By DOUG FEINBERG
AP Basketball Writer
Breanna Stewart couldn’t turn down a chance to play in New York and potentially help the Liberty win their first WNBA championship.
The most coveted free agent this offseason, who won the WNBA MVP award in 2018, announced on social media that she was going to New York with a photo of her in a Liberty shirt on Wednesday. Stewart had spent her entire career in Seattle since the Storm drafted her No. 1 overall in 2016. She won championships with the team in 2018 and 2020.
“I decided to go to New York as I wanted to continue to be great. And I wanted to go to the place where I think I can help this league become better, to raise the standard,” Stewart said in an interview on ESPN. “I feel like why not go to the biggest market in all of sports. I’m excited to go after their first championship.”
The 28-year-old wing has averaged 20.3 points and 8.6 rebounds in her WNBA career. She missed the 2019 season with an Achilles tendon injury.
“New York is a basketball city and I can’t wait to be a part of it,” Stewart said.
Coming to New York brings Stewart closer to home. She grew up in Syracuse, which is an hourlong flight away. She’ll also have a shorter flight to Spain to visit relatives of her wife, Marta.
New York representatives, including coach Sandy Brondello and co-owner Clara Wu Tsai met with Stewart in Turkey last week. Stewart had narrowed her choices to Seattle and New York before choosing the Liberty.
The move turns the Liberty into an instant championship contender. New York, one of the WNBA’s original franchises, has never won a championship. The Liberty already added 2021 MVP Jonquel Jones and Kayla Thornton through a three-way deal to complement 2020 No. 1 draft pick Sabrina Ionescu.
“I think this group has a ton of potential, a lot of amazing players,” Stewart said. “The selflessness helps us set ourselves apart from everyone else.”
The news was met with elation on social media by Jones, Ionescu and Brooklyn Nets star Kevin Durant, who said on a podcast that he had reached out to Stewart to get her to come to New York.
Stewart was the second big-name free agent to announce her intentions to play for another team. Candace Parker said last weekend she was going to sign with the Las Vegas Aces and did so on Wednesday.
“As I’ve gone through free agency this time around, of course I’m thinking of where I can compete for my third championship, but the words home and family are what I kept coming back to,” said Parker, a longtime Southern California resident. “After evaluating the landscape together with my family, we’ve decided the Las Vegas Aces are the right organization for us at this point in our lives. To play for a championship close to home is the perfect situation for us. I’m looking forward to continuing the journey this summer in Las Vegas.”
Wednesday was the first day that free agents could sign contracts. Other moves announced included:
— Brittney Sykes and Shatori Walker-Kimbrough with Washington.
— Lexie Brown and Stephanie Talbot with Los Angeles.
— Teaira McCowan with Dallas.
— Alysha Clark and Cayla George with Las Vegas.
— AD Durr and Nia Coffey with Atlanta.
Many free agents were waiting for Stewart to make her decision, including Courtney Vandersloot.
Vandersloot announced on social media late Tuesday night that she wasn’t returning to Chicago, where she had spent her entire career. She has led the league in assists six times during her 12-year career and helped the Sky win the 2021 WNBA championship.
“To the Sky organization who drafted the little guard from a mid-major and believed in me from the jump, I couldn’t have asked for anything better,” Vandersloot wrote on Instagram. “Thank you from the bottom of my heart. I have realized my dreams because of you. Although I never planned for this day to come, I have decided it is time for me to pursue a new beginning.”
Stewart and Vandersloot are currently playing together in Turkey.
“My message to Sloot is she knows I love to play with her, but I’m going to support her in any decision she makes,” Stewart said. “Free agency is hard. It’s been an emotional rollercoaster for everybody. It’s not only basketball these decisions are made behind. It’s life.”
While Stewart and Vandersloot will be playing for different WNBA teams, Brittney Griner, who is also a free agent, announced in December when she returned home from her 10-month ordeal in Russia that she planned to remain with the Phoenix Mercury. Her long-time Mercury teammate Diana Taurasi is also a free agent, but she too is expected to go back to Phoenix.
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