PHOENIX — Seattle Storm star Breanna Stewart hopped off the dais before her postgame news conference began to toggle awake the computer used for the media’s videoconference calls.
The computer might have been asleep, but Stewart was wide awake just five days after winning a gold medal at the Tokyo Olympics.
There wasn’t much she didn’t do Thursday in the WNBA’s inaugural Commissioner’s Cup at Footprint Center in Phoenix. Stewart scored 17 points — including 15 in the first quarter — to lead the Storm to a 79-57 win over the Connecticut Sun in the first midseason championship in the league’s 25-year history. Stewart was named the Cup’s MVP, capping off a whirlwind week with two more trophies in her collection — adding to her already impressive 2021, which includes the Olympic gold medal and a Euroleague title.
“Seems like it’s high school,” Storm guard Jewell Loyd said. “It’s kind of normal. It’s crazy, but it’s normal. It’s Stewie.”
The nearly 5,500-mile flight earlier in the week didn’t seem to bother Stewart, Loyd or fellow Olympian Sue Bird. Each played at least 18 minutes. Heading into the game, Storm coach Noelle Quinn didn’t have restrictions on how many minutes her Olympians would play. The approach was to win, and it didn’t matter how many minutes that would take.
“Feel pretty good,” Bird said. “We won, our team played well. Felt good to be back with the Storm.
“We talked about this before the game, but we obviously are here playing because we wanted to win. So it was just going to be whatever the minutes were in order to win the game. I think, fortunately, we did enough in the fourth quarter, and we didn’t have to be in there much. So that worked out well.”
The key to the Storm’s Olympic trio avoiding jet lag?
“A lot of champagne,” Bird said.
The Storm treated the Commissioner’s Cup like a championship game because, well, it was one. The game featured the top teams from the Eastern and Western conferences that were decided after 60 intraconference games throughout the first half of the regular season.
Getting off to a good start — Stewart was 5-for-6 from the field and 3-for-3 from 3 in the first quarter — was crucial in setting the tone for a championship-caliber game, Stewart said.
“I think that despite everything from this week and being jet-lagged and stuff, once we got through our warm-up, it was a regular scheduled program, I would say,” she said. “We were just aggressive. We knew what this game meant and we wanted to kind of hit them first.”
It meant a big payday for the Storm.
The win clinched a $30,000 bonus for each member of the Storm, and an extra $5,000 for Stewart. The Sun received $10,000 each.
The significance of the prize money did not get overlooked throughout the first half of the season, Bird said.
“I think we were one of — from what I’ve read in other teams’ comments about the Commissioner’s Cup throughout the season, I think we were one of the few teams that right from the jump, we are like, ‘Oh, this is a Commissioner’s Cup game,’ and every time we won, we’d talk about it afterwards, like, ‘Commissioner’s Cup, one step closer to that money,'” Bird said. “Definitely we were talking about it all year.”
Bird, Loyd and Stewart — and most of the other WNBA players who have played overseas — have experienced midseason games that came with prize money. On the Storm, those three were able to channel that experience to their other teammates.
Added Stewart: “I think our teammates was the motivating factor behind this game. We wanted to win for them. Obviously 30K is 30K for all of us, but for some of them, it’s, I don’t even know what the ratio is for Kiana [Williams], but it’s a lot. To really help them get that is amazing.”
The WNBA is now the only major American league to have a midseason championship, similar to international soccer and basketball.
Bird, a vice president of the WNBPA, said the Commissioner’s Cup could be a touchstone event for the WNBA moving forward because it’s one event that’s not dictated by the teams involved and can be scheduled ahead of time so fans will always know when and where it will be played.
“It gives something that I think something the WNBA has lacked is its own stage at sometimes,” Bird said. “Different aspects of our season, the Finals, it kind of gets lost. It’s not necessarily our time.
“And I think for us players playing, it gets you excited. I mention those bonus games overseas. We all knew in the locker room before those games, like, ‘Yo, yeah, there’s 10K on this one.’ You knew it and you talked about it and it does give a different edge to what you’re doing as you prepare.”
But Thursday wasn’t without hiccups.
Before the game, as Stewart went to put on her shoes, she realized the right shoe wasn’t her size. She eventually got a new pair, with both the correct size.
“They,” she said, “worked out just fine.”
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