The Seattle Storm appeared poised to defend their 2018 WNBA championship this season, but just prior to the start of training camp, things began to fall apart.
Last year’s league MVP, Breanna Stewart, suffered a ruptured right Achilles tendon during a late April Euroleague championship game that will keep her out of action for the entire season. Soon after, Storm head coach Dan Hughes was diagnosed with a cancerous tumor in his digestive tract. Following surgery, the franchise issued a statement that there was no timetable for Hughes’ return, and that assistant coach Gary Kloppenburg would act as Seattle’s interim head coach. All-Star Sue Bird underwent arthroscopic surgery on her left knee last week and will be out indefinitely.
The team beginning the season without their head coach and two of their best players would make one think that the rest of the Storm would just pack it in, but that’s not the case. As Hall of Fame coach Rudy Tomjanovich famously said, “Don’t ever underestimate the heart of a champion!”
Seattle is currently 3-2 after an opening night win against the Mercury, an impressive road victory against Atlanta that no one saw coming, and a win over the Lynx. Carrying the load for the Storm is center Natasha Howard, who is averaging an impressive 19.8 points and 11 rebounds early in the season, and Chicago area native Jewell Loyd, who is second on the team in scoring and assists (14.3, 3.3) and tied for third in rebounding and steals (5, 1.3). Jordin Canada is also handling point guard duties very well after a stellar season overseas last winter.
Playing alongside Bird and Stewart, it would be easy for Loyd to fade into the background, despite being the first overall pick in the 2015 WNBA draft and the eventual Rookie of the Year. But Loyd was made for a year like this.
Her ability to make big shots and make plays with and without the ball makes her Seattle’s go-to player. An All-Star and champion in 2018, Loyd aims to add to her already-impressive resume in the years to come.
Many people are surprised that the Storm have had such a good start without Sue, Breanna, and coach Hughes. To what do you attribute this team’s early success?
This team has been through a lot. My three years in the league before, we were almost the worst team in the league, so we had adversity before we were champions. I think that’s our mindset. We always feel like we’re the underdogs, no matter what. This team is very tenacious and we’re very close. We fight, and that’s something that we always do no matter the score or the circumstances.
Is there any extra pressure on you to do more on the court and be more of a leader without Sue and Breanna?
I’m just trying to add some energy. I’m talking a lot more, which is different from the past. I think I’m just trying to find a new route. It’s different – I have different shots and it’s a different team, but honestly, I’m just trying to do what I can to win games. If that means I score 10, score 30, or don’t score at all, whatever it is I can bring a lot to the game.
How difficult is it to have three straight road games so early in the season?
I think it helps us. Obviously, with a new team we have to find ourselves quick. We don’t have time to complain or feel sorry for ourselves. We have to come out and figure it out. For us, we’re figuring it out really quick.
Take me back to last year and winning the WNBA title. What did it feel like?
It was awesome. Like I said, we’ve been through a lot trying to get to a championship and that level of basketball. Finally getting there is something you dream of. That’s why I left college early to be a part of a championship team, and I have been.
Since conferences were eliminated two years ago, you get to come back to Chicago to play more than once a season. How special is it for you to come back home more often to play in front of family and friends?
It means a lot. I take pride in where I’m from in Lincolnwood, and it’s not too far from my hometown, so any time I can come back here and play in front of my family and friends it’s awesome. It’s a good feeling, and Chicago will always be home for me.
What is it about Chicagoland basketball players that almost all of them have a high level of toughness?
I think we just grew up playing in the parks. You go to Foster Park, and that’s famous. The Bulls back in the day used to play there. I grew up playing in the parks and playing with the guys. If you can play basketball, it doesn’t matter who you are. If you can go out there and play, you’re accepted. I think that’s what separates us from a lot of people.
Your mom, Gwendolyn, is not only a big advocate for you, but the entire WNBA with her advocacy of the league through “Women Hoop Too.” How do you feel about her involvement in spreading the word about the league?
She went from knowing nothing about basketball to knowing everything in a couple of years. She’s very invested. She knows a lot of these girls on all the teams and she comes out and supports. My aunts are season ticket holders for the Chicago Sky, so they come out and support, and they love the game. They love what we’re doing and they take it like it’s their own.
As the defending champions the goal is always to repeat, but what are your personal goals for your fifth season?
Honestly, I want to be better. Every season I come in and want to get better at something. You can talk about being an All-Star and all of that stuff, but at the end of the day it’s about winning games. So, we want to be able to win, put our team first, and everything else individually should come.