Surprisingly, the great University of Connecticut basketball coach Geno Auriemma was at the Seattle Storm practice Tuesday afternoon where he met up with two of his former great UConn players: Guard Sue Bird and forward Breanna Stewart.
Not that Stewart was playing.
Stewart, who was the WNBA’s MVP last year while helping the Storm win its third championship, tore her right Achilles tendon at the EuroLeague championship game in Hungary last month. That injury will likely keep her out for Seattle’s entire season.
During Tuesday’s practice, she received treatment for her ankle off the court. Afterward, she hopped a little way to place the brace on her lower right leg. She wasn’t practicing, but teammates were happy to see her.
“To see her here and get her rehab and treatment, it’s just like old times, even though she’s not on the court,’’ second-year guard Jordin Canada said. “Just to have her presence here means a lot.’’
Meanwhile, just after practice, Storm coach Dan Hughes sat on a stationary bike and did a decent spin while many of the players shot baskets. He has a health issue as well. After undergoing an appendectomy, doctors discovered he had carcinoid cancer, for which he will undergo surgery next week.
While Hughes says he has felt good, healthy and normal the past couple weeks, he isn’t sure just when he will be able to return as coach following surgery. Perhaps when the season begins May 25. Perhaps later, depending on the surgery impact.
Thus, the reigning champions face some issues for the 2019 season.
They are definitely without Stewart, who averaged 21.8 points and 8.4 rebounds a game last season. And when their excellent coach can return is up in the air. They also won’t have their 2019 first-round pick, Australian center Eziyoda Magbegor, who won’t play until 2020.
“They say things happen in threes, right?’’ Bird said. “So we’ve taken some big hits.’’
Not that those hits mean the Storm still won’t be good.
“There will different strengths. There will be other things that we’ll have to play to more,’’ Hughes said. “You can’t go out and get the best player in the world and get another one. We don’t even think in terms of that, but we think of being the best version of 2019 with the people we got. We do have pieces and strengths that we can play to.’’
The Storm has a lot of talented players other than Stewart.
Obviously, there is Bird, a certain future Hall of Famer who will be entering her 17th season with Seattle (she missed 2013 due to injury) at 38 and is coming off a great year when she played a major role — as she did in the 2004 and 2010 WNBA titles — with the Storm’s championship. She averaged 10 points and seven assists per game and holds the WNBA career record in assists. She also set the record for most All-Star game appearances (11) . And she has four Olympic gold medals.
“She is a phenomenal teammate. Phenomenal,’’ said Auriemma, who not only coached Bird at UConn but also at the 2012 and 2016 Olympics. “Ever since she was in college, she knows what you’re supposed to do better than you do. As a matter of fact, the players she’s guarding on the other team, she knows what they’re supposed to do better than what they’re supposed to do.’’
The Storm also has good veteran forwards Natasha Howard, who averaged 13.2 points per game, and Crystal Langhorne, who has averaged 11.8 points per game during her career. The two will play major roles, as will guard Jewell Loyd, (15 ppg) and forward Alysha Clark.
Canada is optimistic.
“It sucks when anyone gets hurt,’’ Canada said. “It doesn’t matter who it is, but obviously Stewie is a big impact on our team. But I think this is a big opportunity for everyone who makes the team to step up and play to the best of their ability and come together as a team. We’ll be fine.
“To see anyone get hurt in that type of injury is really devastating. But I think we’ll be good.’’
Because so many play overseas during the off-season, several veteran players did not make it to practice when it started Sunday, including Loyd, Howard, Clark, Sami Whitcomb, Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis and Courtney Paris. They likely will be ready when the season opens.
The Storm has several new players hoping to make the team, many of them recent college players, who are getting more time to play, practice and get better, including former Gonzaga forward Zykera Rice.
“This year there are only four of us (veterans) out there and today just three,’’ Bird said after Tuesday’s practice. “So a lot of the new players get a lot of time. For them, it’s all brand new stuff. So a lot of these early days are watching plays and understanding defensive concepts and schemes and trying to work out those kinks.
“So there is a roster spot. So there is something to fight for, and I think the younger players are doing it.’’
There have been only a few practices so far but Canada says the new players are doing well.
“For them, it’s really new, especially coming from college and learning different terminology and different schemes on defense and plays on offense. And they’re learning really fast,’’ Canada said. “And just to see them take that type of information and adjust and play their game, it’s amazing to see the talent level we have here.’’
Meanwhile, the Storm looks forward to Hughes coaching again and also seeing Stewart next season. Or maybe in the playoffs this year.
“Stewie brought a lot to the table,’’ Bird said. “She can impact the game in so many ways. And there’s no one player who can step in and fill those shoes. It’s impossible. But we do have a lot of different players who do a lot of different things.
“We can utilize them in those ways, and see what works for us and just try to play to our strengths as much as possible.”