On Wednesday night in the suburbs of Washington, D.C., Breanna Stewart capped off her MVP season with 30 points, eight rebounds, three assists, two steals, one Finals MVP award, and her very first WNBA championship, as her Seattle Storm completed a three-game sweep of the Washington Mystics.
When Stewart arrived in the WNBA three seasons ago as the first overall pick in the 2016 draft, it was thought to be only a matter of time until the former University of Connecticut star and four-time NCAA champion took over the league. Well, that time is now.
But, while there was a certain inevitability about how dominant Stewart could be on the court, it’s arguable that the young star has an even bigger impact off of it in her brief career.
Last October, in the midst of the #MeToo movement surge in visibility, Stewart came forward as a survivor of childhood sexual abuse in an essay for the Players’ Tribune. She recounted how a family friend had molested her on a regular basis for two years, starting when she was only nine years old. Stewart had never talked about the abuse publicly before, and was extremely nervous to tell her story. But she discovered that reading stories from other survivors was helping her heal, and she wanted to be able to do that for others.
“I didn’t really know what to expect, because I’ve obviously never really touched on a topic like that before. But the support was overwhelming,” Stewart told ThinkProgress the day before Game 3 of the WNBA Finals. “Just from people I knew, people I didn’t know, from the league, and beyond that. And it was comforting because it made things a little easier, because it’s still hard to release something like that.”
Stewart’s teammate and friend, 17-year WNBA veteran Sue Bird, believes it’s no accident that Stewart had her finest season as a player after she became more vulnerable and open off the court.
“I actually think Stewie’s off-court growth and maturity is connected to her on-court growth and maturity,” Bird said. “I think all you’re seeing is someone who is coming into their own, and understanding who they are as a person, and being confident in that. When you feel good about yourself, and who you are, you perform better as well. You know who you are as a player.”
Everywhere she goes, Stewart is reminded of the impact she had by telling her story. On social media, at meet and greets, and even just as she’s going about her day-to-day life, strangers come up to her and thank her, and tell her their own personal stories of survival. It can be a lot, being an open ear for so many traumas, but it also serves as a constant reminder of the power of her platform.
But it’s not just strangers who have been amazed by her openness and honesty; her competitors share a new level of admiration for her now, too.
“For her to come out and be brave enough to tell her story, just because she knew she’d be able to impact so many others and help them — as great a basketball player she is, she’s an even better human being,” Mystics forward and 2015 WNBA MVP Elena Delle Donne said.
“It was really big of her,” said Mystics rookie Myisha Hines-Allen. “She’s one of the faces of the WNBA. For her to come out with her story, and what she’s been through, it not only speaks volumes about this league, that she trusts the league, but it speaks volumes about her. She’s a strong woman, she can’t be broken down.”
Since the moment Stewart turned pro, she’s been comfortable advocating for causes bigger than herself. When she won the 2016 ESPY for Best Female Athlete, she gave a speech calling out the media for its lack of coverage of women’s sports. That same year, she joined her colleagues across the league in standing up for Black Lives Matter. In 2017, she stood up for the LGBTQ community and for the culture of the WNBA when one former WNBA player bashed it to the press.
“She’s just been so selfless with her activism from the moment she’s gotten into the league, she’s just been willing to be that advocate and that role model and to help other people,” Layshia Clarendon, a Connecticut Sun guard who also shared her #MeToo story this season, said on Wednesday. “I’m just so proud of Stewie.”
It was that word — proud — that came up time and time again when talking to Stewart’s teammates and competitors. She’s the best player in the league, and at only 24 years old, is also its future. And, thanks to her bravery, they all feel that the future is incredibly bright.
“She’s obviously doing a tremendous job with her basketball play, but being able to share her story, being able to stick up for those who might not have a voice — I mean, let’s be honest, she’s probably saved some lives,” Bird said. “And that goes beyond anything she’ll do on the court. It’s incredible.”