BREANNA STEWART HAS spent the past several hours in stiletto heels, and her hair has been teased so many times that it must be self-conscious. So it's a relief when her day ends, finally, at an after-hours dinner at Bobby Flay's Bar Americain, just outside the melodic jangle of the Mohegan Sun casino floor. Stewart's parents have spent much of this April night waiting for the photo shoots to end. They woke early this morning and drove 300 miles from upstate New York to Uncasville, Connecticut, to see her get drafted into the WNBA, and somewhere around 10 p.m., after scanning the steak tartare and duck confit on the menu, they settle in to exhale.
For a family that temporarily kept her awards on the floor of the basement this spring so the dog wouldn't gnaw on them, all this rock-star attention has taken them aback. Stewie, who used to put her head down and say "Ummm" during interviews, had a handler whisking her around earlier in the evening. Meanwhile, a crowd lined up outside the arena hours before the draft, all to watch the inevitable: Stewart holding up a jersey from the Seattle Storm, the team that drew the No. 1 pick in the draft lottery seven months earlier.
The night is big, and the Stewarts know it. Her dad, Brian, who normally wears shorts regardless of the temperature, has thrown on a pair of slacks. Just before the show started, UConn coach Geno Auriemma took a seat next to Breanna at a round orange table. Auriemma insisted on being here, even though he had been so ill that he had to skip the national championship parade a few days earlier in Hartford. (By the end of the week, he'll be hospitalized for three days with flulike symptoms.) When Stewart's name was called, he embraced her, germs be damned, and whispered, "Does it feel good? Do you deserve it?"
"Yes," she answered.
Auriemma is long gone by the time Stewart arrives at Bobby Flay's, and she takes a seat near her soon-to-be agent. Before she can catch up with her family, Stewart learns that Good Morning America wants her in New York by 6 a.m. It's a 2½-hour drive, and she's got to go. She asks her dad for a credit card so she can get a hotel room and dashes out the door.
For one night, Breanna Stewart is the toast of the sports world. And if history is any indicator, it is all downhill from here.
IN THE WNBA'S perfect world, this dizzying night would go on, and Stewart would become the face of the league, carry it to new heights and tap demographics that have gone untouched for two decades.
But that's not how it's gone for any of the No. 1 picks who have come before her, from Tina Thompson to Candace Parker to Diana Taurasi. On the court, they have lived up to the hype, winning MVPs and championships. But none of it has provided enough traction to give the league a significant boost in attendance, revenue or TV ratings.
"In the NBA, the draft is about hope for a franchise," says Lon Babby, a senior adviser for the Phoenix Suns. "In the WNBA, it's not just about whether the pick is going to make the Mercury or Seattle or the Silver Stars better. It's also about whether this player is going to make the league better. Because the league is constantly fighting this challenge to succeed and endure. They're always fighting the perception that the quality of play is not worthy, and in the early days, maybe that was valid. But it sure isn't valid now. The play is extraordinary now."
Interest, however, is not. The 2015 season saw a record low for attendance -- the league averaged 7,318 fans per game -- and TV viewership dipped. In September, NBA commissioner Adam Silver admitted that the WNBA isn't as popular as he thought it would be. From afar, Val Ackerman, who was WNBA president from 1996 to 2005, still hopefully watches the league she helped start. She's "befuddled" by a landscape that fixated on women's soccer during a World Cup run last summer but barely notices that the U.S. women's basketball team is going for its sixth straight gold in this year's Olympics.
These are issues that new WNBA president Lisa Borders will tackle in 2016, and she'll look for opportunities almost anywhere. But she held off on putting Stewie on a pedestal. Borders scoffs at the notion that any 21-year-old could be the league's greatest hope.
"We feel that we have bright, shining stars," Borders says. "But that doesn't mean they're the silver bullet to correct anything or enhance or amplify what we have happening. That's just not rational. That's like saying one person who comes in as the CEO will completely turn a company around. Nobody says that outside of sports. We know better."
With the first pick of the 1997 WNBA draft ...
The first WNBA draft took place on a spring day in 1997, devoid of handlers and emotion. The Houston Comets knew whom they wanted with the No. 1 pick: USC forward Tina Thompson. There was only one problem. Thompson wasn't sure she was interested.
Thompson had just graduated, was prepping for the LSAT and was highly skeptical of a women's pro league -- she'd seen so many others collapse faster than the defenses that tried to cover her. The Comets threw out a salary offer somewhere near $35,000, and Thompson said no thanks. Houston was surprised: Didn't every young college star dream of playing professional basketball?
After some negotiating, Thompson says, she was able to get her contract -- including salary, endorsements and bonuses -- up to six figures. (The WNBA now has a rookie salary cap.) She took a red-eye from California to Secaucus, New Jersey, to make it to the draft. Thompson says she was encouraged to act surprised when she was called No. 1. She opened her mouth and put her hands over her face when she was picked. "It was totally fake," she says of her reaction. That night, her celebration consisted of ordering room service.
She did not become the face of the WNBA. There were plenty of veterans there to handle that role, such as Cynthia Cooper, Rebecca Lobo and Sheryl Swoopes. But she did play 17 years before retiring in 2013. And she says that in the early days, every player felt a responsibility to connect with the fans. They wanted to do everything in their power to keep the WNBA going.
"I mean, we were touchable, we were reachable," she says. "You talk to people. You thank them for their support. You talk to their daughters and give them advice. You just be a human being."
Thompson, who became an assistant coach at the University of Texas last year, wonders if the league's next stars are willing to make the same effort. "I think a lot of the younger players are thinking about what the league is going to do for them, versus what they can do for the league. In the WNBA, for its longevity, the players have to do the work. They have to connect with the fans and make themselves accessible. Because we're not so far out of the red that we can act the way an NBA player does."
With the first pick of the 1999 WNBA draft ...
Perhaps no women's player came into the WNBA with more hype than Tennessee star Chamique Holdsclaw. She was dubbed the female Michael Jordan and was the first (and still the only) female athlete to appear on the cover of Slam magazine. When she was drafted No. 1 by the Washington Mystics in 1999, hundreds gathered for a rally for her in Washington's Union Station.
Holdsclaw brought her grandmother to the draft. After Chamique walked off the stage, June Holdsclaw handed her a crumpled piece of paper. When she was a kid, Chamique used to write herself letters, but she never knew her grandmother kept them. The letter read, "When I grow up, I'm going to be the first girl to play in the NBA. It's OK if the boys don't let me play with them all the time. I'm going to prove to them I'm better."
Babby, a former agent whose client list once included Tim Duncan and Holdsclaw, says he's never witnessed a rookie player -- male or female -- saddled with the pressures of a league like Holdsclaw was.
She never really got the chance to carry anything. Holdsclaw had no problem with pressure; she'd been surrounded by it since she was 11 playing basketball against the boys in New York City. But she struggled for direction. She was used to having someone protect her -- her grandma, her high school coach, Pat Summitt at Tennessee. In the pros, without that structure, she crumbled. Her grandmother died, contributing to mental health issues that eventually led to a diagnosis of clinical depression and a bipolar disorder.
Holdsclaw retired in 2007, came back and played another two seasons, then retired for good in 2010. She had to choose basketball or her life, she says. She chose life. But she can't help wondering what might have been.
"A lot of men enjoyed watching my game," Holdsclaw says. "They were like, 'You're the woman who got me excited about women's basketball.' It didn't make me nervous. I was just trying to figure, 'What's the example to follow? Who can I look to to mirror myself after?' I didn't know."
With the first pick of the 2003 WNBA draft ...
2003 was a hopeful time in Cleveland. The Cavaliers won the lottery and selected native son LeBron James No. 1 in the NBA draft. It is forgotten now that the city won the lottery twice that year.
On April 24, two months before James was drafted, the Cleveland Rockers selected LaToya Thomas with the No. 1 pick. Thomas was a great story. She grew up in Greenville, Mississippi, the heart of the delta. Though she was recruited by Tennessee -- at a time when Summitt was rarely turned down by a recruit -- Thomas wanted to be true to her home state. So she went to Mississippi State and became one of the best players in the country. After the Rockers took her No. 1, she felt special, she remembers. The team set her up with an apartment in a downtown high-rise for the summer and a car. She thinks it was an Impala.
But the team never did much to promote her. Maybe the city was too caught up in LeBron. Thomas has another theory: The franchise didn't want to get too attached to her. By the end of the year, the Rockers folded and Thomas was gone. She landed in San Antonio, where she'd play for former NBA player Dee Brown. A couple of months into the season, Brown resigned. "He didn't even talk to us before he left," Thomas says.
Her luck in the WNBA didn't change much. She went to Los Angeles, then Detroit, then Minnesota, but she never seemed to find the right fit. When she'd go home to Greenville, everyone would think she must be well-off, a No. 1 pick. Truth was, the only place she could make a good living was overseas, spending her offseasons in Korea, Russia, Spain, Israel or France.
"After a while, I was putting so many miles on my body," she says. So when she was released by Minnesota, she decided to play overseas and take the WNBA season off. "I was like, 'Since they don't want to pay us, I might as well spend time with my family and play overseas.' I got to that point."
She retired from basketball last year and has no regrets. Well, maybe one. She wishes she could have gotten to know LeBron.
"That would've been my dream," she says. "To tell him that I was the No. 1 pick as well."
With the first pick of the 2008 WNBA draft ...
When she left her job as the WNBA's president back in 2005, Ackerman, now the Big East commissioner, believed that Diana Taurasi was going to be the megastar everyone talked about. The guard from UConn, the No. 1 pick of the Phoenix Mercury the year before, would sell tickets and lift the league to new levels. "She came out of the best program with the biggest name," Ackerman says. "She's transformative in many ways."
Taurasi has proceeded to win three WNBA championships, three Olympic gold medals and six Euroleague titles. None of this helped move the needle, and she skipped the 2015 WNBA season to rest for the Russian team she plays for in the offseason.
Just four years after Taurasi's draft day, Candace Parker was supposed to shake up the league. She was smart and personable and had modelesque looks. Best of all, she could dunk. In her first season with the Los Angeles Sparks, she earned rookie of the year and league MVP honors. Only Wilt Chamberlain and Wes Unseld had done that in pro basketball. It seemed that finally the WNBA might have found a star who could transcend.
Four months later, Parker stunned the league with a big announcement: She and former Duke star Shelden Williams were having a baby. She took off the first eight games of the 2009 season after she gave birth to their daughter, Lailaa.
"My responsibilities, I think, changed when I had Lailaa," she says, "because I was her role model and I wanted to do things for her. The first year was kind of trying to push everything out and focus on myself and my experiences, and then the second year was just making her proud."
She struggled with injuries the next two years and didn't play a full season again until 2012. A year later, the league was abuzz over Brittney Griner. But Parker shies away from the idea that she or Griner or anyone else is needed to revitalize the league.
"I don't think the league needed saving," Parker says. "The more players who come in with higher skill sets, the more attention you can gain."
With the first pick of the 2016 WNBA draft ...
Of all the No. 1 picks, Stewart might very well have the game to become the new face of the league: She's a 6-foot-4 post player with guard skills and four national championships who plays -- and women's basketball aficionados cringe when this analogy is used -- like a guy.
"She does things that very few, if any, women's basketball players have done," says Auriemma, who has coached three of the past seven No. 1 draft picks. "She has a chance for all the high school kids that are playing, all the college kids, everybody watching to go, 'Wow, this is a new era of women's basketball.'
"A kid that can dunk and shoot step-back 3s and handle the ball and be that humble? And just have fun and play the game? She hasn't been completely spoiled by all the stuff that's going on."
But the reality of the WNBA is that it might not matter how good Stewart is. She will go to Seattle, with probably a fraction of the fanfare from her college days, draw a $50,000 salary and struggle for summer relevance in a city that will fixate on just about everything but women's basketball -- the Sounders, the Mariners (at least on days that Felix Hernandez is pitching) and the Seahawks' training camp.
In the WNBA, players face identity issues. They spend only a few summer months in their teams' towns, then go overseas and play. They are not the face of one team; they're wearing multiple jerseys.
Back in February, Connecticut Sun forward Chiney Ogwumike (the No. 1 pick in 2014) and a handful of other WNBA players met with Adam Silver during All-Star week and asked for his thoughts on how they could become more relevant.
"He said we need to be more like Serena Williams," Ogwumike says. "She's a great athlete, but she's Serena, unapologetically. In the WNBA, I think we tend to go with the flow. It's like we're in college. We're afraid of what our coaches will tell us. We need to speak our minds and give opinions because we're educated."
Ogwumike believes that the WNBA has had a savior complex but that history has shown it doesn't work. She points to the NBA, where fans are drawn in by numerous storylines, such as Steph Curry's brilliance and LeBron's quest to give Cleveland a title.
"We can't bet on having this amazing God-save-us player," Ogwumike says. "We have the best athletes in the world. It's not just one person. It's many different people."
Stewart is still willing to give it a shot. She doesn't come out and say it, at least publicly, but her parents believe she wants to be that face of the league. They thought about it the day after the draft during the long drive home to North Syracuse, New York.
They worried about the pressure -- "a big boulder on her shoulders," Brian Stewart called it, then he remembered how Breanna, at 18, told reporters in Connecticut that she wanted to win four titles. "She's up for it," Brian says. "I don't know if it could be any tougher than where she just came from."
He said it after watching his daughter get showered with love at the draft and in her previous four years in Connecticut. But that day was a dream, and Seattle is thousands of miles from Storrs.
The real struggle begins now.