to come to the Liberty and even prognosticated a Liberty dynasty with Stewart in a New York uniform. Is it too soon to say? Maybe. But the thought is appealing.
The last New York–affiliated professional sports team to win a title was New York City FC in the 2021 MLS Cup. Famously, the Liberty themselves have never won a title.
Like Jay-Z’s iconic song, things with the Liberty are “brand new” for Stewart. She’s shown there is “nothing she can’t do,” and those before her have paved the way. The 28-year-old—along with the stars around her—could be the agent of change to bring the Liberty their first WNBA title and elevate the quality of professional basketball in New York City.
Stewie, let the lights of the concrete jungle inspire you. New York, Stewie is home.