Breanna Stewart will make her return to the court Monday night when the USA Basketball Women’s National Team plays an exhibition against the University of Connecticut, her alma mater, at XL Center in Hartford, Connecticut. It marks nine months since the 2018 WNBA MVP ruptured her Achilles in a EuroLeague game.
When Stewart returned to California for surgery the next day, she had a text from Kobe Bryant waiting for her, she told Sports Illustrated. Bryant died Sunday in a helicopter crash that also killed his 13-year-old daughter, Gianna, and seven others including youth players, parents and coaches.
As with most of the basketball world, Stewart shared her memories of the Los Angeles Lakers legend after practice on Sunday. She and four other former Huskies — the team Gianna wanted to play for — will match up against their alma mater.
At a loss for words, RIP to a legend. Can’t believe this. #Kobe— Breanna Stewart (@breannastewart) January 26, 2020
Stewart: Kobe is ‘super genuine’
Stewart, 25, ruptured her Achilles in April 2019 when she landed wrong in the EuroLeague championship game in Russia. She flew to Los Angeles the next day and had surgery with the same doctor who operated on Bryant when he injured his in 2013.
“He was like, ‘Hey, this is Kobe. I just wanted to reach out to you and let you know if you need anything, I’m here,’” Stewart recalls of the message Bryant left on her voicemail. “It was a weird time. I wasn’t in the greatest of moods, but I appreciated that. The thing with the Achilles is it stays with you forever. So now, I’m invested in every person I come across who has an Achilles injury. I think he’s the same. He wants to help people. He reached out to me. I’m sure he reached out to [Kevin Durant].”
Bryant was one of her biggest supporters during the difficult rehab process, which is still ongoing as she’ll play her first game since the injury. She said he checked in with her via text and at the WNBA All-Star game and that he was “super genuine” in wanting to keep in touch with people. Stewart also praised Bryant’s work for the women’s side of the game.
“He has a lot of respect for the women’s game,” Stewart says. “He’s just always interested and paying attention. I mean, he’s one of the best to ever do it. I’m feeling terrible for his family and supporting them.”
Gianna Bryant and her father had met with the Huskies team over the years.
Stewart returns to court after Achilles injury
Stewart, a forward for the WNBA’s Seattle Storm, has been targeting the exhibition to return. She told media after practice she’ll be limited and likely won’t play more than 20 minutes, per Alex Putterman of the Hartford Courant.
The 6-foot-4 forward was also named MVP during a gold medal run at the 2018 FIBA Women’s Basketball World Cup and was named the 2018 USA Basketball Female Athlete of the Year. And in EuroLeague, the four-time NCAA champion took her squad to the title game, though they finished runner-up, and was named the league’s MVP.
Stevie says it’s “fitting” she’ll return from her Achilles injury against UConn pic.twitter.com/qcF7XObS9v— Alex Putterman (@AlexPutterman) January 26, 2020
Stewart finished at UConn with a 151-5 record and NCAA Final Four Most Outstanding Player honors every year from 2013-16.
Roster full of Huskies
For much of the roster, it’s a return home. The U.S. team held its first practice Sunday ahead of an exhibition clash with No. 4 UConn (18-1), where five of its rostered players attended and will take the court again Monday (7 p.m. ET, ESPN2).
Katie Lou Samuelson, a 2019 graduate who was drafted by the Chicago Sky, was added to the roster last week. She played on the 2019 FIBA AmeriCup gold winning squad and won titles at younger levels for USA. While with UConn, her teams went 145-5 overall and won the 2016 national championship.
The rest of the former Huskies are USA Basketball veterans: Sue Bird, Diana Taurasi and Tina Charles.
There’s talent everywhere you turn at USA Basketball practice, but here’s quite the quartet: Sue Bird, Diana Taurasi, Tina Charles and Kayla McBride. pic.twitter.com/S3mrdNezoD— Mechelle Voepel (@MechelleV) January 26, 2020
Bird, 39, went 136-9 at UConn from 1999 to 2002. Taurasi, 37, joined her a season later, playing from 2000 to 2003 with a 139-8 overall record. The Phoenix Mercury guard won titles in 2000, 2002 and 2003 seasons with UConn.
Charles, a 6-foot-4 center with the New York Liberty, went 146-6 in her collegiate career and was a part of the 2009 and 2010 national championship teams.
Those two will be honored before tipoff Monday and members of the teams are expected to be in attendance.
Layshia Clarendon, a 2013 Huskies graduate, is also on the current USA roster and 2019 grad Napheesa Collier played in the November college tour.
The U.S. is back on its collegiate barnstorming tour following a four-stop Part I in November. They defeated Stanford, Oregon State and Texas A&M, all squads hovering in the top 10 or close throughout the first half of the season. But that much-anticipated finale on Nov. 9 against then-No. 1 Oregon caught them up and provided a dominating start to the Ducks’ title hopes.
Sabrina Ionescu had 30 points and seven rebounds in a 93-86 victory. Oregon became the second team to beat the national team and it’s highly unlikely UConn will be the third on Monday night. The Huskies are a title contender as well, but are lacking the star power that a team like Oregon has with not only Ionescu, but also Ruthy Hebard and Satau Sabally combining for one of the best offense teams in college basketball.
UConn will host No. 3 Oregon the following week (Monday, Feb. 3). It comes a day after the U.S. finishes its college tour with a game at Louisville before participating in the FIBA Olympic Qualifying Tournament. The U.S. has already clinched a post at the Olympics by winning gold last cycle.
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