When Breanna Stewart and A’ja Wilson step on the court Sunday for the start of the WNBA Finals, they’ll represent not only the New York Liberty and Las Vegas Aces but the fiery rivalry that the league hopes can continue to fan the popularity it’s accrued through nearly three decades.
The superstars’ catalog of accomplishments is too extensive to even detail in full; it reads more like the resume of two retired pros rather than two players in the primes of their career. They have defined the last decade of their sport, starting with their national championships in college, leading into their gold medals for USA Basketball and now as direct competitors in the best league in the world. The Liberty and Aces are merely in the first chapter of their arms race, but the rivalry between these two all-time greats — the faces of the league — has already proved its staying power and its importance to the future of the WNBA.
Stewart, 29, entered the league as the most decorated player in college basketball history, more than just the next superstar from the Connecticut conveyor belt. After Stewart won the last of her four NCAA titles, Wilson, 27, picked up the baton, bringing South Carolina its first national championship and helping the Gamecocks enter the upper echelon of collegiate powerhouses. Both carried that success immediately into the WNBA as No. 1 draft picks, rookies of the year and MVPs by their third season. It was in Wilson’s third year that the two met in the postseason for the first time — a matchup that has become an annual rite of passage.
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“The way that our careers are going to end up going, we’re gonna end up facing against each other a lot,” Stewart says. “Every game, we’re trying to push the needle, we’re trying to continue to make this league better, continue to make this game better, and enjoy that. This is why we play is to play against the best, to be in the big moments.”
With the two set to face off in the postseason for the third time in four seasons (Stewart, who was with the Seattle Storm, was injured during the missing year), their individual battle for supremacy has become a tentpole for the WNBA. Multiple people around the league have likened their rivalry to that of Magic Johnson and Larry Bird, with their diverse backgrounds, bicoastal positioning and sustained success. The hope is the duo can propel the WNBA — in its 27th season — the same way Magic and Bird did for the NBA.
“This really could become one of those great rivalries,” says Rebecca Lobo, who is broadcasting the finals for ESPN. “That’s one of the things that’s been so wonderful about the conversation around A’ja Wilson and Breanna Stewart, these two young players, who are two of the best players in the league and have been since they came into the league. They’ve been an incredible foil for one another and for their fan bases.”
Best-of-five series between the Aces and Liberty for the title begins Sunday.
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Chelsea Gray, Wilson’s Aces teammate, echoes the potential for Stewart and Wilson to transcend the WNBA’s existing fan base with their performances.
“I think it’s important for our league,” Gray says. “A lot of people tune in for certain matchups, right? When you go down the history of sports, they want to tune in for certain matchups. You talk about Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, all these different matches that people want to watch. And you think about that with A’ja and Stewie, and the dynamic play that they’re able to do on both ends of the floor. ”
The WNBA historically has relied on rivalries to market its product. The Houston Comets and the Liberty faced off in three of the first four finals. The Los Angeles Sparks and Minnesota Lynx played each other in four straight postseasons from 2015 to 2018; their back-to-back championship series in 2016 and 2017 are still considered a high point for the league in terms of visibility — the average viewership of 559,000 per game in 2017 hasn’t been topped since — and quality of play.
But there hasn’t been an individual matchup that the WNBA has really leaned into. Sue Bird and Diana Taurasi were marketed heavily by the league, but as best friends who both went to UConn, there was no sense of competition between them. Maya Moore didn’t really have a peer during her heyday. Other potential positional rivalries, like between Sylvia Fowles and Candace Parker, were left untapped.
The league is smarter about its promotions now, and it has been given the gift of two players at the peak of their powers who keep running into one another. There’s been no one better than Stewart and Wilson in the WNBA.
It starts with their competitive spirit. Las Vegas forward Alysha Clark, who won two titles with Stewart before joining forces with Wilson, says their drive and attention to detail bind them together while setting them apart from the rest of the league.
“They have motors that are top of the top,” Clark says. “When you have your franchise player, when you have your best player, you want them to have that type of motor. And then, just their work ethic. They’re constantly in the gym, they’re always in there using it. There’s never a day off outside of rest, obviously. But they live in the gym. They live working on their game and just perfecting what they do.”
The work has paid off handsomely. Stewart and Wilson have combined to win four of the last six WNBA MVP awards, including Stewart this season. Wilson has added two defensive player of the year awards to that tally, while Stewart just broke the league’s single-season points record. They’ve been All-Star captains five times, and their teams have won all three Commissioner’s Cup finals. In two weeks, they will have captured four of the last six WNBA championships.
Stewart got the better of Wilson in the first playoff meeting, as her Storm dispatched an injured Aces squad in the 2020 finals, but Wilson got a taste of what she was missing. Las Vegas loaded up in the aftermath, bringing in Gray and Becky Hammon as coach, so that the result flipped in 2022 when the Storm and Aces met again in the semifinals. Gray’s shotmaking stole the show, but the battle between Stewart and Wilson was a worthy undercard as each player forced the other to raise her level.
Wilson has averaged 19.3 points and 9.3 rebounds over 33 postseason games. Against Stewart’s teams, despite them being among the league’s best every year, those numbers rise to 22.1 and 9.7. Similarly, Stewart is the WNBA’s all-time highest postseason scorer (minimum three games), averaging 24 points per contest — that figure ascends to 29 in playoff games versus the Aces.
“I always say we bring out the best in each other every single possession because we’re good,” Wilson says. “We’re good at what we do, and I think it’s pretty cool just to see that matchup. I think it’s pretty cool that young girls can watch the matchup of the rivalry going on. Especially now during today’s time, everyone loves a good back-and-forth, so I think it’s pretty cool to watch us really have the hands of women’s basketball.”
Stewart and Wilson certainly held the WNBA in the palms of their hands last offseason. Stewart stirred up a social media storm in anticipation of her dramatic move to New York, and Wilson helped recruit Parker — going so far as to offer babysitting services — and Clark to Las Vegas. The Liberty essentially built their team in the Aces’ image: a generational playmaker, a fire-breathing 3-point shooter who can also handle the ball, a physical wing who can score from anywhere on the court and a versatile center who impacts the game on both ends, all complementing the MVP candidate at power forward.
That set the stage for one more year of Stewart and Wilson trying to outpace one another. Each had career seasons, and their highlights were often punctuated by responses from their counterpart.
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The Aces raced out to a 16-1 start to the season, including a blowout victory over the Liberty in the teams’ first meeting. Stewart exacted a small amount of revenge at the midseason break, captaining her All-Star team to a win on Wilson’s home court. Wilson set a career high of 40 points, doing so without any 3-pointers, on Aug. 11. The next game, Stewart recorded her third 40-plus outing of the season. The Liberty got the edge in the Commissioner’s Cup final two days after that, and Wilson exploded a week later for 53 points, tying the league’s single-game record.
After Wilson edged Stewart for the 2022 MVP award, their games down the stretch this season became appointment viewing as both battled for the honor — alongside Alyssa Thomas — yet again. On the night Stewart was presented with her 2023 crown, Wilson put up 30 points and 11 rebounds to lead the Aces to a 2-0 semifinals series lead over Dallas.
“It’s quite amazing, isn’t it?” Liberty coach Sandy Brondello says. “They’re different, but they’re the same, they’re so competitive. They’ve achieved so much in their young careers already, and they’re going to continue to get better and better. Obviously, they’re in the same position. So they’re pushing each other and they’re making each other great, and that’s exciting for our league.”
Wilson and Stewart aren’t just blazing a trail in the WNBA — they’re also carrying a legacy in the international game. They may be on opposite sides in their league trajectories, but they join forces in devastating fashion for Team USA. The league and the national team have always gone hand in hand, making it almost inevitable that the WNBA’s best would be the faces of the red, white, and blue.
Both understand the honor, privilege and responsibility that comes with representing their country, and neither has missed a major international tournament since turning pro. They understand that their goal of growing the game can be accomplished both domestically and abroad. Collectively, they get to be the ambassadors of the game, a task made easier by their dominance on the court together.
Stewart has already captured three world championship gold medals and two Olympic golds, while Wilson has two and one, with both projected to be on the U.S. roster in Paris in 2024. Stewart was the MVP of the 2018 World Cup, and Wilson earned the honor in 2022. Now that a generation of American international stalwarts has retired (or is close to it), they’re taking on the challenge of leading the next wave of U.S. teams off the court, as well.
“It’s pretty cool when we come together as teammates on the national team because we’re really next up,” Wilson says. “You had Sue and Diana, and they would be the captains obviously, but then, when they’re no longer there, it’s us. We’ve been in the system for a while, and we can grow together as one. And it’s pretty cool to see us be teammates.”
For now, the rest of the world can rest. The next five games are Aces versus Liberty, and A’ja versus Stewie. Whoever fails to get the upper hand can at least take solace in the fact that another matchup is on the horizon soon.
“It’s just great basketball being played, and to see (Wilson) continue to elevate her game, and I’m continuing to elevate mine, we’re trying to change this league and really doing that as a tandem and continuing to do it together,” Stewart says. “From the outside looking in, it’s always looking like we’re going head to head all the time, but it’s competitive. It’s what we love to do, and we’re gonna do it for many years to come, hopefully.”
(Illustration: Samuel Richardson / The Athletic; photo of Breanna Stewart and A’ja Wilson: Ethan Miller / Getty Images)