When the final buzzer sounded on GB’s stunning 83-49 victory over Portugal in 2018 it marked not only the end of a successful EuroBasket qualifying campaign, but also the close of Azania Stewart’s incredible career.
The 29-year-old had 10 points, eight rebounds and two blocks in her 101st international appearance and was given a standing ovation after leaving the court.
The London 2012 Olympian – who also claimed Commonwealth silver with England in 2018 and played domestically in Spain, Australia, Hungary and Latvia – had achieved her final mission by helping the GB women secure a place at the 2019 EuroBasket finals.
The Centre had no plans to return, saying she had achieved more than she could have ever hoped to during her career, but just “wasn’t loving the game anymore.”
Incredibly three years after retiring she was coaxed back to the sport with the Leicester Riders before a move to London Lions and an international comeback late last year.
The Women’s Sport Alliance (WSA) spoke with Stewart about the journey back to elite basketball and her hopes for the British women’s team, including their rising star players.
Q – You were pretty adamant that you were ready to move on from playing and into another stage of your life back in 2018, so what changed?
“Then (November 2018) felt like the perfect timing with 101 caps, Commonwealth silver and I won the championship in Latvia, it was just the cherry on top,” she tells the WSA.
“I was happy, my life was in a different space and when you don’t love it (basketball) you start to cheat it and that’s not what I wanted. I took what turned out to be a break and loved that time, especially the commentating.
The pandemic was a whirlwind for everyone though and I was asked if I could help the team by becoming their Covid officer.
“It meant being with the group again and being across all of their Covid tests for travel and the paperwork, but I’d also train with the team sometimes when we were away just to give a few of the players a break.
It started to give me a focus and a purpose again during the lockdown period and that began the comeback.
“I got a call from Leicester (Riders) as they wanted a bit more experience and after playing there I got the passion back and loved the competitiveness. When the London Lions opportunity came up that was even better as that was in my home city. Then I kind of thought it would be rude not to play for the national team if I was playing domestically and I just love this team!”
Q – You were in Serbia commentating on the final Olympic in 2020 where the GB women missed out on a place at the Tokyo Games. How difficult was that to watch and did it influence your comeback at all?
“In the nicest most humble way, I really did think that they were missing me. I felt they needed one more post player or piece, but that was their journey and I’d made the right decision for me. It sucks and it hurts, but you learn lessons, build from them and this team has had many. We’ve missed out on EuroBaskets and now this Olympics and you are back to the beginning with the full cycle. Hopefully we can use that to fuel our fire.”
Q – the team lost both of their initial EuroBasket qualifiers, but long-term how much potential do you feel this team has?
“There’s some great talent, like Cheridene Green. I’ve had to guard her for a week in practice and she absolutely destroyed me, I’m not joking she’s really upped her game! That’s at the post position, at the guard position, I’m telling you, ‘Winter is coming! Holly (Winter) is really finding her stride in the team.”
Q – The GB women won’t play again until late 2022. Do you know what your future holds?
“There’s such a gap between the windows and I don’t really want to look too far ahead I just want to enjoy the moments as they come. I don’t know if I’ll play next season or where I’ll be in the next window so I’m just going to stay present and enjoy moments because that’s what the world’s taught us (during Covid) that’s what you have to do.”
Q – Whatever you decide, it feels like the senior players are determined to leave a strong legacy for the younger members of the team?
“There’s a group of us who have been together for the best part of a decade and clearly we’re getting older, but we’re teaching the eight-nine players that we have who are younger and coming up that this is how we play, this is how we fight, this is our legacy.
“Difficult learning moments have to happen and we have to guide them. Sometimes you fail and sometimes you succeed, we had to go through those learning lessons back in the day, like in the EuroBasket in Poland and Hungary where we’d lose games by two-three points.
“Sadly Olympic qualifiers was one of those moments, but that’s the game, someone has to win, someone has to lose. For the experienced players we need to show the younger players the GB way and the GB culture so they can take it on when we leave. We want them to push through and to take the torch, it’s their turn to shine.”