Breanna Stewart’s parents were hardly thinking about basketball history when they turned down her first chance to play on a USA Basketball team at 14.
They were thinking about their daughter missing too much school.
A trusted basketball advisor suggested they reconsider. Still conflicted, Brian and Heather Stewart called the North Syracuse School District superintendent’s office.
Would it be OK, Brian asked, if Breanna left school for a time this spring to play for the under-16 national team?
Brian can’t remember who he spoke with, but their answer was so enthusiastically yes that the Stewarts felt sheepish.
“That’s how naïve we were,” Brian said in a recent phone interview.
Eight years later, their daughter’s nomination to the U.S. Olympic team caps one of the most accomplished three months for a college basketball player in history.
Since April, Breanna Stewart has: 1. Won a fourth consecutive NCAA title with her UConn team; 2. Been awarded a fourth-consecutive Final Four most outstanding player award; 3. Was selected as the No. 1 draft pick (by the Seattle Storm) in the WNBA; 4. At 21 was named to one of the deepest U.S. Olympic women’s basketball teams ever, one expected to win gold in Rio and add to a dynasty that has won five Olympic titles in a row.
The only other players to complete the NCAA champion/No. 1 pick/Olympic team trifecta in the same year were Diana Taurasi and Candace Parker.
Olympic rookie Stewart has already played 69 games in a national-team uniform. That’s similar to U.S. stalwarts Sue Bird, Seimone Augustus, Tamika Catchings and Taurasi.
“Oh wow. That’s a lot,” said Stewart when told the number. “I didn’t know exactly how many games. But it seems like every summer I’m doing something with USA Basketball at some level or another. It’s not surprising. That’s what I do: In the summertime I play USA Basketball. That’s what I want to do.”
Hard to say if that figured into USA Basketball’s decision to nominate Stewart to the 2016 Olympic team, but it couldn’t have hurt as the program looks to the next generation to keep churning out champions. (The team is so deep that Parker, a two-time gold medalist, was not named to it.)
Just like when she was 14, Stewart finds herself playing up.
“When I was a kid, it was cool because I was playing against really great players older than me,” Stewart said. “It made me grow up faster … It’s helped a lot. Even still, I’m one of the younger ones.”
Stewart said playing with older players early made her learn to adapt to changes and embrace new experiences like traveling alone or playing with new teammates. Earlier this month, she signed a contract to play pro ball this winter in Shanghai, China, when the WNBA season is over.
Things like the language, food, vastly different culture and distance from home doesn’t faze her, she said in a telephone interview while on the road with the Storm. She’ll be the only American on the team (China’s league allows just one U.S. player per squad).
“When you think of where you want to play overseas, the top countries you think of are China, Russia, Turkey,” she said. “That’s what I wanted to do. China has the shortest season and coming off of a long season with UConn and going right into this season with Seattle and the Olympics, I think it’s the best decision for my body.”
Her mom, Heather, said Stewart, 9.8 pounds and nearly 22 inches at birth, was a fun-loving, low-maintenance kid who didn’t get intimidated by new experiences. Brian and Heather work at the same area hospital — Brian is an MRI technician and Heather in human resources. Even when Breanna was 3 or 4, whenever Heather would drop her at daycare, Breanna didn’t cry or even look back.
Stewart, a 6-4 forward/center, enjoys reaching for new heights. Literally.
As a teenager, Stewart was always the tallest girl but never slouched to hide her height, said her mom. Instead, she set out to get taller. She hung from a bar in a closet to try to stretch herself, said Heather.
At Brian’s suggestion, Stewart would dribble around the block in her neighborhood. Her routine helped her dominate the college ranks by making her good at ball-handling skills that many tall players lack.
Two months after being named to the 2016 Olympic team, Stewart sounds like she’s still pinching herself. On June 14, Flag Day, students from Bear Road Elementary School, a few minutes from Stewart’s house, honored her by dressing up in patriotic colors, making banners and chanting her name. They even had someone run with a small torch around the outdoor track. Stewart, on a road trip with the Storm, asked her mom to represent her at the school. A friend put a video on Stewart’s Twitter feed.
“It’s still really surreal,” Stewart said, “thinking I’m going to be a part of the Olympic field that is going to Rio…Any time there’s an Olympics, whether it’s the winter Olympics or the summer Olympics, you’re watching, supporting your country. It’s going to be cool to experience that, to play with some of the best players in the world. I look forward to that.”
Stewart has been an Olympic fan ever since she can remember.
“I remember watching the 2008 Olympics in Beijing … beach volleyball, soccer, basically anything. It’s funny how you can be interested in all sports when the Olympics come on. It doesn’t matter what it is, when the U.S. is playing, you’re going to root for them.”
Stewart has plenty of familiar players from which to solicit Olympic advice. That includes Storm teammate Bird, the three-time Olympian and one of five UConn alums on the Olympic team.
“We’ve talked about it a little bit,” Stewart said. “The biggest thing I would say she told me is to just enjoy it. Enjoy the experience because there’s nothing like it. And to not take it for granted. I hope to play in multiple Olympics, but you never know what’s going to happen. I’m going to focus on this one.”
Another benefit, said Stewart, is reuniting with former coach Geno Auriemma, Olympic team head coach. They keep in touch, mostly via text, every couple of weeks, she said.
“I don’t play for him anymore, but he’s still going to do whatever he can to make me the best player I can be,” she said, “and that’s what I appreciate about him.”
Once upon a time, the Stewarts didn’t really know how good their daughter was. Her first USA Basketball team was just the beginning. Her dad said he cried twice, once when she made that U16 team and again a few weeks ago with the Olympic news.
“It was really the start of recognizing where she’s come from and where she was going,” said Brian. “It was like, ‘Wow.’ And this was ‘Wow.’”
Ivies handling Olympic oars
That includes two rowers from the women’s eight team, Tessa Gobbo (Brown ’13) and Tracy Eissen (Cornell ’12), that is heavily favored to repeat as Olympic champions. Less of a sure thing is the men’s eight, which had to earn its trip to Rio the hard way via Final Olympic Qualification, nicknamed the Regatta of Death, the last chance to qualify.
That crew includes Mike DiSanto (Harvard ’12), Glenn Ochal (Princeton ’08) and Alex Karwaski (Cornell ’12).
Then there’s Gevvie Stone (Princeton ’07) in the women’s single sculls; lightweight men’s double sculls team of Andrew Campbell, Jr. (Harvard ’14) and Joshua Konieczny (Dartmouth); Kate Berko (Princeton); Anders Weiss (Brown ’15) in the men’s pair.
Robin Prendes (Princeton ’11), Tyler Nase (Princeton ’13), Anthony Fahden (Dartmouth ’08) in the lightweight men’s four and, in the men’s four, Henrik Rummel (Harvard ’09) and Charlie Cole (Yale ’07).
Other notables are Meghan Musnicki (Ithaca ’05) and Lauren Schmetterling (Colgate ’10) in the women’s eight and men’s eight Steve Kasprzyk (Drexel, ’00).