On October 6, 2020, the Seattle Storm completes a three-game sweep of the Las Vegas Aces to win its fourth WNBA championship. The victory caps a season like no other in league history. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the schedule is delayed, shortened and compressed, with all games played at a single site in Bradenton, Florida, and with no fans in the stands.
Pandemic and Activism
With the coronavirus spreading worldwide, all sports began shutting down in March 2020. The WNBA ordinarily would start a 34-game season in late May. The 2020 schedule included only 22 games and began July 25. For the entire season, the teams lived in isolation, practicing and playing their games at IMG Academy, a 600-acre sports training and education facility. Access was limited, and safety measures were mandatory. The situation was similar to "the bubble," the nickname for the National Basketball Association's single-site season and playoffs in Orlando, Florida. The WNBA version became known irreverently as "the wubble."
The 2020 season also was notable for the league's and players' association's joint commitment to social justice reform. Opening weekend was dedicated to the Black Lives Matter movement. On the back of each uniform was the name Breonna Taylor, a Black emergency medical technician shot dead in her apartment by Louisville, Kentucky, police. The players staged a two-day work stoppage August 26 and 27 to protest police shooting Jacob Blake, a 29-year-old Black man in Kenosha, Wisconsin. Wearing masks against the pandemic, Seattle's players posed for a photo with clenched fists and T-shirts that said "Arrest the Cops Who Killed Breonna Taylor." They also wore warmup shirts that said "Vote."
The Storm's top two players, forward Breanna Stewart (b. 1994) and point guard Sue Bird (b. 1980), missed all of the 2019 season because of injuries. While they were gone, the team's other starters -- forwards Natasha Howard (b. 1991) and Alysha Clark (b. 1987), and guard Jewell Lloyd (b. 1993) -- assumed bigger roles, and reserves such as guard Jordin Canada (b. 1995) gained valuable experience. That depleted 2019 squad made the playoffs but lost in the second round. With the return of Stewart and Bird, stars of the Storm's 2018 championship season, Seattle was the preseason favorite to win the 2020 title.
The Storm would have to do it without its coach, however. Dan Hughes (b. 1955) had battled cancer the previous year and opted to skip the WNBA season for health reasons. He was replaced by longtime assistant Gary Kloppenburg (b. 1953), with Bird, a perennial All-Star and the league's oldest player at 39, essentially serving as an assistant coach. Bird had problems related to the knee injury that cost her the previous season and played in only 11 of the 22 regular-season games. But Stewart, coming back from a torn Achilles' tendon, was superb. Voted the Most Valuable Player of both the 2018 season and that championship series, "Stewie" in her comeback averaged 19.9 points, 8.3 rebounds and 1.7 steals, all team highs, in leading the Storm to an 18-4 record and a return to the playoffs.
Cruising to the Title
The Storm and Las Vegas Aces had the same regular-season records, but the Aces had beaten the Storm twice (both times with Bird sidelined) and so ranked as the top seed in the postseason. Seattle, as second seed, opened against the fourth-seeded Minnesota Lynx. The first game was the hardest. It took a last-second rebound and contested put-back by Clark at the buzzer to beat the Lynx 88-86. The rest, by comparison, was easy.
Seattle beat the Lynx in the next two games 89-79 and 92-71 to advance to the finals. The Aces, meanwhile, had a bit of a struggle against the seventh-seeded Connecticut Sun. Las Vegas won that series 3-2, meaning the top two seeds and the top two players would compete for the title. The Aces were missing Liz Cambage (b. 1991), their 6-foot-8 All-Star center who skipped the season for health reasons; forward Dearica Hamby (b. 1993), the league's two-time Sixth Woman of the Year who was out with a knee injury; and guard Kelsey Plum (b. 1994), the former University of Washington star who was recovering from an Achilles' tendon injury. But they still had forward A'ja Wilson (b. 1996), the league's newly crowned Most Valuable Player. She averaged 20.5 points, 8.5 rebounds, and 2 blocked shots during the regular season.
The Storm stars came out for Game 1. Stewart scored a career playoff-high 37 points and grabbed 15 rebounds, Bird set a playoff record with 16 assists, and Lloyd added 28 points in a 93-80 Seattle victory. The remaining games were just as one-sided. The Aces focused on stopping Stewart in Game 2 but she still managed a game-high 22 points and Clark and Howard, two of the league's top defenders, scored 21 each in a 104-91 Seattle victory. The Storm completed the series sweep even more convincingly, with a 92-59 victory. It was the most lopsided game in WNBA Finals history and gave the franchise four league championships, two more than any other Seattle pro team.
Stewart once again was MVP of the Finals. Bird, just 10 days shy of her 40th birthday, once again had played a key role in a Storm championship, a streak dating back to 2004. There would be no celebratory parade, however, because of social distancing and crowd-size restrictions due to the pandemic. The players, who had spent three months confined to the WNBA bubble, scattered to their homes. The franchise produced for the internet a 75-minute "virtual rally" that included a highlight video, praise from the team's owners, and tributes from Governor Jay Inslee (b. 1951) and King County Executive Dow Constantine (b. 1961).
On October 9, Stewart, Lloyd and center Mercedes Russell (b. 1995), all wearing surgical masks, appeared atop the Space Needle, where they raised the Storm flag and posed for photos with the championship trophy. With most if not all of the team expected to return in 2021, talk already had begun about the likelihood of more titles to come.