Azania Stewart: The Farewell Tour
On Sunday, 14th May 2023, Azania Stewart played the last professional basketball game of her career at the iconic O2 Arena in the 2022-23 WBBL Championship Playoff Final.
The decision to hang up her sneakers at the start of the season followed several months after close friend and former Lions’ teammate Jo Leedham announced her retirement at the end of the 2021-22 season.
“I’ve given a lot to the game, but the game has given a lot back to me, and I know my soul is full, and I’ve really achieved so much.”
As with many beloved retiring hoopers, Azania Stewart set upon her farewell tour that was that was beset with many highs, several lows and historic feats. The 2022-23 season was as much of a celebration of number 88's career as it was the passing of the torch and Azania's thank you to the game.
The Farewell Tour…
After missing the Lions’ first two games, the 6’4” center tipped off her farewell tour away to the Leicester Riders, the team she spent the 2020-21 season with.
London left Leicestershire with an impressive 74-58 victory where the Camden native helped to pick apart the Rider defence with ten points, six rebounds, one block and one assist. Stewart continued to help anchor the Londoner’s defence recording four rebounds, one steal and a block to go with nine points and three assists against Villeneuve d'Ascq in FIBA EuroCup.
Unfortunately, the University of Florida alum sustained an injury which kept her out for the next two EuroCup games. However, Azania returned on Thursday, 17th November 2022, in the reverse fixture against Villeneuve d'Ascq and helped her comrades beat the French powerhouse 67-60.
While she worked hard to get back into full health, Azania aided the Lions in becoming the first-ever British team to qualify for the women’s FIBA EuroCup playoffs in back-to-back seasons. Shortly after, Stewart matched and then exceeded her season-high in points production against Nottingham Wildcats and Essex Rebels, respectively.
As the domestic season progressed into the new year, so did the addition of new historic feats and milestones, as Azania and the Lions locked in and dominated the Newcastle Eagles to earn the club’s 50th straight WBBL victory. Once again, the center assisted the Lions’ defensive effort recording a block and a steal whilst shooting 66.7% from the floor.
Players love to compete against their former teams, and the 2023 WBBL Cup Final was an opportunity for Azania to claim another victory against the Riders, along with fellow former Rider Holly Winterburn.
After a competitive first 20 minutes, the Lions dominated the second half of the game to claim a 95-42 victory. Stewart shot 100% from open play and the charity stripe whilst collecting one block and two rebounds and was a +16 in the plus/minus column.
Throughout her 20-year playing career, Azania has seen players and coaches come and go, be they on teams she has played for or against. As a result, there is very little the vet has not seen, and this season was no different.
In February, the Lions hired highly experienced playcaller Stella Kaltsidou as the team’s new head coach, a post made vacant by Mark Clark, who stepped up into a Senior Advisor role at the club. Along with fellow Commonwealth silver medallist and club captain Shanice Beckford-Norton, Stewart used her veteran voice to help rally the team around coach Stella.
Just over a month after the team lost their first and only game of the regular season, London made their second showpiece appearance, this time in the WBBL Trophy Final, where Azania helped her comrades overcome a tough challenge from the Riders.
One of the many reasons Azania Stewart is so respected by her peers throughout basketball at home and aboard is her willingness to use her voice to uplift, praise, guide and critique. Although Azania had been doing so during her career, more people took notice last season as she and then teammate Jo Leedham used their platforms to voice their concerns with the state of the women’s game in the U.K.
One season on, during the 2023 WBBL Trophy Post-Game Press Conference [click on the hyperlink to take you to the direct quote seen below], Stewart once again took the opportunity to praise the work that has been going on in the British game:
“Now this league, you've got other teams that are trying to [qualify for the] EuroCup [and] Euroleague, and this is what we're [all] trying to do is build it. For us [just four points up] at halftime, even losing to Caledonia [that was] massive.
It’s what we want, what we are striving for, and what we're built for. The women's game is going forward, and this is my whole point of my career is to expose it, to make it big [and] to make it fun to fill out crowds.”
Just over two weeks after the Trophy final, Stewart posted a season-high rebounds (13) and assists (6) against the Nottingham Wildcats. As the regular season drew to a close, Azania refused to take her foot off the gas averaging 7.5 rebounds and 2.5 blocks in the last two games and 1.75 steals in the last four games.
Although several games ahead in the regular season rankings, the Lions refused to rest on their laurels and travelled to Scotland to put a stop to the Gladiators' slim threat to their league crown. London beat Caledonia 79-60 to retain the WBBL Championship and exact revenge on the Scots for beating them in coach Stella's first game. Stewart once again used her high-IQ defensive mindset to help suffocate Gladiators offence recording two steals to go with eight points, four rebounds and one assist.
A respected defensive player since her days as a Florida Gator, having finished at her alma mater ranked third all-time in blocks (205), Stewart brought that same mindset 11 years forward throughout the last postseason of her playing career. En route to her second straight playoff final chip, number 88 averaged 1.7 blocks (2nd best in the playoffs) and 1.3 steals.
“I'm really happy to finish in London in front of my friends, in front of my family, in front of my city, it's really a big thing for me…”
Never Cheated the Game…
It’s abundantly clear to her family, friends, teammates, coaches and fans alike that Azania Stewart never cheated the game.
But as a person that has lived and breathed basketball from her humble beginnings at Haringey Angels through to her time at Notre Dame Academy, the University of Florida, TTT Riga, to her tenure at the London Lions, Azania felt the time was right.
“I'm a perfectionist, and I work hard, and I put in 100%, and anytime you start to cheat the game or not put in 100%, you cheat it. Not that I felt that way, but I just felt like I can't do another grind of a season—a whole year from August to May.
People just see the finished product on the floor, but you don't realise how much work goes in[to] practice day to day. Waking up [and] grinding, keeping your body at the best level you can. I just don't think I can do more years.”