EVERETT — As the final horn sounded at Angel of the Winds Arena on Saturday afternoon the sold-out crowd, 8,500 strong and already on its feet, erupted in a cacophonous roar of delight that drowned out the public address system.
Yep, Everett showed up for the Seattle Storm.
And the Storm in turn showed up for Everett, not only treating the locals to a pregame WNBA championship ring ceremony, but then by going out and scrapping their way to a 77-68 victory over the Phoenix Mercury in their season opener — and first official game in their part-time temporary home.
Saturday’s game was the first of five the Storm, displaced from their usual home by the construction of a new Seattle arena, are playing at Angel of the Winds Arena this season. Therefore, it was the first true chance for the locals to demonstrate their support for the highest level of women’s basketball.
If this was an indication of the kind of crowds the Storm will receive in Everett, there will be no drop-off in home-court advantage, despite the 30-mile drive north.
The atmosphere “was fantastic,” Storm assistant coach Gary Kloppenburg said. “We weren’t sure what to expect, but man the fans were outstanding. It’s a great venue and we’re really excited about it. We come back here a few more times, so hopefully we can see that again when we come back.”
Saturday was more than just a game, this was a full-on event broadcast to a national television audience as the Storm held the official celebration of their 2018 WNBA championship. One by one the players were called to the spotlight at center court to receive a hug from WNBA chief operating officer Christin Hedgpeth, along with the jewel-encrusted rings that elicited wide-eyed smiles once the players were able to get good looks at them.
After everyone had their ring, the arena microphone was handed to star point guard Sue Bird, who led the countdown for unveiling the yellow banner with green trim hanging above the east end zone at Angel of the Winds Arena, acknowledging not only the team’s 2018 championship, but also the titles won in 2004 and 2010.
And all along the way the Everett crowd was whooping and hollering, banging their fluorescent green thundersticks together.
“Our fans are amazing,” Storm guard Jordin Canada said. “To see them drive all the way out to Everett — and hopefully we get some fans from Everett coming to the game as well — just to see them here to celebrate the moment with us getting our rings, it’s just amazing. It just proves no matter what, who’s playing, who’s not playing, they’re always going to have our backs, they’re always going to support us and cheer us on through adversity.”
Indeed, Everett was there for the Storm. But the question heading into the game was how much the Storm would be there for Everett?
The team that took the floor Saturday was a shell of the one that hoisted the WNBA championship trophy last September. League MVP Breanna Stewart is done for the season because of a ruptured Achilles. The legendary Bird is out indefinitely as she awaits arthroscopic knee surgery. Even head coach Dan Hughes is on the shelf as he recovers from surgery to remove a cancerous tumor in his digestive tract. All three were present for Saturday’s pregame ceremony, but none played a part in the contest itself, and none are expected back in the fold anytime soon.
But while Seattle faces a mammoth task in overcoming the loss of its stars, what we saw Saturday was a team saying 2018 wasn’t a case of a couple of individuals winning a championship, it was a team championship.
Seattle may not have been able to match Phoenix’s star power — while the Mercury were without nine-time all-star Diana Taurasi because of a back injury, they still had the services of their other two stars Brittney Griner and DeWanna Bonner — but the Storm made up for it by outworking the Mercury. This was embodied by Natasha Howard who, despite giving up six inches to Griner, outplayed the towering 6-foot-8 center to the tune of 21 points, 16 rebounds, five steals and three blocks.
And Howard wasn’t alone. Jewell Loyd, who will need to step up from all-star to superstar status this season for Seattle to have a chance at approaching last season’s success, caught fire in the fourth quarter and finished with 17 points as the Storm went on a 13-2 run to turn a narrow 61-59 lead into a comfortable victory. Canada, charged with replacing Bird, made exhilarating plays down the stretch on her way to 16 points and six assists.
Seattle’s team efforts were more than enough to overcome Bonner’s 31 points and Griner’s 18.
“Don’t doubt us,” was the message Howard said was sent by Saturday’s victory. “Even though we’re down two players with injuries, just don’t doubt us. Anything can happen this season.”
After the game was over a big chunk of the crowd stuck around for the postgame on-court interview with Howard and Loyd, where the Storm duo spoke glowingly about Seattle’s team effort.
And now after Saturday’s turnout, Everett can consider itself the newest part of the Storm team.