SYRACUSE — World-class muralist Jonas Never is nearing the completion of an urban artwork called “Legendary Syracuse Firsts,” on the eastern wall of the Monroe Building at 333 E. Onondaga St. in downtown Syracuse.
One of the four pro basketball stars depicted in the mural is Breanna Stewart, an alumna of Cicero-North Syracuse High School. Now, at age 27, playing for the WNBA’s Seattle Storm, she has proven herself to be the most accomplished female basketball player ever to emerge from Central New York.
Her high-school coach, Eric Smith, said she well-earned her inclusion on the historic mural.
“I think it is amazing and very deserving that Bre will be honored being part of the mural,” he wrote in an email last week. “Being arguably the best player in the women’s game with plenty of great years ahead of her, it only seems right to put her up there.”
The mural also features three male roundballers: Earl “Big Cat” Lloyd, the first African American to play in the NBA in 1950, Manny Breland, who was the first Black man offered a basketball scholarship at Syracuse University in 1952, and Dolph Schayes, who — as a forward for the Syracuse Nationals — was considered the first Jewish superstar in professional sports.
Frank Malfitano, the jazz impresario who brainstormed the creation of “Legendary Syracuse Firsts,” said that its athletic subjects transcend sports.
“The mural’s four honorees battled racism, antisemitism, sexism, child abuse and homophobia,” he observed. “Syracuse and Central New York have had a long and proud history of fighting for justice.”
Stewart has been candidly open as a survivor of childhood sexual abuse, penning a passionate first-person essay in The Players’ Tribune.
Back when she was scoring baskets for the C-NS Northstars, Stewart became one of the most decorated high school girls’ basketball players ever. She played in the McDonald’s All-American Game and the Women’s Basketball Coaches Association All-American Game. Those came after she was named the Gatorade National Player of the Year, the Morgan Wootten Player of the Year, USA Basketball’s Female Athlete of the Year, and winner of the Naismith Award — an unprecedented quadruple.
She went on to win four national championships and four NCAA most outstanding player awards while at UConn. Her professional career began in Russia and China and she joined the WNBA’s Seattle Storm in 2016 where she was named Rookie of the Year.
As the Storm’s power forward, Breanna made the WNBA All-Star Team three years running, helped the Storm win two championships and was named Finals MVP those same two seasons and league MVP in 2018.
Long before she blossomed as a professional superstar, when she was just an eighth-grader, Stewart joined the varsity C-NS Northstars.
“I remember one time when we scrimmaged the JV,” Smith remembered. “Breanna was the best player on the floor by far, but she was diving all over the place. She was the hardest-working player out there. That’s how it was every single day. Every day.”
Smith, who’s now the C-NS head of unified basketball, thinks Stewart’s life story is an inspiration.
“Not many communities can say they are the hometown of one of the greatest of a sport,” he wrote. “Even more importantly, she is an amazing role model for all the young girls in Syracuse. I’m proud of her for continuing to advocate for social justice.”
In July 2021, Breanna married EuroLeague Spanish basketball star Marta Xargay, and the couple now have a daughter, Ruby Mae, who will celebrate her first birthday in August.
The mural image shows Stewart spinning a basketball atop the fingers of her left hand. Meanwhile fans saw a very different Stewart when she made her Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue debut last month following a photo shoot on St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands with fellow WNBA athletes such as Sue Bird and Didi Richards.
Smith said he was somewhat surprised by the swimsuit shots.
“I think it’s great that SI is expanding its swimsuit edition to showcase all,” he wrote. “As her former coach, however, it’s very weird. That is not the Bre I know, so seeing her in the swimsuit edition shows how much she has grown up since high school. I’m proud of her for continuing to advocate for social justice.”