Weepless in Seattle

“The light has gone out of my life.”

That’s what Theodore Roosevelt wrote in his diary on the day his first wife, Alice, died in 1884. In The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt, Edmund Morris described how the future president utilized his own way to cope: “With the exception of two brief, written valedictories to Alice—one private, one for limited circulation among family and friends—there is no record of Roosevelt ever mentioning her name again.”

If you’re a Seattle Storm fan, maybe that’s how you prefer to deal with Breanna Stewart’s decision to sign with the New York Liberty.

The 2018 MVP brought an end to all of the drama and speculation when she announced Wednesday she’d be returning to her home state.

She penned her goodbye a day later.

As with any good mystery, the signs pointing to the conclusion were there all along.

Stewart only signed a one-year contract rather than a multiyear deal last offseason after meeting with Liberty representatives. The length of the deal allowed her to see out Sue Bird’s final season with the Storm before she got to explore free agency all over again.

More tellingly about Stewart’s contract, Seattle didn’t apply the core designation to the four-time All-Star, using it instead for Jewell Loyd. Nobody from the team has gone on the record, nor has there been any reporting to provide insight into the thought process behind that. Maybe the team thought Loyd was the bigger flight risk, but the fact she signed for two years would seem to dispel that notion. We can only speculate, but choosing Loyd over Stewart makes more sense if the latter make it explicitly clear she didn’t want that. And for the Storm, the last thing you want to do is alienate a star player who has already flirted with leaving.

Then you have what transpired this offseason.

ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne reported on Jan. 22 that Stewart positioned chartered travel as a “key factor” in her free agency, a story that dropped hours after Stewie publicly advocated on the issue.

There just so happens to be one WNBA franchise that was fined $500,000 for providing its players with chartered flights on multiple occasions in the second half of the 2021 season. I’ll give you one guess as to which one it was. (As a hint, it’s the same one whose ownership reportedly floated a proposal that would fund chartered travel for three years.) There has been some handwringing about more moneyed owners effectively circumventing the salary cap to poach elite talent. But when these supposedly underhanded tactics boil down to “provide good working and living conditions,” what are we really arguing about?

Another report from Shelburne led you to wonder whether the scales were tipped in New York’s favor from the beginning. After Courtney Vandersloot announced Thursday she’s signing with the Liberty, Shelburne reported Stewart is expected to receive “substantially less” on her salary in order to help keep the Libs under the cap, thus negating any advantage the Storm had by virtue of offering the supermax.

A player in Stewart’s position can take the veteran’s minimum with the Liberty basically knowing full well a market like New York will confer benefits far exceeding what you can enjoy in Seattle or nearly any other city in the league. It’s probably not a coincidence Puma released a video hyping up “Stew York” mere minutes after Stewart’s announcement.

This reflects a larger structural issue for the WNBA, one in which stars are incentivized to find their primary source of personal earnings outside of the league. As great as Seattle and the Pacific Northwest as a whole are, we can’t pretend that doors aren’t suddenly opening for Stewart now that New York City will be her primary residence. And that will continue to be the case until the WNBA begins providing salaries that better compensate their players.

If we’re being honest, there’s a good chance Bird isn’t a Storm lifer in the current WNBA climate. The 42-year-old never got to enjoy the contractural flexibility Stewart has thanks to the advancements in the collective bargaining agreement. The Liberty are no longer the dysfunctional tire fire they were under former owner James Dolan, either. And women’s sports have grown to a point where the top stars are cashing in commercially and forming a superteam in New York means something.

A sense of disappointment is understandable in the moment because her departure basically means the Storm’s championship window slams shut for the time being. Two days into free agency, Seattle’s general plan for the 2023 season is still unclear since Loyd and Mercedes Russell are the only players officially under contract. Not to mention, watching Stewart play for your favorite team is far better than watching her play against your favorite team.

But there’s no reason to feel bitter about Stewart’s decision because she more than held up her end of the bargain during her seven-year tenure. The Storm won two WNBA titles, and they might have won three in a row had Stewie not blown out her Achilles while playing overseas. Fans not only got to watch the 28-year-old become the best player in the WNBA but also watched her enjoy major life events, to which she referenced in her goodbye letter. Her wife, Marta Xargay, and daughter Ruby Mae subsequently became members of the Storm family in a way that would make Dominic Toretto proud.

Unfortunately, things just end sometimes and there isn’t much subtext to uncover.

For Storm fans, now we look forward to what’s next.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s