Azurá Stevens lifts curtain on mental health as Chicago Sky aims to repeat as WNBA champion

As the Chicago Sky continue their bid for their second straight WNBA title with their semifinal streak this week against the Connecticut Sun, Azura Steve looks back on last winter’s overseas experience as the key to his exceptional 2022 season.

“I think confidence is the most important thing,” Stevens, 26, said after the Sky’s regular season finale against the Phoenix Mercury. “I just think about believing in myself as a player. I mean, I think I was able to, but it’s kind of like people won’t see how you play unless you do.

This season, Stevens posted the best overall numbers of his five-year WNBA career, averaging 10.6 points, 3.9 rebounds and 0.8 assists while playing 21.9 minutes in 35 games.

“I think you can really play abroad for free,” added Stevens, who competed for Nika in the Russian Premier League and EuroCup for several months during the WNBA offseason before the Ukraine invasion. by Russia pushes her to return home early. “And that really helped me, just to come back, just not to hold back. You know, there’s nothing to lose.

“It’s really yourself that holds you back sometimes. So really going into this year, I didn’t want that to stop me from (doing) everything I can do.

But it was more than a successful offseason that put Stevens on track for his third full season with the Sky. The fiercely private Stevens recently revealed that it was a concerted effort to address her mental health that really made a difference – on and off the pitch.

“I came into this year making sure to take care of myself as hard as possible because I don’t want to go back to this place again,” Stevens said in a recent article for WNBA.com, where she spoke about anger. . and the depression she faced after back-to-back seasons were cut short in 2019 in 2020, first due to a nagging foot injury that required surgery, followed by an off-the-cuff knee injury. left field which also required surgery.

“I went through a lot in the last year and got to a place where I didn’t like being,” she added.

Now Stevens is looking to help others who might be facing similar difficulties. She is one of Sky’s three players – with Ruthy Hebard and Rebecca Gardner — who are the face of Chicago’s “The Net” initiative, which launched in early August and is designed to help athletes prioritize their mental health and “provide supportive press all over the court” .

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“Feels good,” Stevens told On Her Turf on Saturday, a day after the WNBA feature was released. “I think I went back and forth this year on what I wanted to share and what I wanted to say, but just having an organization that really wanted to support me was really awesome, and Rebecca and Ruthy also wants to be part of it.

Stevens shared additional insight into her motivation to participate in the initiative, noting, “For too long, players have been viewed as one-dimensional superstars whose athletic prowess is celebrated and debated,” she said. “But underneath the trash talk and the 3-pointers, a lot of us struggle with the pressure to be perfect, perform perfectly, and do everything with a smile. We hurt ourselves and face the mental challenges of improving ourselves. Sharing these stories makes us human and helps people see how we deal with trauma – and hopefully helps others deal with the same issues.

Born in Rhode Island, Stevens grew up in Cary, North Carolina, and spent the first two years of her college career at Duke before transferring to UConn. She played one season for the Huskies before entering the 2018 WNBA Draft, where she was a first-round pick — sixth overall — by the Dallas Wings, where she spent two seasons. In her first season in the league, Stevens was named to the 2018 WNBA All Rookie Team behind a solid 43% (111 of 258) shooting and scored a career-high 26 points in a game against Indiana in July.

She only played nine games in 2019 and 13 in 2020 while dealing with the aforementioned injuries, and she started the 2021 season with a minutes restriction, which only exacerbated her frustrations. But overcoming the hump — physically and mentally — meant an increased role in Sky’s 2021 WNBA title chase, where Stevens started all 10 games and averaged 9.8 points and 6.9 rebounds. .

The turnaround is evident in Stevens’ social media presenceespecially on Twitter where she posts positive affirmations and quotes daily.

“I love posting these quotes,” she told WNBA.com. “I have an app on my phone that sends them to me, and it helps me keep the right spirit throughout the day. In fact, I send quotes to some of my friends every day. closer. It just helps me be on the right things.

“Some days you wake up and it’s easy not to feel that day as an athlete, or even just people in general, but as an athlete you don’t really have the freedom to a day off, especially if you’re trying to achieve something.

As the Sky try to reach their current goal of back-to-back titles, Stevens said he was taking nothing for granted ahead of his best-of-five streak against the Sun. Although Chicago swept Connecticut in their season series, 4-0, none of the wins were overwhelming, with Sky winning by single-digit margins in all four.

“At this point, it’s more fair who wants it more,” Stevens said. “You know, we can sit here and talk about plans all day, but it’s really just who wants it more and we’ll see what happens on Sunday.”

On Her Turf editor Alex Azzi contributed to this report.

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