What struck me watching Breanna Stewart take the microphone before the first game of the WNBA season was her willingness to step up in that moment.
She could have said no, and no one would have known. She was coming into the season off a torn Achilles tendon, an injury you don’t know how you’ll recover from. But she chose to take on more responsibility.
The WNBA players made sure everyone knew that they were playing for Breonna Taylor every time they went on the court this season, that they were playing to say Black Lives Matter. Honestly, I was in awe the whole time I was in the WNBA bubble in Bradenton, Fla. The players worked to make sure not only that they had a season but also that everyone watching their season knew: This is your place to support Black women, and women, and equality. Watching Stewie stand in front of everyone before that first game and ask for 26 seconds of silence to remember Breonna Taylor, the Black woman who was that age when she was killed by police in her Louisville apartment, was powerful.
Then she went on the court and was a contender for the league’s MVP, won her second championship with the Seattle Storm and became the Finals MVP. I don’t know if you can fully appreciate how difficult it is to accomplish what she did this season. And she did it in classic, effortless Stewie fashion.
I first met her four years ago, after she was drafted to the Storm and around the time I began dating her teammate and my fiancé, Sue Bird. At 6' 4", Stewie has always been Ms. Gangles, but she was even more so then, and she was the youngest one on the team. But one thing I’ve always noticed about Stewie is she has this quiet confidence, where she’ll just kind of keep it real all the time. She’s the one who will say what everyone is thinking, and she’ll do it with her patented shoulder shrug and head tilt. It’s so nonchalant—like the way she plays, where everything just seems to slow down for her on the court. Sue has been the face of the Storm, but as Stewie has found her voice over the past four years, I’ve watched her blossom right beside her.
What Stewie showed this year has been building in her for a while, from the time in 2017 when she talked about the sexual abuse she experienced I remember thinking, Wow, this kid is brave. It takes so much strength and mental fortitude to share something like that, which never really goes away or gets easier. But she’s the kind of person who, when she knows that something is the right thing to do, is just matter-of-fact about doing it. I think we both approach speaking out in the same way: This is true, and I am going to say it.
When Stewie posted on Twitter about wanting the WNBA to paint Black Lives Matter on the baselines this season, it was a self-fulfilling prophecy. A lot of players wanted to dedicate the season to Breonna Taylor and BLM, but there’s more weight to it when your best player—the No. 1 pick out of UConn in 2016, the MVP two years later and certainly the future of the league—is pushing for it. For her not only to understand that but also be willing to take that on made a huge difference. She realizes she has an opportunity to be more than what she is on the court—and also, as a white player in a predominantly Black league, to be an ally, or accomplice. Not a lot of white athletes have done that in the past: said their cause is my cause, and I’m as willing to fight for it as they are.
Racism is not a Black person’s problem. This is a problem that white people created, and that we’re going to have to face ourselves. You can’t put the burden of progress and change on the oppressed, solely. They’re already doing everything they can to make the world better. So that’s why it matters when you see white athletes like Stewie standing up and saying, Hey, we need to do better. We need to push this narrative. And we need to say some of the things that are difficult to say. It’s hard for a Black player to get up there and say, “Obviously, our league, which is about two-thirds Black, hasn’t been as popular because Black women aren’t valued in this country.” But if Stewie gets up there and says it, if it’s coming from the group that doesn’t have to do it but is choosing to do it, that is really powerful.
If you think about what Stewie did this year, it’s kind of ridiculous. She came off an Achilles tear, scored 28.3 points per game in the Storm’s three-game sweep of Las Vegas in the Finals, was out front in centering the season on Black Lives Matter—she rose to the occasion, in so many ways. When you’re playing, or living, or doing anything for a higher purpose outside of yourself, beyond just winning and being the best that you can be on the court, there’s something special in that. I always say, that’s a little extra superpower.
As women athletes, we have to do so much more. We not only have to be excellent at our sport, but we also have to then convince people that we are excellent, and that they should watch. We have to fight for social justice not just this year, but all the time. So in a way, we all mentor one another.
It’s kind of an unspoken thing, but we gain confidence from each other just by watching. It’s almost like what Stewie and her teammates were doing this summer was not completely foreign to them, because maybe they watched the U.S. soccer team do it last year, when we fought for equal pay and won the World Cup. Or maybe they understand, just as individuals, that you can do both. It’s this open-source wealth of knowledge that we all share.
Stewie is part of a new wave of sports activists, where it’s just a given that as a white star player she’s going to stand up and talk about racism and equality and Black Lives Matter. It’s a given that she’s going to say the hard things, that she is going to use her platform for good. And that gives me a lot of happiness and pride. Because the more we talk about these issues, the easier it is to talk about them. The bigger the conversation is, the less we have to talk about why it’s important—and the more we can talk about the actual issues.
That’s what Stewie did this year. Before the first game in the bubble, she made clear this season wasn’t just about winning a championship, though she would do that as well. Given the chance to take that microphone, she used it to make change.