By Andrew Kahn
"Watch this," Geno Auriemma said to Diana Taurasi at the U.S. national team training camp last October. Nineteen-year-old Breanna Stewart was receiving a pass at the top of the key during a scrimmage. Taurasi, a three-time Olympic gold medalist, was on the sideline with her former coach as Stewart drained the three-point attempt. "She makes every open shot," Auriemma said.
Auriemma has coached 14 All-Americans, including Taurasi, Maya Moore and Rebecca Lobo. "We've had some of the greatest players ever in college basketball, but never anyone who had the God-given things that Stewie has," the Connecticut head coach said of his star sophomore. Stewart has the size of a center and the skills of a guard, making her a matchup nightmare and a force on both ends of the court. With a Final Four Most Outstanding Player award and five gold medals for USA basketball under her belt, the potential is there for her to be the best women's basketball player ever.
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Stewart was born and raised in North Syracuse, N.Y. By fifth grade, she expressed a desire to improve her game, so her father, Brian, suggested she work on her ball-handling. Given her size -- she's 6-foot-4 with a 7-foot-1 wingspan and has always been tall for her age -- coaches might be inclined to station her near the basket and let her block shots and rebound. "But what if you could shoot?" Brian asked his daughter. "What if you could dribble?"
She decided to find out, putting on headphones and dribbling around the block four times, roughly one mile total. To her parents' surprise, she did it nearly every day, going through her legs or behind her back on some of the loops. It's a routine she still does when she's home, shuffling songs from Beyoncé, Jay-Z and Drake.
The summer after seventh grade, Cicero-North High School varsity coach Eric Smith invited Stewart to join his players at a basketball camp at nearby Siena College. Many kids and their parents wondered why she was there, but in one of the first games she came out of nowhere to block the shot of a much older player, sending the ball beyond the three-point line to another opponent. Stewart blocked her attempt, too, taking the ball toward the opposite basket. Players and parents were stunned. Then, Stewart missed the layup.
The sequence summed up Smith's assessment of her game: She could block shots, but was extremely raw offensively. She had improved enough by the winter to make the varsity team, however, and started receiving interest from local colleges. A trip she made to New York City for a tournament the next year caught the eye of Mike Flynn, director of the Philadelphia Belles, a prominent AAU team. He watched her play a couple of quarters and headed to the scorer's table to check her stats. "I thought to myself, If she's a junior, she's good. If she's a sophomore, she's great. If she's a freshman, she's ridiculous." When told she was a freshman, he thought of the first time he saw Kevin Garnett as a high schooler in Chicago: tall and long with great rebounding and passing skills.
Following that trip, Breanna's parents, Brian and Heather, were surprised by the attention coming from far and wide. They initially turned down an invitation to join the Under-16 national team, not quite realizing the honor and uncomfortable about Breanna missing school. Convinced by Flynn to reconsider, Stewart became the only 14-year-old on the roster. She started every game and helped the U.S. win gold. Barbara Nelson and her assistant coaches agreed Stewart was the player most likely to become an Olympian. "She was so willing to be coached. She was willing to make a mistake in order to get better," Nelson said. She believes Stewart will get the most out of her abilities, and if she does, "I think she can be in the discussion among the all-time greats."
She was named the New York State Player of the Year as a junior and led her school to the first of two straight state titles. She inspired her teammates to put in extra work so they'd be ready to catch her outlet passes and knock down open jumpers when she was double-teamed. But if they failed, she never criticized them; she just played harder. She'd spend as many as 45 minutes signing autographs and posing for photos after games, win or lose. And it wasn't just admiring young girls -- it was also their older sisters, who Stewart had just competed against, and their parents.
Eschewing a press conference with various colleges' hats lined up on a table, she visited the UConn campus for a game in January 2011. "I would like to commit if you'd take me," the No. 1 recruit in the country told the coaching staff, without a hint of insincerity. In her first game after committing, she dunked. That November, having been unaware of the imminent deadline for submitting her letter of intent, Stewart filled out the form on the hood of her car in the parking lot of her dad's office before faxing it in.
Despite all the hype and success, by all accounts Stewart has remained grounded, and many observers credit her parents for that. "We realize there are more important things in life [than basketball]," Brian said. After her freshman year of college, she returned home and spent a day at the local elementary school, answering questions and giving advice.
In between her commitment and that frantic fax, she played for the U19 national team as a 16-year-old and in the Pan-Am Games. She was named the 2011 USA Basketball Female Athlete of the Year, an award she'd win again in 2013. Jennifer Rizzotti, a former UConn star, coached the U18 team when Stewart was with the U17 squad. The teams scrimmaged four times in preparation for real competition, and Rizzotti told her players to let Stewart shoot jumpers. She struggled to score in three of the four games. The next year, during tryouts for Rizzotti's U19 team, Stewart couldn't miss. "She took it personally and worked on her shooting," Rizzotti said. In a game against Australia, Rizzotti benched Stewart because she wasn't physically tough enough. Stewart went on to win MVP of the tournament. "However laid-back she seems, the minute you challenge her or make it seem like she can't do something, she proves you wrong," said Rizzotti, who compared Stewart's work ethic to UConn legend Maya Moore.
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Stewart arrived at Connecticut with four gold medals (she won a fifth last summer) and as the Gatorade National Player of the Year. Auriemma has said that even the best incoming freshmen often underwhelm in their first weeks of practice, but that wasn't the case with Stewart. His concern was finding challenges for her, given how easily things came to her.
The UConn coaches make practices very difficult -- by using stronger, quicker male practice players and designing 6-on-4 drills where the undermanned squad is still expected to score -- so the games, by comparison, will seem easy. This was a struggle for the fun-loving Stewart.
"One of Breanna's greatest strengths is that she's very loose," assistant coach Chris Dailey said. "It allows her to stay level for a game. But being loose can lead to a lack of attention to detail. She wasn't always maintaining intensity in practice."
Many of Stewart's former coaches and teammates described her goofy side. UConn senior center Stefanie Dolson remembers jumping from one bed to another with her during downtime with one of the USA teams, snapping mid-air photos that made it look like they were flying. Stewart's AAU coach with the Belles, Fran Burbidge, remembers her sneaking up on him from behind at a tournament and covering his eyes with her hands. Her personal trainer, Pete Moore, said she would playfully flex in front of a mirror during workouts.
Early last season, Stewart didn't seem to have trouble going from goofy off of the court to serious on it, as she and the Huskies dominated. She scored at least 20 points in three of her first four games and played well through much of January. But she hit a rough patch as UConn lost its second game of the season, to Baylor, then dropped another heartbreaker to Notre Dame to fall to 27-3. In UConn's three losses to that point, she was 6-of-26 from the field with nine turnovers and one assist.
The word out of Storrs was Stewart had lost confidence; teammates and coaches she confided in say that was the case. But Burbidge doesn't buy it. He and Stewart spoke on the phone often during the season, and he remembers their conversation after the second Notre Dame loss. "Have you lost your confidence?" he asked, to which he recalls her replying, nonchalantly, "Coach, if there's one thing I know I can do, I know I can play basketball."
Talking helped, but what got Stewart past the rough patch was extra work in the gym. "She bought in and saw the correlation between work and game success," Dailey said. Stewart said the extra reps made her more comfortable on the court and prevented overthinking. "I could just play."
She sat out UConn's first NCAA tournament game because of an injured calf, but dominated the next five. She scored 29 on 10-of-16 shooting in an 83-65 win over Notre Dame in the Final Four, UConn's first victory against the Irish in four tries that season. The championship game seemed like a formality, and Stewart made sure it was, scoring 23 in a romp over Louisville. For the tournament, she averaged 20.8 points and 6.2 rebounds while hitting 9-15 from three, easily enough to earn MVP of the regional and the Final Four, becoming only the fourth freshman to win the latter.
Her parents have gotten used to her rising to the occasion, but even they were impressed. "How many kids come out of high school, get put on a pedestal, hit rock bottom, then make it to the mountaintop in one season?" her dad asked. "To come back [and play well after her rough stretch] is a credit to her mental toughness. I know I would have crawled into a corner and pouted the rest of the season."
Her training with Moore helped; the two have discussed her basketball goals since they started working together when Stewart was in eighth grade. Even with UConn and Team USA responsibilities, she never misses the opportunity to visit Moore when she's home. Winning the national championship and getting an invite to the U.S. Olympic Team training camp are two goals she's already accomplished.
Stewart wanted to be more consistent this season, and she has been, guiding UConn to a 24-0 record. The Huskies have outscored opponents by an average of 37.8 points and have yet to trail in the second half. With so much talent -- four Huskies were named to the Wooden Award Midseason Top-20 List -- Stewart rarely has to take over. While she scores (19.3 per game), rebounds (7.9) and blocks shots (2.7) at an impressive rate, plenty of players around the country have better stats. But no player can dominate a game at both ends like Stewart.
After an early afternoon game against a ranked California team at Madison Square Garden in December, Auriemma joked that all his players except for Stewart must have partied in Times Square until the early hours the night before. With her teammates looking lethargic, Stewart scored 13 of UConn's first 16 points and finished with 21 in the first half, outscoring Cal by herself. More recently, at Temple, she scored 25 in the first half on 10-of-11 shooting, sealing defenders in the paint for easy baskets and knocking down threes with her high release. She finished with a career-high 37 points, one night after her favorite player, Kevin Durant, scored 41 for the Oklahoma City Thunder.
Auriemma calls Stewart an "impossible matchup" because she is quicker than most defenders her size and can shoot over smaller guards. "We talked about getting her 20 shots a game," he said. "I've never done that with any other player."
"From a purely athletic standpoint, whether you're watching her in practice or in a game, at least once she's going to do something athletically that is eye-popping for a woman," said ESPN basketball analyst Doris Burke.
Dailey mentioned a one-handed rebound -- Stewart has huge mitts -- against Baylor that raised eyebrows. She and the other UConn coaches are not prone to cheerleading at practice, but there have been several "Did you see that?" moments involving Stewart.
Other coaches have been similarly wowed. Stewart's high school coach remembers her stealing two consecutive inbounds passes to score six points in about 10 seconds. Flynn recalls an AAU tournament when she blocked a shot, tracked down the ball, passed to a teammate and beat everyone down the floor for a layup, a sequence several coaches have witnessed. A college coach approached him after the game and said she hadn't seen a player like Stewart in the last 15 years; it was Pat Summitt, who had coached, among other greats, Candace Parker.
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Auriemma has said Stewart can be better than Taurasi and Moore. Taurasi has three national titles and two Player of the Year trophies. Moore is UConn's all-time leading scorer and lost as many games in her entire career (four) as Stewart lost last season. Both have claimed gold for the U.S. Olympic team and won multiple WNBA titles. While Stewart's talent is on par with those two's, she will ultimately be judged on her team accomplishments.
"I want to be the best player in the country," she told reporters after her scoring outburst against Temple. "I want to obviously win a national championship, and I think the goal is winning a national championship every year, not just one. I'm going to be here for four years."
It's why she went to UConn to play for Auriemma. "If you are a star player, there's no better place to be, because Geno has a natural curiosity and is constantly thinking of the best ways to take advantage of his best players," Burke said. At times last season, Auriemma may have tried to find which buttons to push to get the most out of Stewart. But her former coaches say she has no buttons. And it took Stewart some time to trust Auriemma's methods would best help her improve.
"This season I come to practice with that mindset of, 'I'm going to get better at something today,'" Stewart said. She says she wants to get stronger with the ball and improve her on-ball defense. She is still breaking an old habit of letting dribblers past her just so she can pin their shot off the backboard, a trick that doesn't work against more experienced players.
"She's not totally there yet," Dailey said. "When she fully gets it, I wouldn't want to figure out how to defend her." At the U.S. national team training camp in October, veteran players Parker, Tamika Catchings and Taurasi were impressed by Stewart's play, which included a near put-back dunk.
She continues to work on flipping the switch from fun-loving kid to serious, focused athlete. Katie Meier, who coached Stewart on the U18 and U19 squads, remembers demonstrating how to break a trap. Not fast enough to get around Stewart and another player, Meier picked up the ball and started running. Stewart fell on the court laughing. But when Meier told someone to take over in a close game against Australia in the semifinals, Stewart scored 14 points as part of a 21-0 run.
"Stewie wants to be great," Auriemma said. "She has a burning desire to be the best. She studies the game. Players like her, if they have the God-given ability, they become great."
The greatest ever?
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Andrew Kahn is a freelance writer in New York who has written for The Wall Street Journal and ESPN the Magazine and is a regular contributor to CBS Local and Newsday. He writes about all sports at http://andrewjkahn.com/ and can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @AndrewKahn.