When Breanna Stewart, the reigning WNBA most valuable player, was carried off the floor of the EuroLeague championship game in Hungary last week with a ruptured Achilles tendon, her pain was not just her own.
“I love Stewie and was heartbroken to hear about her injury, especially coming off an unbelievable WNBA season and World Cup,” said Elena Delle Donne, the Washington Mystics star and a former league MVP. “She’s just a great player, competitor and friend. She will be missed this year, but I know she will come back stronger than ever.”
Besides being a beloved player for the Seattle Storm, Stewart, 24, is also a prominent symbol of an enduring issue in professional women’s basketball in the United States: Its players’ seasons never end.
A rookie selected in this month’s WNBA draft will make $41,265 to $53,537 in base salary, and nobody in the league will earn a base salary of as much as $120,000 this coming season.
Because of that, many of the 144 players in the WNBA maximize their earning window by heading to Europe and Asia, where independent owners, free of salary caps, can offer them lucrative opportunities.
There is a price to pay, however: endless seasons bleeding into one another; a physical, psychological and emotional toll; and, the players say, a heightened risk of injury.
A few weeks ago, Victoria Vivians, a 2018 first-round pick of the Indiana Fever, tore an anterior cruciate ligament playing in Israel. She, like Stewart, will miss the 2019 WNBA season.
These were only the biggest, latest injuries. Consider one by Amanda Zahui B., the New York Liberty center, who plays for Sopron Basket in Hungary.
“I just twisted my ankle really bad,” she said in a recent phone interview. “It’s a swollen potato. But I got to practice through it. We don’t really have the time to take off. Everyone twists their ankles. Everyone gets bone bruises in their knees and such.”
All of which elevates the question of how much WNBA players are paid, and whether a framework can be established to keep more of them in the United States during the league’s offseason.
“I’ve always said, everybody that plays overseas in the WNBA needs therapy,” Mystics guard Kristi Toliver, who spent a decade on the hamster wheel of women’s professional basketball before being hired this offseason as an assistant coach for the NBA’s Washington Wizards, said before her 11th WNBA campaign. “It’s just a real thing — just so much that you go through with the travel and, being away from loved ones, family or significant others, and trying to manage and deal with all these different things that are coming at you.
“But you have a high-level job and you have to perform well in order to keep it.”
Ending the financial need for nonstop play is a prime focus of Terri Jackson, president of the Women’s National Basketball Players Association. It appears the league is supportive as well, which is not surprising, given that the quality of play would most likely rise and players who remained in their home market could promote their teams year-round.
“I think it’s a dream, a goal, of the union to grow the league to the point where players can work in it year-round and not have to endure the risks and the rigors of overseas play, of that 12-month calendar,” Jackson said. “It’s a matter that concerns me. It’s a matter that is top of mind for the executive committee and our larger CBA committee.”
That focus is particularly important right now, after the players association opted out of its collective bargaining agreement with the league late last year. So the injury to Stewart, while reflecting a long-standing reality, has also shed new light on the way these players earn a living.
“First and foremost, our thoughts are with Breanna and we wish her a speedy recovery,” Mark Tatum, the acting WNBA president and NBA deputy commissioner, said in an email. “The WNBA and its teams and players share a commitment to growing the league’s business and building on our ongoing work to provide greater professional opportunities for players in the offseason.”
The league has good reason to want a pathway to limiting, if not ending, overseas play from players: The teams are consistently affected by the toll it takes on its players.
“The year-round play for WNBA players is a detriment to the WNBA product,” Minnesota Lynx coach Cheryl Reeve said. “The physical and mental toll it takes on the league’s elite players is reflected in some of the league’s best sitting out the WNBA season to ‘rest,’ as well as these players sustaining injuries.”
Reeve said the rest, which cuts into the WNBA season, is critical for elite players who “are asked to perform at their highest levels day in and day out at home and abroad.”
“It isn’t possible to sustain an elite level without these breaks,” she said.
The new way forward can take many forms, with changes in the base salary one of the tools available. Toliver, for instance, is coaching in the NBA this season, but, because of restrictive rules in place from the previous CBA, she is making just $10,000 to do so.
“The league has also signaled its willingness, its desire, to have a really collaborative relationship with the players, and to hear and to understand the concerns, and how to make this better,” Jackson said. “This is good forward movement. I think that’s where we are.”
That comes as welcome news to players like A’ja Wilson, who has followed Stewart’s path in many ways. Stewart was the top overall pick in 2016; Wilson in 2018. Like Stewart, Wilson won an NCAA championship, then was the WNBA rookie of the year. And like Stewart, Wilson went straight from college ball to the WNBA to a stint overseas last year, in China, before an injury ended her season.
“It’s definitely not an easy route at all,” Wilson said. “I think that’s what makes us just that elite as professional athletes. Because our bodies take on so much, but yet we still perform every single game. I mean, when Stewie got hurt she was in the championship game. She was playing at the highest level that she could overseas. It broke my heart.”
Wilson, too, expressed hope that Stewart’s injury would “shine a light” on this scheduling issue. Zahui B. agreed, though she does not have much time to worry about it: Her team is in the Hungarian league semifinals. If her team sweeps, she said, she will finish her season on May 2, then fly home to Sweden to see her family on May 3, before reporting to New York for training camp with the Liberty by May 8. On May 9, she will be at Barclays Center for New York’s first preseason game, against the Chinese national team.
She said she was looking forward to playing in the best women’s professional league in the world. But she also echoed her fellow players on just how much better the league could be with some rest.
And Toliver, who has now lived it, knows firsthand how right they are.
“I feel that now, entering the summer, I’m going to be so much more prepared to do so much more,” Toliver said. “With what I was able to do with the offseason, I feel that the summer is going to be a breeze.”