Breanna Stewart's global basketball journey
Breanna's basketball world tour
For 15 months, Breanna Stewart didn't stop moving. It took a knee injury to finally slow her down.
Consider what she has done since the start of the 2015-16 NCAA season, her senior year at UConn:
With the Huskies, Stewart won her fourth NCAA national championship, third player of the year award and fourth tournament MVP en route to being taken by the Seattle Storm as the No. 1 overall pick of the 2016 WNBA draft. After her first WNBA season, she left Seattle and headed to Brazil to win an Olympic gold medal with the U.S. women's basketball team in August, then eventually was named WNBA Rookie of the Year.
The Olympic gold medal could have been the perfect epilogue to her incredible journey, but she saved the longest trip for last -- playing for Shanghai Baoshan Dahua of the Women's Chinese Basketball Association.
"It definitely has been a busy year but one of the best years in my life," Stewart said. "But I knew the goals I had set for myself, and it was going to be an eventful year. I always stayed focused on the task at hand without thinking about what was coming next."
Stranger in a strange land
Stewart had never lived in another country for an extended time and didn't know much about China or Chinese culture.
"The team has reached out and shown their excitement and that kind of thing, and it's going to be an adventure," she told ESPN shortly before she left the U.S. in November.
Indeed, for three months, Stewart led her team to the top of the WCBA regular season and into the WCBA playoffs until a knee injury ended her campaign. She dominated the league in 27 games, averaging 34 minutes, 31.4 points, 10.1 rebounds, 1.6 blocks, 2.5 assists and 2.3 steals. In just her second game of the season, she marked her arrival by scoring 46 points, grabbing 11 rebounds and delivering five steals and five blocks.
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And Shanghai is only allowed to have one foreign player on the roster -- an extra layer of challenge in addition to the WCBA's notorious physicality.
But Stewart thought this special experience could help her become a better player.
"Overall, my team experience in the WCBA was great," she said. "My teammates, coaches and the rest of the staff have done a great job to make sure I'm as comfortable as possible on and off the court."
"It feels devastating to play against her," one Chinese opponent said of trying to stop Stewart.
The only players to post a higher scoring average in China are New York Liberty center and 2012 WNBA MVP Tina Charles (35.7 PPG) and the Connecticut Sun's Chiney Ogwumike (33.6). But both of them joined the WCBA much later than Stewart and played in just half the games Stewart did. The closest player to Stewart in scoring this year was her Storm teammate, Jewell Loyd (27.4).
Stewart is among a host of WNBA players who took to China for their offseason competition, including 2015 WNBA Finals MVP Sylvia Fowles, Glory Johnson, Kelsey Bone and Seattle guard Crystal Langhorne.
"I think the experience of playing in Shanghai will be extremely helpful when I go back to the WNBA," Stewart said in December. "Expanding my game because of a different style of play in China and also playing through the physical contact. Also, I have an understanding of what it's like for my Seattle Storm teammate Tok [Ramu Tokashiki], who is Japanese and playing in the WNBA is foreign to her as China is to me."
Stewart will have a lot of stories to tell her Storm teammates.
"I had lots of 'aha moments' trying to communicate through the language barrier, especially if I didn't have my translator right by my side, and obviously I couldn't have the translator on the court," she said. "It took my teammates and I a little bit longer to figure out what each other was trying to say, but we eventually got it."
Stewart surprised her teammates with holiday gifts. She worked with Nike to get all of her teammates and coaches 20-plus pairs of new basketball shoes. The pictures of her distributing the shoes to others were posted to Chinese social media. Suffice to say giving holiday gifts to all teammates is not a common sight in China.
"Another great memory in Shanghai was when our entire team and staff went to our team leader's house during the break. It was a way to get everyone away from the basketball court, have a great time and eat great food," Stewart said. "My mom was also here during that time, and both she and the team were very excited to have the opportunity to interact with one another."
Stewart also had brought her family to China to show them the journey she has been on.
"My friends and family also played a major key in always supporting me and making sure that I could handle everything without it being too much," she said.
Language barriers, cultural differences and holiday customs were just a few things that Stewart adjusted to during her time in China. Some adjustments were more basic, though.
"I figured out that I am not supposed to flush the toilet paper down the toilet -- it clogs," she said, laughing.