A'ja Wilson, Breanna Stewart lead next generation of WNBA stewards with veteran experience, brand recognition

CHICAGO — As A’ja Wilson soaked in the feeling of her first Olympic gold medal at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, Sue Bird felt the emotions of her fifth and final one. Recognizing the shift that was about to take place in women’s basketball, Bird approached Wilson. She motioned over to Breanna Stewart. And she told them it was their team now.

“That’s when it really hit me like, 'Wow, this is different, this is going to be a change,'” Wilson said, retelling the story from the WNBA All-Star orange carpet. “They’ve left building blocks and a foundation for us to follow and we’re going to truly miss them.”

Team USA is theirs, and so is the WNBA.

It was the Las Vegas Aces’ Wilson, 25, and Seattle Storm’s Stewart, 27, who were named co-captains of the 2022 All-Star Game by fan vote and ranked first and second, respectively, in media and player votes. They delivered literal flowers during the game to the Storm’s Bird and Minnesota Lynx center Sylvia Fowles, both of whom announced their retirements this season, and they appeared at brand-sponsored events and parties attached to their names.

The weekend was pegged as a transition from the retiring stars to emerging ones, such as first-time All-Stars Sabrina Ionescu, Rhyne Howard, Jackie Young and Kelsey Plum. But that omits an entire span of established talents who are taking over as stewards of the game. They hold the accolades, veteran experience and, arguably most important, brands boosting their recognition and platforms.

“We’re in a situation where the torch is being passed to whoever that torch may be getting passed to,” Wilson told Yahoo Sports. “It is a little shift, and right now, I think the focal points is you got a Stewie, you got a Jonquel Jones, you have me. It’s different people that are bringing different patterns to our league. So yeah, it is kind of shifted to a way that it’s our time.”

A'ja Wilson of the Las Vegas Aces looks on along with Sabrina Ionescu of the New York Liberty at Barclays Center on July 12, 2022 in the Brooklyn borough of New York City. The Las Vegas Aces defeated the New York Liberty 107-101.

Sylvia Fowles, Sue Bird depart as other legends wind down

The first play of the All-Star Game was a drawn-up 3-pointer assisted by Wilson and drilled by Fowles, matching the amount she’d taken and made in her entire 15-year WNBA career. The next quarter, the 36-year-old Fowles shook Wintrust Arena — and Wilson — with a dunk.

It was Wilson both times who leaped in broad-smiled celebrations back down the court, even chest-bumping Fowles in Tigger-esque jumps. There was no missing her enthusiasm in giving Fowles a bouquet of flowers mid-game after she gushed about the opportunity all weekend.

“Syl has mentored me in a way that she probably doesn't even know,” said Wilson, who pulled off an All-Star draft day trade with Stewart so Fowles was her co-captain and Bird with Stewart. “Just coming into the league as a big girl and watching that has been amazing. The things she’s done in this league is incredible, and to still have her body, it’s magnificent to look at. I hope I can look that good headed into retirement.”

Fowles’ game hasn’t dropped off since the Chicago Sky drafted her No. 2 in 2008. She earned her fourth Defensive Player of the Year award in 2021, marking a 10-year span since her first in 2011. She also won in 2013 and 2016. After joining the Minnesota Lynx mid-dynasty, she earned Finals MVP in both title years (’15, ’17) and was named the 2017 league MVP. The center is all over the top echelon of the league leaderboards and is the WNBA’s all-time leading rebounder.

Team Wilson's Sylvia Fowles smiles as she walks to the bench during the first half of a WNBA All-Star basketball game against the Team Stewart in Chicago, Sunday, July 10, 2022.
Sylvia Fowles smiles after receiving flowers to celebrate her retirement at the end of the season during halftime of the WNBA All-Star Game in Chicago on July 10, 2022. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh) (ASSOCIATED PRESS)

Bird’s 19-year playing legacy has garnered more coverage since she was drafted No. 1 out of UConn in 2002. Her four WNBA titles span three decades (2004, 2010, 2018, 2020), and she is the league’s all-time leader in assists by a comfortable margin. Bird, 41, has credited Stewart for “literally saving my career” and it is the younger Storm star who will carry on her wisdom.

“Everything that Sue has done, I will just try and continue that and carry it on,” said Stewart, who won with Bird in ’18 and ’20. “The way that she’s tried to elevate and uplift our sport, always striving for more and to be better, those are the main things. Obviously, the skill speaks for itself, but [I want] to make this league better for this generation and the next generation, like she did for us.”

The full transition is coming. Candace Parker, the No. 1 pick ahead of Fowles in 2008, has retirement at least middle-of-mind. She reiterated after the All-Star Game she won’t know until the offseason when “I go to lift my leg over that Peloton and it doesn’t go up.” Wilson took her No. 1 in the All-Star draft knowing it might be her last chance to play with another of her mentors.

Taurasi, 40, said in April she plans on “playing for a while,” but her exit from the stage is certainly within the next handful of years. Allie Quigley, a historic four-time 3-Point Contest champion, considered retirement last offseason. Angel McCoughtry, 35, hasn’t signed anywhere since the Lynx bought out her contract.

“I don’t think you pass a torch like from Syl to someone or from Sue to someone because their legacies are independent of anyone else,” said Kelsey Plum, whose All-Star MVP performance of 30 points tied the record set by Maya Moore — another superstar who has left the game. The 2017 No. 1 overall pick is an MVP contender well on her way to established league talent.

But you can carry a new one, taking part of their fire into your own. As with the generations before them, Fowles and Bird are handing off the game for players to continue building. Those players have advantages their predecessors don’t and are already leveraging it.

WNBA's positive inclusion in popular culture growing superstars

Squished on the sidewalk between Wintrust Arena and McCormick Place, site of the Skills Competition, 3-Point Contest and Nike Nationals, the WNBA launched its first All-Star fanfest, WNBA Live. It opened on Saturday morning with a special guest.

Wilson tossed up one 3-pointer at the MTN Dew half-court, fed balls to competitors, danced with her mom on the 360-degree photo stand and snapped pics with fans before rushing through the convention center to find the locker rooms for practice.

“People say ‘face of the league’ all the time, but I just look at it as I’m just doing me,” Wilson told Yahoo Sports from a MTN Dew booth showcasing her highlights, from game footage to her real, worn jersey dresses on display. “I’m blessed to be partnered with a company like Mountain Dew that wants to dive into me, bigger than the athlete. They’ve showcased me, they’re making me seen. Even when I go to NBA All-Star, I’m there and they’ve really just given me an avenue to be me.”

Brand support was a benefit Bird and Fowles never had in their early years. Fowles’ national partnerships are still largely absent, a signal of the racial bias and marketing concerns that have surrounded the league and its players. Bird and Parker are now featured in Carmax commercials and on "NBA2K" covers, a large reason why the latter two are headline celebrities. Wilson and Stewart are aiming for the same.

A mile north from the Dew setup, Puma outfitted the top floor of an event space to celebrate its latest launch announced in tandem with All-Star weekend. The Stewie 1 “Quiet Fire” will hit stores this fall, making Stewart only the 10th WNBA player to have a signature shoe. She’s also the first since Parker’s in 2010. (Elena Delle Donne reportedly has a signature shoe with Nike coming, but it has not been announced.)

“[I have a] ton of pride realizing that when I was young I was talking about buying LeBrons and Jordans and Shaq shoes, now it’s going to be my own,” Stewart told Yahoo Sports in March.

Puma hosted friends, family and media at the spot throughout the weekend. Adidas threw a boat extravaganza and hosted Parker’s Ace All-Star party, during which they unveiled the second part of her collection that includes shoes and apparel. Jordan Brand hosted a musical performer at its party. And Chance the Rapper played in a private, streamed concert attended mostly by players.

It appears frivolous, but it’s an important aspect other leagues have that the W never did.

“People want to be seen at these parties, people want to go, and I think it really does mark a big difference in terms of the excitement,” Bird said. “I know it sounds silly, but the parties matter. I think they represent something different in the world of cultural capital. That's kind of exciting to see that happen this year, and I hope it continues.”

The positive inclusion in popular culture is an increasingly talked-about topic in the WNBA. The State Farm commercial featuring Connecticut Sun star Jonquel Jones alongside the NBA’s Trae Young and Boban Marjanović, is all over national TV. Jones, the 28-year-old reigning league MVP, nearly made it a three-way tie for most points in the game with 29 and 13 rebounds.

MTN Dew’s A’ja Wilson hoodie and her appearance in a Saweetie music video are boosts to her and the league’s profile every time someone sees it. Same for Stewart’s gear and kicks, which provide a bright, neon yellow touchpoint for fans on the street or in a crowd.

A'ja Wilson, Breanna Stewart carry torch for next generation

With the backend of the season already underway, Wilson and Stewart are exactly where they’ve always been — the forefront of the MVP race. They have ranked top-10 in MVP voting every season of their careers and each won it in their third seasons.

Stewart earned the nod in 2018, when Wilson finished eighth as a rookie, and Wilson in 2020, when Stewart finished second in her comeback year from an Achilles tear. Through the All-Star break, Stewart leads the league in points (20.9 ppg) and Wilson in rebounds (10.3 rpg). They’re 1-2 in fantasy points per game, another new touchpoint for fandom.

“I think they’re really starting to establish themselves as players who can be the names for this league,” Bird said during All-Star weekend. “Players who can represent this league, players who are going to set the bar in terms of what that MVP player looks like, what it means to be consistent every year. That’s how I would describe those two.”

Breanna Stewart and Sue Bird of Team Stewart speak following the 2022 AT&T WNBA All-Star Game at the Wintrust Arena on July 10, 2022 in Chicago, Illinois.
Seattle Storm teammates Breanna Stewart, with daughter Ruby, and Sue Bird during the 2022 WNBA All-Star Game at the Wintrust Arena in Chicago on Sunday. Bird is retiring after this season, and Stewart is one of the most recognizable faces in the league. (Stacy Revere/Getty Images) (Stacy Revere via Getty Images)

Bird called the duo the future, adding it’s “not lip service” and she’s discussed it with Stewart just as she’s done with Wilson.

“It’s not something [Wilson and I] talk about often, but I think it’s something we’re both very aware of,” Stewart told Yahoo Sports. “We know that what we do is going to reflect on the league and making sure that we’re doing our best to be our best on and off the court.”

Dearica Hamby, a two-time Sixth Player of the Year with the Aces, said she’s seen Wilson transition from a shy rookie who just wanted to play basketball to a leader who is more present and encouraging with teammates. Wilson and Stewart are both becoming vocal leaders in social and league issues, the aspect Stewart sees as the way they carry the torch.

“To me it means making the league better,” Stewart said. “It means continuing to raise the standard, do the uncomfortable things. And do whatever it takes to make the league better. A lot has changed since I came into where I am now, and I hope a lot more changes from where I am now to whenever I retire.”

The most monumental aspect Wilson said she’s learned from the “OGs,” namely Fowles and Parker, is to take younger players under her wing.

“They’ve been my mentors in this league since I stepped foot in it,” Wilson told Yahoo Sports. “And I think that’s the biggest thing: stretching out those wings and upping someone from the younger, younger generation that looks up. And that’s what they’ve done. And that’s what I want to do."

She’s already noticed Young, her Aces teammate, start doing to her what she did to Fowles with phone calls and questions. The 2019 No. 1 draft pick is becoming a star in the league and could one day carry on her own torch. The same can be said for Ionescu and Plum, who are swiftly ascending.

First, though, it’s Wilson and Stewart’s turn to be the elder stateswomen who move the league forward a little bit more before lighting the next torches. It’s their league now.