The first time Breanna Stewart watched Sue Bird play basketball, Bird was on TV at the 2008 Olympics, in the midst of leading the United States to the fourth of its five consecutive gold medals. Stewart was about to begin her freshman year at Cicero North High School in New York.
As announced on Wednesday, it will now be up to Stewart to help Bird make it six in a row.
The two UConn products, now Seattle Storm teammates, were named to the 12-player roster that will represent the USA at this summer’s games in Brazil. Bird is one of just three players (Diana Taurasi, Tamika Catchings) to be named to each of the past four Olympic teams. Stewart found out she was selected earlier this week, only adding to the unbelievable month of April it has been for the No. 1 pick in the WNBA Draft.
“When I saw that [National Team Director Carol Callan] was calling, I had a mini heart attack,” Stewart said. “And then I answered it, and obviously I knew who was calling. But when she congratulated me, I was speechless. I did not know what to say. I was so excited about the opportunity to play this summer in Rio.
“I’ve had a lot of great things happen throughout my career, but when you look at the opportunity to be able to go to the Olympics, that was my biggest goal in basketball. It was the highest goal that I had set for myself.”
Stewart becomes just the fourth WNBA rookie ever to be part of a USA Olympic team. She’s been defying the odds on the international stage since age 14, when her USA U-16 team earned gold at the 2009 FIBA Americas U-16 Championship. Stewart has already won half a dozen gold medals heading into this summer’s Olympics. Due to her outstanding performances at the youth level, she’s been named USA Basketball Female Athlete of the Year twice.
Stewart is used to being the youngest on the team: In 2011, she became the second high-school player to represent the USA at the Pan-Am Games. Two years ago, she won a gold medal alongside Bird and 10 other WNBA players at the FIBA World Championships.
“I’m not sure when I actually knew I might have a chance at this,” Stewart said. “But I would say probably when I was just getting done with high school. I was a senior in high school and began to realize that this is something that I wanted to make a part of my summer every single year, and I want to continue that. As I grew as a player, I wanted to continue to grow at the highest levels.”
Bird, meanwhile, has played at the sport’s highest level since 2002. She helped the National Team win a gold medal at the World Championships following her senior year at UConn. Two years later, the legendary point guard was named to the first of her four Olympic teams.
In the past three Olympics, Bird and the Americans have compiled a 24-0 record.
“In some ways, it has even more meaning than the first three,” Bird said. “Mainly I think it’s because that when you are young, the tendency is to take things for granted. You just think these things are going to happen year after year or every four years. But now that I am older, I see that I am really lucky. Really lucky to be here, and I’m really excited and honored.”
Bird and Stewart will be competing at the Olympics during a month-long break from the WNBA season in August. In the preliminary round, the USA will go up against Canada, Senegal, Serbia and two nations that will earn berths at the Olympic Qualifying Tournament in June.