Breanna Stewart has been chasing her own brand of perfection for most of her life, and that quest has not been limited to the basketball court. On July 13th, Stewart spoke out for equality in sports when she received the "Best Female Athlete" award at the ESPY 's in Los Angeles.
"During my time in college I received an enormous amount of media attention," said Stewart, who played for the UConn Huskies. "I'm grateful for that. And now that I'm in the WNBA, playing with other amazing female athletes, I'm trying to understand why we, as professional female athletes, don't receive anywhere near the fame. This has to change....
"Equality for all takes each of us making an effort."
Nine days later, Stewart and her Seattle Storm teammates donned black shirts to support the Black Lives Matter movement. Stewart tweeted, "There comes a time when silence is betrayal."
Stewart told Fox Sports, "I can't get over the fact that this is people's lives we are talking about. I think that's the biggest issue, and just realizing that a person's life is so precious. It was something that deserved to be said. I think that's really taking on our platforms as professional athletes and using them the best we can."
Stewart did something else in July. She was named WNBA Rookie of the Month for the third straight time. You might say that Breanna Mackenzie Stewart speaks out, stands up, and stands out in many ways. Now she's in Rio with Team USA as they prepare to compete for their sixth straight Olympic gold.
This interview took place before the Black Lives Matter protests began in the WNBA.
VICE Sports: So how did you get here?
Breanna Stewart: I am really hard on myself. I set high goals because I want to be the best and I am trying to do things that are considered to be really, really hard within the sport. When you are a competitor, you want to win all the time. Perfection is nearly impossible to do, but if you can get really, really close to perfection, then that's great.
Can you put into words how important confidence has been in your achieving success?
I think confidence is one of the most important things. If you are not confident in what you're doing, then you are not going to be doing it very well, especially as you continue to play on higher and higher levels. When you know what you are good at and know what you can do on the court, it helps you become mentally strong and gives you confidence in everything that you are doing.
When UConn was on its tremendous run last season and destroying opponents, Dan Shaughnessy, of the Boston Globe, tweeted, "I hate to punish the UConn women for being great, but they are killing the women's game. Watch? No thanks."
That got a lot of run during the tournament. It was almost as if the team was being chastised for being too good. How did you respond to that criticism?
Honestly, it was a little bit disrespectful. If he was actually watching our games, I don't think he would've said that. People are always telling me how the women's game needs to grow. That's what we are trying to do. We were trying to chase perfection and people give us crap for that. If we were to suck and miss layups, people would give us crap for that, too. It was kind of lose–lose situation.
My thought about competition has always been, "If you're not good enough, then get better. Don't tear down the team on top."
Exactly. As I said, we were trying to grow the women's game and constantly get better. If we were trying to get better, then other people should try to reach the level that we are at and make things more interesting.
I thought it was interesting ,and a little ironic, that you grew up in Syracuse, New York, and then beat Syracuse University to win the 2016 NCAA Championship. Obviously, a lot happened in between, but those are some pretty intriguing bookends.
Yeah. I thought that was really ironic how it ultimately played out, but it was cool. It took things full circle for me. The kid from Syracuse went to UConn and as I am leaving UConn, I finish out my career playing against Syracuse in the national championship game. Not a lot of people get to say that.
Is it true that as a kid you used to dribble a basketball around the streets of Syracuse to work on your ball-handling skills?
Yep. In my neighborhood, I used to dribble around the block four times a day. At first, it was something that my dad suggested for me and I really wasn't fond of it, but then it became my thing. I did it every day from middle school until I graduated from high school.
Your dad didn't want you to be pigeonholed into playing the "big" position the way that some people defined the "big" position back then?
Exactly. I think he wanted me to continue to be versatile and expand my game. Not just be a player who runs to the block but also be a player who can run and knock down threes, take someone off the dribble, post up, and have an array of skills.
You've had some pretty special moments recently by getting named to the U.S. Olympic team and being picked No. 1 overall in the WNBA draft. Do you expect to have successes like that or do you still get anxious in situations where so much is at stake?
I still get anxious and nervous about it, especially getting the call for the Olympic team. When the name popped up on my phone, I was really nervous because I wasn't sure if it was going to be a good conversation or a bad conversation in regards to making the team or not making the team. I'm glad it was a positive conversation. With USA Basketball, the expectation is to win the gold medal. That's always been the case and that is going to be a really unbelievable experience.
You have been playing for USA Basketball since you were fourteen. How has all that international experience helped you through your collegiate days and now in the WNBA?
It has helped me a lot. Playing for USA basketball and being a part of the national team training camps since my sophomore year in college has helped me prepare and have the mentality for this next level. I enjoyed playing for USA Basketball every single summer, so I am happy to represent our country, once again, in Rio.
What is it like putting on the red, white, and blue uniform?
It is one of the most humbling things you can do. I have played a lot of basketball for a lot of different teams in a lot of different places but, with Team USA, you are playing for more than just you and your teammates. You are playing for your country.
This will be your first Olympic competition and you'll be the youngest player on the squad (Stewart turns 22 on August 27th) but you will be going into the Rio games with several other UConn alums (Sue Bird, Maya Moore, Diana Taurasi, Tina Charles) as your teammates and your UConn head coach, Geno Auriemma, as your Olympic team coach. Is there a comfort zone factor that goes along with that?
I was excited to have the opportunity to be coached by Coach Auriemma again. I didn't know if that would ever happen again. We have great chemistry with all the players on the roster. We've had training camps together and gone overseas together. It's a great group and it's going to be a lot of fun.
I would think there might be some players who, after spending four years playing for as demanding a coach as Geno, might say, "I'd just as soon play for some other coach on the Olympic team." That doesn't sound like your approach at all.
No. I'm so excited. When you leave UConn, you leave your teammates and you leave your coach. The first thing I thought of (after making the Olympic team), besides telling my parents, was that I was going to get the opportunity to play with Coach on the court again.
What is it that makes Coach Auriemma so successful in women's basketball?
The biggest thing with him is that he maintains a relationship, on and off the court, with his players and he is putting as much on himself as we are as players to become the very best. He feels that if a player leaves his program and doesn't reach her potential, then he did something wrong.
Is "demanding" a good word to describe Geno?
Definitely! He is very demanding, but UConn recruits the type of players that want that. They want to be great and they want those expectations on them.
Does Breanna Stewart like to be pushed? Do you need to be pushed?
Yeah. At first, when I was a freshman, I didn't like it. I wasn't used to it, but then I realized what they were helping me become a player who could reach my full potential and, hopefully, be the best. They wanted to make sure that I was doing that. As soon as I understood what they were doing, I started to appreciate it every single day.
Geno has won eleven national championships at UConn. Do you think that his coaching success would translate to the men's game as well?
When you are such a well-accomplished coach in the world of basketball, I don't think you can separate that between men and women. He's done so many great things in the women's game. Who says he can't do the same thing in the men's game? Obviously, he is very content with where he is at UConn right now, but it is always something to think about.
We hear a lot about Geno when it comes to UConn basketball but we don't hear a lot about the supporting cast. What can you tell me about Chris Dailey, who started out as Geno's assistant coach at UConn over 30 years ago and now is his associate head coach?
When you think of Coach and C. D., you think of Batman and Robin. They are each other's counterparts. He would not be in the position that he is in without her and she would not be in the position that she is in without him. They do a great job of balancing between being hard on someone, pushing a player, and then realizing when they need to talk with someone about off-the-court stuff. I appreciated them both when I was at UConn because they were in my corner and pushed me beyond where I thought I could be pushed. I can't ask for anything better than that and I can't thank them enough.
Now you find yourself with the Seattle Storm in the WNBA. You probably couldn't have moved much farther across the country than from Connecticut to Washington. Are you enjoying the city?
Seattle is a great city. I had never been here before, so I really didn't know what to expect at first. It has been great to me so far and I am looking forward to continuing to be here.
What has it been like to make the transition from the greatest collegiate basketball program in the country to the WNBA?
There are definitely some differences. I think by playing at UConn, you have a head start. The whole reason you go to UConn is to become a great player and to get prepared for the next level, but there are still some things that you can't adjust to until they happen. The intensity at which the game is played is different. It is much quicker and, on every single team, every player from one to 12 is really great. That's not always the case in college.
I know the travel is different from college to the WNBA. I called games for the L.A. Sparks for sixteen years, so I know what there aren't any charter flights after WNBA games and there are a lot of very early morning wake-up calls so you can get to the airport and fly commercial to the next city for a game that night. Has that been an adjustment for you?
It definitely has. I've flown commercial before, but we had a road trip this season, in which we played four games in eight days in four different cities. That takes some adjusting, but you just try to recover your body as best as possible.
I would imagine it is also difficult getting used to the fact that, in the first month of your first WNBA season, the Seattle Storm had already posted more losses (six) than you had in your entire four-year career at UConn (five).
Wins and losses are part of the game. That's what happens. We are trying to do something here in Seattle and it is not going to come easy. Nothing comes easy. As long as we get better and keep making strides, I think we will be happy. Obviously, we want the wins and they are going to come. I just want to become the best player that I can be. Winning games and winning championships are definitely on my list. I want to reach my fullest potential and whatever happens with that, happens.
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