As the crowds lined up to head into the KeyArena for game one of the best-of-five semi-final series between the Seattle Storm and Phoenix Mercury, the energy continued to rise.
Before the game began, a special press conference was held to give out WNBA awards for the regular season.
WNBA president Lisa Borders stepped onto the court along with three Storm teammates who would each be presented with one of these three awards: the Kim Perrot Sportsmanship Award, Most Improved Player and Most Valuable Player.
Seattle guard Sue Bird, who’s played all 16 seasons with the Storm, was given the Kim Perrot Sportsmanship Award. The award is named after former WNBA Houston Comets guard Perrot who helped lead them to two championships before passing away in August 1999 after a seven month battle with cancer. It is given annually to the player who most exemplifies the ideals of sportsmanship on the court-ethical behavior, fair play and integrity.
Bird (UCONN) received 16 of a possible 38 votes by sportswriters and broadcasters. The Chicago Sky’s Courtney Vandersloot finished second with five votes. It is the third time she has received this honor who won last year and shared it with Ruth Riley in 2011.
“We call her the O.G., she has been here for a while,” said WNBA president Lisa Borders. “Sue, you have continued to break records and win awards during your entire career, so this isn’t a surprise. It is just one more award that exemplifies who you are as a leader and as a basketball player, so we love you for that…What I love about Sue, speaking from a personal stand point is that whenever I reach out to her and say that I need advice or I have a question, she always returns my text messages in a timely manner. She always tells me the truth and answers the question, and gives me good counsel. I am here to convey to her the Kim Perrot sportsmanship award. Which was named for Kim Perrot, she helped the Houston Comets win their first two national championships (and) she was very special. So, this award exemplifies the work that she did on the court and the players that have subsequently come after her, who have demonstrated integrity, and intensity, and good sportsmanlike ethical behavior on behalf of herself, her team, and our league.”
Bird is known for her ‘intense calm’ out on the court and though she may strongly discuss differences of opinion with other players and referees she does not let it get out of control or affect her game.
“This is not something that you set out to do. I think this award is just something that describes you as a person,” said Bird. “When you think of who it is named after, who has won it previously. Obviously, all of us in the WNBA want to be role models that are looked at by little kids. But you can also be a role model for your teammates and for the other players in the league. I just try to be as professional as possible, as competitive as possible, and do it the ‘right way’ by myself. And I guess you win awards when that happens.”
The Most Improved Player award went to Seattle center Natasha Howard who came over to the Storm during the offseason from the Minnesota Lynx after winning a championship with them last year. She received 29 of 39 votes with Washington Mystics guard Natasha Cloud coming in second with four votes.
As she earned more minutes and eventually a starting job with Seattle Howard has steadily made her mark and her stats have double and tripled in almost every category from last year. She averaged career highs of 13.2 points (Last year 4.3), 6.4 rebounds (LY 2.4), 1.97 blocked shots (third in WNBA) (LY .62) and 1.29 steals (LY .53) in 25.6 minutes (LY 11.7). Howard also jumped from four three-points in her previous four seasons to making 17 with the Storm this season.
“We know that Natasha came out in 2014, that she played two years with Indiana, and two years with Minnesota, but it took rolling up on Seattle to have a break out season,” said Borders. “When I looked at her stats, I thought they were pretty incredible. She had career highs in starts, points, rebounds, blocks, and steals. I am pleased to announce here that she is receiving the Most Improved Player Award for 2018.”
“Coming into the season, I just wanted to focus on the little things. I just wanted to do the things that I am capable of doing. I am glad to also help my teammates out at the end of the day,” said Howard. “Coming from Minnesota and having limited playing time and then coming here and having the opportunity to grow and build my confidence and to keep going as a player, and to help my teammates out. I am just getting to the point now at the semi-finals, and the push to the finals with the team, we need to keep working together and building.”
Howard, a graduate of Florida State University will received $5,000 and a specially designed trophy from Tiffany & Co.
Storm forward Breanna Stewart continued to show her growth and abilities in her third season with Seattle and it garnered her the Most Valuable Player award as she received 372 points including 33 of 39 first place votes over Liz Cambage of the Dallas Wings who came in second with 231 points and four first place votes.
“We are thrilled about this award,” said WNBA president Lisa Borders at the pre-game awards press conference. “This is one of the highest awards we can give in the league – the Most Valuable Player Award. It’s a privilege for me to announce that Breanna Stewart has won that award this year…She ranked second in scoring, third in rebounding, seventh in blocks and eighth in steals. Stewie, as we call her, was Rookie of the Year her first year, which was my inaugural class in 2016. And then her first All-Star year was last year. And now, girlfriend is like, ‘Bam, I got this!’ We’re very proud of Stewie and on the way she did all the amazing things she did this season with her team and with all her work personally. She also shared her personal story, which was not only powerful for us in the league, and for the teams, but powerful for women, and frankly men, around the world. So impactful and inspirational, which says to us that she does it on the court and off the court – somebody say amen! Stewie, on behalf of the league, your teammates and all of the teams across the league, congratulations on being the 2018 Most Valuable Player.”
Stewart is a two-time All-Star who scored a Storm record 742 points this season and led the WNBA with 22 games of 20 or more points. She ranked second in scoring with a career high 21.8 ppg, third in rebounding (8.4 rpg), seventh in blocked shots (1.44 bpg) and eighth in steals (1.35 spg) this season. After receiving her award Stewart thanked her family, friends and fans:
“First of all, thank you guys for making it today. Accomplishments like this have a way of romanticizing success – success that I’m grateful for, but for most people watching, it’s like a highlight reel. So today, particularly at this moment in time of our country, I want to make sure that I’m telling the truth. The truth is this year was made possible by going through some really hard things. In many ways, it’s been the story of my life and any successes along the way were made possible by people lifting me up through struggles and by me having the courage and focus to turn my pain into fuel. I would not be here today without my parents, who are not here, my brother, Conner – Swaggy C, my grandparents, my teammates, my coaches, trainers, doctors, staff, our fans, my friends, also not here. Thank you all, especially to the Seattle Storm for being there and seeing me through. To Coach (Geno) Auriemma and CD (Chris Dailey) for always being in my corner and pushing me to be the best, both at UConn and here now. This year in particular for me is a story of transformation and introspection. From Me Too to inequality, finding my voice and elevating my game became intertwined in my journey. My hope is that, as a country, we can do the same thing. Voter registration and voting has never been more important. You’ll see my shoes and that’s what I’m excited to have this opportunity and accept this award while representing When We All Vote. The Nike shoes I’m wearing tonight were customized by a local artist, Aramis Hamar, and together we have joined forces to represent the local athletes and artist communities and to call on our fans in Seattle and beyond to get registered and to vote this November. If I’ve learned one thing from this journey it’s that accomplishment lies on the other side of challenge and today we are facing the biggest challenge of our lives. I hope you’ll join me in this movement and forge a path to something better. I’d like to thank the WNBA and the media for this honor. I’d like to thank my sponsors, Nike and Red Bull, for standing behind me. I’d like to thank the women and athlete activists who came before me for this platform that I promise to use to be an ally and a voice for truth and for those who might not be heard. Thank you.”
Stewart was asked where this award ranks with all the other accolades she has received in her basketball career.
“I think each award that I’ve won at each respective level means a lot, but to be the MVP of the WNBA, the best league in the world, it’s at the top,” said Stewart. “And to do it with this franchise, with this team, my teammates, I couldn’t have imagined it any other way.”
Along with a specially designed trophy by Tiffany & Co. Stewart, (UCONN) will receive $15,000.
The “Storm Crazies” didn’t need any more reasons to get louder for this important match-up but fans got the chance to get crazy before the game even started when all three awards were presented a second time on court to each athlete by Borders.
After receiving their awards the players helped their team to defeat the Mercury 91-87 and take a 1-0 lead in their semifinal playoff round.
The second game of the series will be at 7 p.m. on Tuesday, August 28 at KeyArena. The third game will be held in Phoenix at 7 p.m. on Friday, August 31 and, if necessary, the fourth game will be in Phoenix on Sunday, September 2 with the fifth game, if necessary, coming back to Seattle on Tuesday, September 4 at KeyArena.
All Photos: Virginia Lopez/VELO Photography