The first time I saw Sue Bird was the 1998 edition of the season-opening event for the University of Connecticut Huskies faithful, dubbed the “Supershow”.
I had heard of this point guard from Long Island via the infant women’s basketball internet. She had led her high school to a state championship and a national championship. She looked very much like a high school kid that day, but she certainly didn’t play like one.
Over two decades later, she plays with the same fire even at age 41. She went as hard Sunday in a furious single-elimination WNBA playoff as she did on a snowy night in 2001 with the ball in her hand, seconds left in the clock, and a Big East Championship at stake.
On Sunday, her season ended in overtime. Phoenix Mercury 85, defending WNBA champion Seattle Storm 80.
A moment after the game hinted toward closure.
She stood in the post-game interview alongside friend and old college teammate Diana Taurasi. She quipped about a wounded Diana playing, like “Willis Reed” years ago, through pain to keep her team’s season alive.
“Nobody on my team understood that reference,” Bird wisecracked to ESPN. “Maybe that’s a sign.”
You could hear a chant among the Storm fans and perhaps all of women’s basketball fandom by extension, this writer included.
One more year! One more year!
Bird was fighting back tears in that moment. A few minutes later, she and Taurasi exchanged jerseys — a popular sign of respect at the end of hard-fought game.
The image was a subtle message that perhaps this would be the end of a grand career. The final period on a body of work that fittingly will lead to both basketball halls of fame in Knoxville, Tenn. and Springfield, Mass.
Zack Ward, writer-editor at Swish Appeal, sees those accolades coming. He’s covered Bird’s greatness, and the wider WNBA, for nearly a decade. He discussed Bird’s impact on the game in this week’s edition of the Trans Sporter Room podcast.
“She’s been a star on four championship teams,” Ward said. “The numbers have been so consistent, and she has been one of the greatest of all time.
“It’s the no-look passes. She controls an offense and is one of the greatest floor generals of all time. Also, the way she is with the media is just phenomenal. She is a classy player and that is one thing that stands out about her.”
I concur with Ward. In seeing Bird as both a journalist and a fan, we’ve seen a great player and leader grow and develop through diamond-level pressure.
Imagine four years as Geno Auriemma’s point guard at UConn. He once told her, “Everything that happens on court, it’s your fault.”
There was a method to the harshness. Sue Bird was his extension on the floor. The results of this seasoning under fire was two national championships, being named the consensus national player of the year in her senior year in 2002, and being the floor leader of perhaps the greatest single-season team in women’s college basketball history: The dominant, undefeated UConn Huskies of 2001-2002.
She was the 2002 first-round draft pick of the Seattle Storm. She suffered through more losses that first season in the WNBA than she did in four seasons at UConn.
Two years later, Bird raised the first of four WNBA championships. Along the way, she achieved one of the rarest feats in modern sports. She did all her work in the WNBA for the same franchise from the 2002 WNBA Draft to the final buzzer Sunday.
You could fill terabytes on her accomplishments. This summer, she won her fifth Olympic gold medal. During a period when she also played overseas in Russia from 2007-2014, she was a part of five EuroLeague Championships.
Bird is a 12-time all-star, eight times all-WNBA, three times she was the league’s assists leader, and she’s the league’s all-time leader in assists, games played, and minutes played.
She also grew to be that player who made other players even better. Lessons learned as young apprentice to Dawn Staley during Bird’s first Olympics in 2004.
Early in her career she built a fierce duo with Australian hall-of-famer Lauren Jackson for two WNBA titles. In recent years she’s bonded and with Breanna Stewart and Jewell Loyd, and the result was two more.
Off the floor, she’s grown into an advocate on issues such as equity in sport and society. When some have shouted “shut up and dribble”, Bird has grown into someone who can handle the competition in the game and handle the heat when speaking out away from it.
“Even though we’re female athletes playing at a high level, our worlds, you know, the soccer world and the basketball world are just totally different. To be blunt it’s the demographic of who’s playing. Women’s soccer players generally are cute little White girls while WNBA players, we are all shapes and sizes ... a lot of Black, gay, tall women ... there is maybe an intimidation factor and people are quick to judge it and put it down,” — Sue Bird in an interview with CNN on perceptions of the WNBA, October 2020
“I can’t imagine a world where I’m not involved with women’s basketball,” Bird told USA Today before the 2021 season started. “I just can’t. I love it too much. I just care about it too much. I want to grow it. So I just can’t imagine not being involved.”
Given her accomplishments, who could blame her if she decides to hang up her high tops, take her fiancée Megan Rapinoe’s hand, and walk off into the sunset. Outside of leading the Storm a record fifth WNBA championship, what on-court worlds are left for Sue Bird to conquer?
Still, it would be great to see a farewell tour in 2022 and see number 10 out there for one last ride. Perhaps a run to that fifth championship, alongside a healthy Breanna Stewart, that would leave Storm alone with the most titles.
Imagine if the Mercury fought to the championship this year. That would be their fourth. The 2022 WNBA season would have Taurasi’s Mercury, Bird’s Storm, and the still-strong Minnesota Lynx all fighting to be the first franchise to win five league championships.
Regardless of what she decides, Bird’s legacy is secure. Among the future of women’s basketball, that legacy will endure.
Washington Mystics guard Natasha Cloud said it well in a Twitter tribute recalling the education she received from Bird in the 2018 WNBA Finals.
“She taught me what it meant to lead a championship team, from the way she play called, to how she picked our defense apart, and to her constant positive vocality to pouring belief into teammates,” she tweeted.
Her stats alone put her in running for the GOAT. But what separates her is….her. Its who she is. She’s a leader. @S10Bird thank you for helping me grow. You da in my book.— Natasha Cloud (@T_Cloud4) September 26, 2021
Swish Appeal’s Zack Ward broke down the WNBA Semifinals and looked at the state of the league in its 25th year as well. Catch the complete interview in this week’s edition of The Trans Sporter Room. Check it out on Megaphone, Spotify, Google Podcasts, Apple podcasts, and many other platforms for Outsports podcasts as well.