Bird, Sue (b. 1980), Basketball Star

  • By Glenn Drosendahl
  • Posted 5/21/2019
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 20779

Sue Bird, a point guard for the Seattle Storm, is one of the most accomplished and decorated players in the history of women's basketball. She was a two-time New York state champion in high school and state player of the year as a senior. At the University of Connecticut, she was a two-time national champion and consensus national player of the year. Since the Storm selected her with the first pick in the 2002 Women's National Basketball Association (WNBA) draft, she has led Seattle to league titles in 2004, 2010, and 2018, and helped U.S. national teams win four Olympic gold medals and four world championships. She even won multiple Russian and European championships between WNBA seasons. Perhaps the most impressive feat of her record-setting career: being so good for so long. Entering her 17th WNBA season at age 38, she was a reigning league champ and All-Star, and not ready to retire.

New York Roots

Suzanne Brigit "Sue" Bird grew up on Long Island, in Syosset, New York, the younger of two daughters of Nancy and Herschel Bird. Her mother was a school nurse, and her father was a doctor. She showed athletic ability at an early age, excelling at track, tennis, and soccer before choosing to concentrate on basketball. Her mother remembers someone wanting Sue's autograph after seeing her play because "one day she's going to be famous" (Robbins). She was 11 at the time.

Bird played high school basketball for two years in Syosset and then, to face tougher competition, transferred to Christ the King, a private school and girls basketball powerhouse in the New York City borough of Queens. Around the same time, her parents were separating. They took turns living with her in an apartment near the school. "I was forced to grow up a lot. I was 16-17 years old and I was on my own in a lot of ways, and I think my maturity level skyrocketed from those two years," she said (Goldberg, 10).

The 5-foot-9 guard led Christ the King to two state championships. As a senior, she averaged 16.3 points, 7.3 assists, and an extraordinary 8.5 steals, and was named most valuable player in the state tournament and a high school All-American.

Part of a Dynasty

Given her choice of colleges, Bird picked Connecticut. UConn, as the school is commonly called, won the national championship in 1995, and under coach Gino Auriemma (b. 1954), was on its way to becoming a dominant program in women's college basketball. The Huskies' 1998 recruiting class would play a big part. Besides Bird, it included high school All-Americans Swin Cash (b. 1979), Tamika Williams (b. 1980), and Asjha Jones (b. 1980) -- the four of them destined to be taken in the top six picks of the WNBA draft.

Bird played eight games as a freshman before tearing the anterior cruciate ligament in her left knee during practice. The injury required surgery and ended her season. Her knee mended for her sophomore season, Bird led the Huskies to a 36-1 record and their second national championship in 2000. The Huskies beat Tennessee in the title game, avenging their only loss that season. Bird was named the Final Four's Most Valuable Player and won the first of her three Nancy Lieberman Awards as the nation's top point guard.

As a junior Bird played a decisive role it what has been called "the greatest women's basketball game ever played" (Goldberg, 285). It pitted top-ranked Notre Dame, led by national player of the year Ruth Riley (b. 1979), against No. 2 Connecticut in the 2001 Big East Conference championship game. Bird hit a shot from midcourt at the halftime buzzer, and she ran the length of the court to make a 10-foot shot with less than a second remaining for the win, 78-76. She scored the game's final five points to finish with 15. She played a team-high 35 minutes despite having a sore back.

"As a player, I liked to get my teammates involved and do the right thing. It's a balance between doing that and being aggressive and I always leaned toward the team side. But at the same time, if the game was on the line or the shot clock was running down, or we're in a big game, something clicks. That's always how I've been. I wake up all of a sudden," she said (Goldberg, 129)

That UConn team by then had lost two All-Americans to season-ending injuries. It finished with a 32-2 record, both losses to Notre Dame, the last one in the Final Four. The Huskies would make up for that with a perfect season in 2001-2002. With Bird and the rest of that 1998 recruiting class now seniors and sophomore guard Diana Taurasi (b. 1982) adding firepower to the lineup, UConn went undefeated and virtually unchallenged, posting a 39-0 record and winning its third national championship. Bird ended her college career as the winner of both the Naismith and Honda awards as the nation's top player.

Rival coaches gushed over her talent. Vanderbilt's Jim Foster said Bird and Taurasi were the best backcourt ever in women's college basketball. Old Dominion's Wendy Larry said Bird "has the greatest court vision of any point guard I've seen" (Jauss). Auriemma called her perhaps the best guard ever. "She understands better than anyone else, here's what I have to do so all five of us can play well together," he said. "She is in tune with what everybody on the team is feeling and thinking at all times. She has an uncanny sensitivity to others ("The Sky’s the Limit"). "My biggest strength," Bird said, "is being able to figure out what my team needs and then providing it" (Jauss).

Joining the Storm

The first pick in the 2002 WNBA draft belonged to the Seattle Storm, which had joined the league in 2000 and struggled through its first two seasons. But the Storm did have Lauren Jackson (b. 1981), a gifted 6-foot-5 forward from Australia who was Seattle's and the league's top draft pick in 2001 as a 19-year-old and had led the team in scoring and rebounding. To complement Jackson, Seattle needed a point guard. Bird was the obvious choice.

In her rookie season she started every game, averaging 14.4 points and 6.0 assists (second in the league) while running the Storm offense. "I'd rather give an assist than score," she said (Bird with Brown, 23). Seattle posted its first winning record and made its first appearance in the playoffs. That ended quickly with two losses to Los Angeles, but the Storm clearly was on the rise, and Bird already was among the league's best. She made the All-Star team -- something that would happen almost annually throughout her professional career -- and for the season was named first-team All-WNBA. A Sports Illustrated story said she "has the game and the charm to become the most popular female team-sport athlete ever" ("The Sky’s the Limit").

After Anne Donovan (1961-2018) replaced original coach Lin Dunn (b. 1947) in 2003, the Storm had another winning record in 2003 but fell short of the playoffs. Bird injured her knee in the season opener but started every game that season despite chronic pain. She had knee surgery in the offseason and came back in 2004, teaming with Jackson to lead the Storm to its best record to that point (20-14) and the league championship -- Seattle's first in any professional sport since the Sonics won the NBA title in 1979.

Bird had a scary moment in the playoffs. She broke her nose when colliding with Minnesota's Teresa Edwards (b. 1964) in the decisive game of the conference semifinal. Her face covered with a towel, Bird hurried off the court, past her momentarily shaken teammates, and into the locker room, leaving a trail of blood. "It hurt. But, honestly, I was more upset than hurt. I knew I couldn't play (the rest of that game)," she said. "I'd never seen that much blood that belonged to me. I filled up a couple of towels with blood" (Newnam). Wearing a protective mask, she made it back for all the remaining playoff games, including having a record 14 assists against Sacramento one day after surgery on her nose.

"What else can you say about Sue Bird? I don’t think she’s ever been better. I say that clearly because of how mentally tough she had to be," Donovan said. Jackson added, "She's amazing. So inspiring ... I couldn't imagine playing with any other point guard in the league" ("Bird Leads Charge ... ").

Another Championship

The Storm’s next five seasons ended with first-round playoff losses. In 2008 Brian Agler (b. 1958) succeeded Donovan as head coach and made some moves that paid off later. The big one was acquiring Swin Cash, Bird's former UConn classmate and the second pick in the 2002 draft. Back injuries hampered Cash in her first two seasons with Seattle, and Jackson was slowed by multiple injuries. While the team struggled, Bird was her usual consistent self, averaging about 12 points and 5 assists per game and being named an All-Star four more times.

With Jackson and Cash healthy in 2010, everything clicked. The Storm won a record 28 games in the regular season and rolled unbeaten through the playoffs, including a three-game sweep of Atlanta in the finals with Bird winning one of those games with a last-second shot. Jackson was the season MVP, Cash regained All-Star status, and Agler was named Coach of the Year. He made a point of crediting his point guard, calling her "the one person that has impacted this all the most. ... Sue makes your team operate at an extremely high level" ("Lauren Jackson, Brian Agler Sweep ... ").

Throughout her career, others offered similar praise. When Bird was taken first in the 2002 WNBA draft, league president Val Ackerman called her "a new breed of point guard" and part of "an important evolutionary step in the women's game" (Anderson, "The Sky’s the Limit"). As Dunn, the Storm's original coach, put it:

"She has great court vision and surprisingly good speed and quickness. She can score, pass and handle the ball, and she can lead. Her presence on the floor makes everybody better. There are point guards in the world who can do some of those things, but not all of those things" ("The Sky’s the Limit").

"She could average 25 [points] a night," said Taurasi, her teammate at UConn, "but she's in it to make others better" ("Flat-Out Perfect"). Bird agreed. 

"I was never the fastest or the tallest so I had to use my brain. When I call a play, there's a reason: I'm trying to put people in a position to be successful. Everywhere I've played, I've been able to do that. When I put my team first ... that's when my game shines. I try to be as smart and selfless as I can, and in the end I get a lot more in return" ("Captain Class").

Going Global

Bird's tenure on the national team began right after her rookie season with the Storm. She averaged 4.3 points in the 2002 World Championships in China, where the U.S. won all nine of its games and beat Russia 79-74 for the title. Next came the 2004 Olympics in Athens, where the Storm's Jackson was the tournament's leading scorer but the U.S. beat the Aussies in the gold medal game, 74-63. Bird had a bigger role in the 2006 World Championships in Brazil, where she led the team in assists, but Team USA lost to Russia in the semifinals. The Americans took out their frustration on the home team, clobbering Brazil by 40 points in the bronze-medal game.  

Her U.S. teams never fell short of a gold medal again. In the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, China, they swept eight games, including a resounding 92-65 win over Australia in the finals. At the 2010 World Championships in the Czech Republic, the U.S. women went undefeated and in the finals beat the host team by 20. With Bird averaging 4.5 assists, they rolled undefeated again through the 2012 Olympics in London, including an 86-50 romp over France for the gold. In the 2014 World Championships in Turkey, they went undefeated, topping Spain 77-64 to win the title.

When Team USA again crushed the competition in the 2016 Summer Games in Rio de Janeiro, Bird became one of only five players, male or female, to win a fourth Olympic gold medal. When the U.S. beat Australia 73-56 In the 2018 World Cup, she became the first basketball player, male or female, to win a fourth world championship. She had five assists in the title game, giving her a career total of 107, the the most in World Cup history.

Winning in Russia

From 2004 to 2013, Bird played professionally in Russia between WNBA seasons. She spent two winters with Dynamo Moscow, and then teamed with Jackson and Taurasi to win Russian Super League and EuroLeague championships for Spartak Moscow Region Vidnoe. The Americans were favorites of the team's owner, former Soviet spy turned wealthy businessman Shabtai von Kalmanovic (1947-2009). He called Bird "my Jewish daughter," Taurasi "my Italian daughter," and Jackson "my Australian daughter" (Wolf), and rewarded them with lavish accommodations, shopping sprees, expensive gifts, and salaries much greater than they made in the WNBA.

Bird and Taurasi won four EuroLeague championships with Spartak, the last while wearing black uniforms in memory of Kalmanovic, who was murdered in 2009. Bird played with the team one more winter, and then moved to rival UMMC Ekaterinburg, helping that team win three consecutive Russian league championships. After that, she decided to take winters off and concentrate on staying healthy for the WNBA and Team USA.

Playing practically year-round for more than a decade had taken a toll on her body. She skipped the 2007 WNBA All-Star Game to have a knee repaired arthroscopically. After her last season in Russia, she had major knee surgery and did not play during the 2013 WNBA season, using that break to recover.  

Setting Records

After its 2010 championship season, the Storm entered a rough patch, at first playing well enough during the regular season but suffering first-round losses in the playoffs, and then just plain losing. In 2015, after a 10-24 season, Bird wondered if it was time to move on:

"Teams go in cycles, and we were stuck in a bad one -- and it felt like there was no getting out anytime soon. And with my entering free agency during that off-season, and with the last full act of my playing career probably coming up ... you know, it really felt like I was going to have a tough decision to make. Should I stick things out with the Storm? Or should I leave for a contender? (“So I Broke ... ").

Despite Bird still playing at an All-Star level, the Storm's struggles continued. But major help arrived in 2017 in the form of Breanna Stewart (b. 1994), a dominating 6-foot-4 forward from Bird's alma mater, Connecticut. "Stewie" was the consensus national college player of the year. The Storm took her with the first pick of the WNBA draft. Although Seattle had another losing season that year, Bird became the league's all-time leader in assists, and the scene was set for another title run.

Under new head coach Dan Hughes (b. 1955), the Storm raced to a 26-8 record in the 2018 season. Bird played a key role. On July 8, she scored 21 points against Washington and became the Storm's career scoring leader. She also was named an All-Star for the 11th time, a WNBA record.

Facing Phoenix in the best-of-five conference finals, the Storm won two close games in KeyArena in front of energized crowds. But when the series moved to Phoenix, the Mercury won the next two games, and Bird broke her nose again in Game 4, this time running into one of Stewart's elbows. It was the fifth broken nose of her career. She refused to let it stop her, donning a mask when the series went back to KeyArena for the decisive Game 5. The Mercury was leading with about six minutes to go when Bird was hit in the nose again. She wiped blood from her face, re-set her mask, and took control of the game, scoring 14 points in the final five minutes, propelling the Storm to a 94-84 victory and into the finals.

At that point, with her having led yet another team toward yet another title, a story in The Wall Street Journal called Bird "the most successful active team captain in professional sports anywhere on Earth" (Walker).

'She Gets It'

The finals were almost anticlimactic. With Bird still wearing the protective mask, the Storm beat the Washington Mystics in three straight games to capture its third WNBA title. Afterward, in the champagne-soaked locker room and at a championship celebration later in Seattle, her teammates marveled at Bird’s performance. "This is all about Sue," Stewart said. "Her leadership and what she means to this team -- and not just this team but this league and women's basketball in general" ("Storm Dedicates ... ").

"When you talk about being a coach on the floor, she's it," Hughes said. "She's exactly what you want in a point guard and a leader. She gets it" ("Storm Dedicates ... "). Bird explained, "I've never wanted to chase stats, or accolades, or put up 20 shots a night, or any of that. But I've always wanted to go down as someone where, people would talk about me and they'd be like, "Oh yeah, Sue Bird. A winning player" ("So I Broke ... ").

At the Storm's victory parade in Seattle, Bird sported her facemask attached to her belt. A Seattle Times article called it "her newest accessory that's made her a folk hero" ("Party Time"). Inside KeyArena, when highlights of Game 5 against Phoenix flashed on the big screen, her teammates hoisted her off the ground. Seattle mayor Jenny Durkan (b. 1958), a Storm season-ticket holder, suggested that a statue of Bird be erected after she retires.

Retire? Not Yet

Nearly 38 and the oldest player in the WNBA, Bird in 2019 said she had no plans to retire. She had just had one of her strongest seasons, averaging the most assists of her career (7.1) while playing the fewest minutes (26.6 per game). As she put it:

"I take pride in the fact that I'm at my age and I'm playing at a high level. I truly believe nowadays with all the research and the new things that are coming out with diet and workout regimen and ways to maximize your sleep ... I think 37 will be pretty normal in our league very soon. Forty will soon become the new 30" ("Bird Still Going Strong ... ").

Such thoughts would have surprised her younger self. In 2005, she told Sports Illustrated she hoped to make it to the 2012 Olympics and then retire. Instead, playing far beyond that, she had matured into a leader as well as a perennial All-Star, someone who was increasingly comfortable in her own skin, literally. She came out as a lesbian in 2017, revealing her relationship with soccer player Megan Rapinoe (b. 1985), a star on the U.S. women's national team and Reign FC of the National Women's Soccer League. The Seattle Times called them "Seattle’s newest power couple" (Loh). In June 2018, they appeared nude on one of 10 covers for ESPN the Magazine’s 10th annual Body Issue.

After helping the Storm regain the WNBA championship and Team USA win the 2018 world championship tournament in Spain, Bird became a front-office associate with the National Basketball Association's Denver Nuggets. The job gave her access to the inner workings of a men's team, valuable experience if she wanted to stay in basketball after her playing days.

But first she planned to help the Storm defend its league title in 2019. Already the WNBA’s all-time leader in All-Star appearances and assists (232 more than any other player), she ranked first in games and minutes played, and was third in three-point shots made and in total points. Her career achievements translated to an unprecedented accolade in her adopted hometown. She was the 2019 recipient of the Royal Brougham Award, given annually at Seattle's Sports Star of the Year event. The award is for a lifetime of achievement in sports. Bird was the first to receive it while still an active player.


Sources:

Liz Robbins, "Bird Finds Comfort Zone, on the Court and at Home," The New York Times, December 25, 2000, p. D-1; Jack Cavanaugh, "Connecticut is Fearless With Bird at Point Guard," Ibid., March 16, 2000, p. 4; Jere Longman, "Unselfish to a Fault," Ibid., March 25, 2002, p. D-1; Frank Litsky, "Connecticut Extends Its Dominance to the W.N.B.A. Draft," Ibid., April 20, 2002, p. D-5; "Bird Leads Charge as Seattle Advances," Los Angeles Times, October 6, 2004, p. D-12; Sam Farmer, "How the Sonics Became the Thunder: A Timeline," Los Angeles Times, June 16, 2012 (https://www.latimes.com/sports/la-xpm-2012-jun-16-la-sp-0617-sonics-thunder-timeline-20120617-story.html); Jeff Goldberg, Bird at the Buzzer -- UConn, Notre Dame, and a Women's Basketball Classic (Lincoln, Nebraska: University of Nebraska Press, 2011), 7-11, 123-129, 161-164. 232-240, 245, 249, 285; Sue Bird with Greg Brown, Sue Bird -- Be Yourself (Kirkland, Washington: Positively For Kids, 2004); Jayda Evans, Game On! (Seattle: Sasquatch Books, 2006), 136-138, 188-190, 202-203; Bill Jauss, "Bird Gets OK to Fire Away: UConn's Coach Gives GreenLight to Star Guard," Chicago Tribune, March 25, 2002, p. 8; Kathy Orton, "U-Conn Women Lean On Senior Citizens; Undefeated Squad May Be a Team for the Ages," The Washington Post, March 21, 2002, D-1; Jim Caple, "Sue Bird is the Benjamin Button of the WNBA," The Washington Post, September 6, 2018 (https://www.washingtonpost.com/); Sam Walker, "Captain Class: The Art of Winning Everywhere," The Wall Street Journal, September 8, 2018, p. B-13; Kelli Anderson, "Flat-out Perfect," Sports Illustrated, April 8, 2002, p. 44; Kelli Anderson, "The Sky's the Limit," Ibid., July 1, 2002, p. 48; Alexander Wolf, "To Russia With Love," Ibid., December 15, 2008, p. 58; Richard Deitsch, "First Person: Sue Bird," Ibid., June 6, 2005, p. 49;  Tim Korte, "Seattle Wins WNBA Title," The Columbian, October 13, 2004, p. B-1; Wendy Carpenter, "Queens of the Court; Storm Routs Sun in Game 3 to Claim WNBA Title," Tacoma News Tribune, October 13, 2004, p. C-1; Kevin Pelton, "Path to a Championship," October 20, 2004, WNBA website accessed April 11, 2019 (https://www.wnba.com/storm/history/2004recap.html); Blaine Newnam, "Storm Uses Bad Break to Its Advantage," The Seattle Times, September 28, 2004, p. D-1; Jayda Evans, "Lauren Jackson, Brian Agler Sweep WNBA Awards," Ibid., September 2, 2010, p. C-1; Jerry Brewer, "Powerful Seattle Storm Acts Like Champion in Playoff Opener," Ibid., August 26, 2010, p. C-1; Jerry Brewer, "Storm Finds Proper Way to Complement Sue Bird, Lauren Jackson," Ibid., September 1, 2010, p. C-1; Jayda Evans, "Lauren Jackson, Brian Agler Sweep WNBA Awards," Ibid., September 2, 2010, p. C-1; Jayda Evans, "Bird Buries Clutch Shot, Wins Opener," Ibid., September 13, 2010, p. C-1; Jayda Evans, "2 Down, 1 to Go," Ibid., September 15, 2010, p. C-1; Steve Kelley, "Storm Fires Up City's Love for Basketball," Ibid., September 15, 2010, p. C-1; Jayda Evans, "Hail, Storm," Ibid., September 17, 2010, p. C-1; Jerry Brewer, "Struggles Make Title Sweeter," Ibid., September 17, 2010, p. C-1; Jayda Evans, "Rain Can't Dampen This Celebration," Ibid., September 18, 2010, p. C-1; Jerry Brewer, "Brian Agler Can Attest: Sue Bird Best of Her Kind," Ibid., September 18, 2010, p. C-1; Jayda Evans, "Jackson, Taurasi, Bird Have Russia Link," Ibid., May 22, 2010, p. C-1; Percy Allen, "Bird Gets Record 11th All-Star Selection," Ibid., July 18, 2018, p. C-1; Percy Allen, "How Storm Rebuilt into Title Form in the Lean Years After 2010 Crown," Ibid., September 16, 2018, p. C-1; Larry Stone, "Stewart's the MVP, but Bird's the Heart and Soul," Ibid., September 13, 2018, p. A-1; Percy Allen, "Storm Dedicates 2018 Title to Bird, Who Isn't Done Yet," Ibid., September 14, 2018, p. C-1; Stefanie Loh, "Pride & Joy," Ibid., June 24, 2018, p. C-1; Percy Allen, "Bird Proud of Being in 'Body Issue': 'This isn't Playboy,'" Ibid., June 28, 2018, p. C-2; Percy Allen, "Floor Leader Bird of Storm Will Be Assisting Front Office of NBA Nuggets as an Associate," Ibid., 2018, p. C-1; Percy Allen, "Eye for Talent," Ibid., February 15, 2019, p. C-4; Scott Hanson, "Seattle's Best: Bird," Ibid., February 8, 2019, p. C-2; Sue Bird, "So I Broke My F*cking Nose," September 7, 2018,  The Players Tribune website accessed April 4, 2019 (https://www.theplayerstribune.com/en-us/articles/sue-bird-seattle-storm).

 


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