After Two Decades, Sue Bird Reflects on Illustrious Career
Sue Bird admits she found herself occasionally jumbotron watching.
“Every now and then, you look up and you see a highlight from your rookie year, and you’re like, ‘Oh, I guess today is my last game,’” Bird said Aug. 7, following her final regular season home game with the Seattle Storm, the only team with which she played over 21 seasons.
After more than two decades in the spotlight, Bird is calling it a career as the Storm season ends in the WNBA semifinals. One of the winningest basketball players of all time, Bird won two NCAA titles with UConn, plus five Olympic gold medals and four FIBA World Cups.
A lethal point guard in the backcourt, Bird is a charismatic, engaging and infectious personality that many are drawn to. That showed in the Aug. 7 game when a young Seattle fan handed her a flower. Bird calmly accepted it and then asked the young girl if she would hold it for her as she prepared to inbound the ball.
“That was the cutest,” Bird said. “I understand she was showing me the flower, and that it was for me, and then I was like, ‘Oh, you want me to take this?’ So very quickly I picked up on what she was doing, and I was like, ‘OK, can you just hold this until I’m done?’ That was very sweet. It was very, very sweet.”
Bird has been the first in many ways for USA Basketball and for the WNBA. Along with U.S. teammate Diana Taurasi, she’s the co-most decorated international basketball player of all time. She’s the WNBA’s all-time leader in assists and games played. Bird is a staple in Seattle. In some ways, an icon. She is because of who she is, and how she interacts with people like the young fan offering her a flower as she was getting ready to inbound the ball.
“You feel like you know a Sue Bird. That’s how we market the game, and it’s very intentional,” Storm assistant coach Pokey Chatman said.
Bird broke onto the scene with UConn in the early 2000s. As the top pick in the 2001 WNBA draft, she became the first player in league history to win championships in three different decades (2004, 2010, 2018, 2020). She also won Olympic gold medals across three decades (2004, 2008, 2012, 2016 and 2021).
Even in her final season, at age 41, Bird remains an impact player, averaging 7.8 points, 6.0 assists and 1.2 steals during the regular season.
“The magnitude of Sue is felt all the time,” Chatman said. “I don’t take Sue for granted, but sometimes, she’s out there talking and laughing and [making it] a comedy hour, and I’m crying. You kind of step back, and it’s like, ‘Damn, this woman’s special.’”
Bird has spent 21 years in Seattle — she sat out the 2013 and 2019 seasons, following knee surgeries — and has become the face of the franchise, even if she’d rather share the attention.
“I know my name has become synonymous with this franchise,” Bird said. “It’s become a little bit of a household name in the city and this community, so even though I take great pride in that, I take great pride in what we’ve accomplished here, great pride in being a member of this franchise … but I also represent all the players who’ve played here, all the championships we’ve won, all the coaches who’ve come through, everyone who’s come through the front office, everyone who’s been on staff here, you name it. I’m just that one name.”
Bird has been outspoken about social justice issues central to her core, and she plans to continue that after basketball. As for who she is on the court, she’ll be the first to tell you that she was never the most gifted player to suit up. But the way she went about her business was a strategic sizing up.
Both the USA national team and the Storm benefitted from that. The five Olympic gold medals and four WNBA titles can testify.
“I am who I am out there,” Bird said. “I relish in the fact that teams have to game plan for me because I’m not the quickest, I’m not the most athletic, I’m not jumping over you. Maybe not in the last couple of years, but I know for a long time there, you had to talk about me in shootaround. You had to try to figure out what to do with me in shootaround because I played it my way. I used my smarts, and then, of course, I could shoot a little bit, I could pass a little bit, all those things, don’t get me wrong.”
How she played, and what she accomplished while playing is what’s helped her earn fans around the globe. Even if she didn’t always recognize it.
“I didn’t know I had fans in Thailand, I didn’t know I had fans in Mexico. I didn’t know I had fans, literally, all over the world,” she said, recognizing some of the fans who came out to her final home game. “Every now and then you might come in contact with somebody when I was playing overseas, when I was there in person, but to have people take the time out to fly to Seattle or anywhere else we’ve played on the road this year, to really just have their last moment to see me play because they’ve probably only seen me play on a computer screen, streaming the game or something, is wild, is incredible.
“It speaks, I think, to the growth of the WNBA.”
Growth, of course, that correlates quite closely with her career.
Jim McCurdy is a freelance contributor to USAB.com on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.