By Jamie Thomas
Wasting no time getting back up to speed and playing a key role for Jesper Sundberg’s Leicester Riders, Olympian Azania Stewart has her sights set on guiding her new side to WBBL Playoff glory as she looks to mark her return from retirement with some silverware.
Getting better and better every week alongside her ever-improving team, Stewart and the Riders will be looking to win it all in the post-season and take the crown the Sevenoaks Suns have held since the 2016/17 season, as the 32-year-old discussed her side’s chances in the playoffs.
“We are such a balanced team and really have a lot of options. I feel like when other teams scout us they have to look at our whole starting five and work on a plan, instead of just two or three in most teams, because there isn’t one player that goes off for 20 points every night – we all have our nights.
“This is where you want to be, do our die, win or go home, coming right down to the wire, and even if you lose there are such great lessons here in the long run, such as making sure you get your body ready, looking after your mind, knowing where you want to be, and we’re in a really lovely space.
“I haven’t looked at anybody else’s team, we deal with everyone when they come up and not before, but I can say we’re definitely in a really great space. We all know our roles, what our goal is, we’re a very successful team that knows how to win and we’re flourishing going into this moment.”
“I forgot how much I love the competitiveness.”
Averaging a smudge over 10 points and eight rebounds a game in 24 minutes of action per night so far since her return, Stewart has four double-doubles to her name already after just 11 outings for Sundberg’s Riders and feels there is more to come.
The Commonwealth Games silver medallist discussed how the last few weeks have been in terms of adapting to the well-drilled side, and why it wasn’t a tough decision to come out of retirement to join this very ambitious club.
“I think it has taken us some time to get used to each other, and for me to get back into game shape and learn Coach Jesper’s style, what we want and our strengths, but it has been really fun.
“To be in a playoff situation is always nice – some people work all year and don’t get there! I joined the team very, very late, in a position where they had been very successful before, and I feel like I’ve helped in terms of leadership because Kate Oliver was such a big piece specifically in that sense, and I’m just glad that I can help and enjoy basketball again.
“It wasn’t a tough decision for me to come out of retirement, but lockdown certainly helped me find a purpose again and a love for the game, which I really needed. I forgot how much I love the competitiveness, how much I feed off winning and competing, and I’ve really, really enjoyed the last six weeks.”
“I’m a veteran for a reason so I’m trying to use my experience to help the team.”
After an extended spell away from playing competitively, managing the volume of Stewart’s contributions was always going to crucial to the Riders in terms of extracting the most out of their new veteran’s considerable talents, and the Olympian feels her return has been handled well.
Stewart also elaborates on the blossoming partnership between herself and the mercurial Holly Winterburn, as well as how she is adapting to rebuilding her speed and feeling after not playing competitively for an extended spell.
“Coach did a really good job of not overworking me, using me for minutes where I was more needed early-on and no more, and asking me how I was doing and feeling in practice, even bringing sessions down to half-court some times because he knew I wasn’t ready for more yet, so credit to him for recognising where I’m at in my career and doing what he can to get the best out of me.
“Holly and I have a really, really good connection. She is a very big talent and something very special, so it kind of makes my job easy that we’ve developed that relationship and connection very quickly and easily on the court, and there are some great pieces around that in terms of shooting and in the post.
“I feel good in the games, then I watch the highlights and feel like I look so slow. I’ve learnt a lot, I’m maybe not at the speed and feeling I was three or four years ago, but my IQ and skillset make me a problem down in the post. I’m a veteran for a reason so I’m trying to use my experience to help the team on and off the court.”
“To win the playoffs with this team would be a great achievement.”
Not many British ballers can claim to have achieved in the game what Stewart has, but she explains candidly why WBBL Playoff success would mean so much to her, should the Riders go all the way and take home the gold when it’s all said and done.
“I have played on big stages, but this is the moment I’m in now and I feel like after this pandemic, not playing for so long, going through things personally and getting myself back together, to win the playoffs with this team would be a great achievement for me and for all of us.
“I haven’t played for three years competitively, I haven’t trained and got myself ready prior to coming back, but I’ve done my best since to get us in a position where we can win it all, so I’m really pleased with how we’ve come together and put ourselves in this position.
“I’m really proud of myself, and there’s still some time to put the cherry on top. I’m really excited and to win a championship anywhere is always a good thing, but I’ve got to work for that and help my team however I can to get us there.”