Sue Bird leaves legacy of empowerment on and off the court for a generation of women's basketball
Sue Brigit Bird began her professional career when the rookies she played against in her final seasons were just beginning to celebrate their first birthdays. And through those 21 years, Bird has been nothing but elite and everything the league needed.
Their paths and stories are forever intertwined. At times, it feels like there can’t be one without the other. The WNBA was five seasons old when Bird was drafted. The Storm had played two seasons in franchise history.
Bird’s career is incredible for not only the success but the longevity. She has been the oldest player since 2017. She was the first to crack two decades in the league — an unheard of notion when Bird was a preteen.
“We are the first generation to go into college knowing there was a WNBA, to then play a college season, to get drafted [and] to play a full career,” Bird said on the “Sue Bird and Diana Taurasi: The Greatest Duo” miniseries. “And we kind of created that path that’s now known as the norm. It’s something I value more than any championship.”
Sylvia Fowles, the most dominant center in WNBA history who retired this year, came into the league for its 12th season. She played an entire high school career in Florida with the WNBA a possibility. Same for Briann January, Bird’s Storm teammate and a Spokane, Washington, native who was drafted ahead of the 13th season. Kia Vaughn, drafted two spots after January in 2009, became the fourth player to announce her retirement this year.
The 5-foot-9 point guard from Syosset, New York, has officially entered retirement after the Storm lost Game 4 of the WNBA semifinals to the top-seeded Las Vegas Aces on Tuesday. It’s the conclusion of a legendary career that spanned from basketball record books to iconic pop cultural moments. Her success was a path-setting moment that has moved the game forward for the better. For as much as she gave, it is as much as she’ll be missed.
UConn: From national championship to powerhouse
When Bird arrived in Storrs, Connecticut, the Huskies had only one championship in 1995. By the time she left, she had tripled it. And now nearly 15 years later, UConn is the winningest title program in NCAA history with 11 national championship trophies and a standard so high anything less than a title is viewed as a wasted season.
Bird helped set that standard. UConn went 36-1 when she was a sophomore and won the 2000 national championship, 71-52, against Tennessee. In a footnote on how long she has been playing, and how far women’s sports have come in that time, neither the NCAA statistics database nor UConn take their statistics pages farther than the 2001-02 season. The NCAA, therefore, lists her as playing only one season. UConn provides stats on her player page, but there’s no way to put it into the context of the team nor the NCAA without extensive extra research.
In the 2002 championship season, Bird was one of four players (Swin Cash, Diana Taurasi, Asjha Jones) who averaged between 14-15 points and the senior led the team with 5.9 assists and 2.5 steals per game. They went 39-0 and Bird won Naismith Player of the Year, joining, at the time, Rebecca Lobo as the only UConn players to earn the honor, as well as the Wade Trophy, Associated Press National Player of the Year, USBWA National Player of the Year and her third Nancy Lieberman award.
Bird holds the UConn record for individual single-season marks in assists (231 in ’01-02), 3-point field-goal percentage (.497 in ’99-00) and free-throw percentage (.942, ’01-02). She holds career program records in 3-point shooting (.459), free-throw shooting (.892) and is sixth in assists (585).
Sue Bird, Seattle Storm synonymous for 21 years
If Bird’s stay in Seattle were a human, it would be old enough to legally drink alcohol. The point guard is one of the rare stars in any sport who can say they spent their entire career in one place. She certainly had chances to leave, particularly in the past few years on one-year deals as free agency exploded and more money was on the table.
“Those that have done it know it’s really special and it’s really unique,” Bird said after her final game. “I’ll be able to take this with me for the rest of my life and that’s really special to me.”
Instead, she used those one-year deals to allow the Storm to build a team around her and give her what was left under the salary cap. It’s rare the league will see that type of relationship again. In her final WNBA season, she played for the veteran base salary minimum of $72,141 even while putting up top-10 numbers in 3-point shooting and assists her three seasons going into it, via Her Hoop Stats.
“I’d rather be on a team that has a chance to win if it means that the money has to get spread in a different way,” Bird told ESPN’s Kevin Pelton in February. “That was really the motivation behind going to the franchise and having conversations around what my salary was going to be because that was the priority.”
Her career can be split into two eras. The Storm won their first two WNBA championships in 2004 and 2010 under the leadership of center Lauren Jackson and Bird. Cash, the 2002 No. 2 pick also out of UConn, was also on the ’10 team. And in a nod to what will definitely come next for Bird, Jackson and Cash are in the most recent two Naismith Hall of Fame classes.
Injuries kept Jackson from the court after the 2012 season and Bird missed 2013 after undergoing right knee surgery. It was a rough few years for Seattle after its 10-year playoff run, plummeting the Storm to back-to-back No. 1 picks.
In 2015, they brought in Notre Dame star Jewell Loyd. And in 2016, they won the lottery to add Breanna Stewart. She was a four-time NCAA champion at UConn, a four-time tournament Most Outstanding Player and three-time consensus college national player of the year. It was a move Bird has said repeatedly over the past few years saved her career.
The Storm won in 2018, but a repeat wasn’t in the forecast after Stewart, the reigning MVP, sustained an Achilles tear overseas and Bird underwent another knee surgery. They came back to win it again in the 2020 bubble, arguably one of the toughest championships to win because of the situation amid the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic. And in 2021, the Storm won the first Commissioner’s Cup, an in-season tournament used largely to give out a big payday.
“For me, it was a career rejuvenation,” Bird said after her final game. “I never thought I would even get back to the Finals once the rebuild started. I think that’s what makes [the championships] even more special for me, personally.”
Jackson’s No. 15 jersey was the first retired by the franchise. It won’t be long before Bird’s No. 10 joins her in the rafters given her franchise records are too lengthy to list. Most games (580), most minutes per game in a season (35.5), most points (6,803), most field goals (2,479). Most 3-pointers in a career (1,001), season (72) and game (seven). Most assists in a career (3,234), season (221, in ’03 and ’18) and assists per game in a career (5.6).
“There’s just not that many players that see the game like she does,” Taurasi said on their Nike x TOGETHXR mini-doc. “It’s willing to make someone else better. That makes the game better. I think it’s going to be strange for the fans, for the players and it’s definitely going to be strange for me.”
Sue Bird overseas
Bird also dominated the international circuit. Early in her career, she played year-round, joining Dynamo Moscow in Russia in 2004-05 and winning a Russian championship and Euroleague title with them the following season.
In 2006-07, Bird joined Jackson and Taurasi on Spartak Moscow Region and won a Euroleague championship and a Russian one, too. Bird and Taurasi described their complicated time there in a "30-for-30" podcast that resurfaced earlier this year when Brittney Griner was detained in Russia while playing overseas. Griner was returning to her UMMC Ekaterinberg club, which Bird won three consecutive championships for from 2011-2014.
Bird’s career has spanned an entire era of overseas commitments. Even top-tier players like Bird, Taurasi, Griner and many others had to go overseas to make good money. Bird and Taurasi have stopped in recent years as they’ve aged into their 40s. But $1 million a season at minimum, as is the case for Griner, is hard to turn down.
Today’s top-tier players have better options with their higher salaries, a benefit of the 2020 collective bargaining agreement that Bird helped get across the line as vice president of the WNBA Players Association. There is more league marketing money for players to tap into when they stay in-market and the prioritization clause will go a long way in building the league. (Though that clause is controversial among players.)
Her impact on USA Basketball beyond the record five Olympic golds she won can’t be overlooked. Bird helped initiate a new team training schedule that began in 2019 ahead of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. A core group of players had more time to train together and were compensated for it, a big reason why it hadn’t happened before then. It also meant more exposure for the team, which meant more exposure for women’s basketball collectively and the players’ games in the WNBA.
Sue Bird’s impact on culture
All 18,100 fans at Climate Pledge Arena watched Bird in rapt silence on Aug. 7 minutes after she had played her final regular-season home game.
“I remember a couple years when some of my teammates wanted to go to the Wildrose. I went with them,” Bird said, pausing for cheers that broke out. “I saw a season-ticket holder there. She came over to me, put her arm around me and was like, ‘Hey, I don’t know if this is the place you want to be.’ And on the outside I said, ‘Oh, OK, thanks. Good looking out.’ On the inside I was like, ‘Oh, I know where I am.’ ”
Bird used it as an example of how Storm fans had her back since the day she showed up, at the age of 21, to represent the city she would eventually call her home. It also showcased one of the ways she is now an icon to those fans and so many people around the country and globe.
Her first visit to the Wildrose, a 37-year-old lesbian bar that is one of the oldest of its kind on the West Coast, would have been in the mid 2000s. It was a time when women’s basketball leaders wanted to push a “family friendly” league that included ultra-feminine marketing while dissuading its players from being public with their sexual identity.
That slowly changed and players were more upfront with their true selves, particularly as social media grew. But even in 2017 it was big news when Bird, then in Year 15, put in the public sphere that she was gay. It wasn’t a secret to her friends and family, she said then, and the lack of public announcement didn’t make her feel like she hadn’t lived her life to the fullest. In that same profile, she announced she was dating Megan Rapinoe, the United States women’s soccer national team star who played for Seattle’s NWSL team.
“Megan feels really passionately about things,” Bird told ESPNW in 2017. “I just never felt that calling, if that’s the right word. I was living my life, just not necessarily leading the charge. But I never felt that made me any less real.”
Bird and Rapinoe, who are now engaged, are largely considered lesbian royalty. They’re a power couple, no descriptor required. Their ESPN Body Issue is historic and iconic. It is one of the ways Bird has grown with and helped grow the culture of the WNBA and its place in pop culture at large.
She was one of the faces of the social justice movement in the WNBA bubble season. As vice president of the WNBPA, she was monumental in its campaign to support Raphael Warnock in his race for Georgia’s U.S. Senate seat. Bird is vocal on social, racial and LGBTQ+ issues and in 2020 discussed at length freezing her eggs, a process still breaking through a stigma.
Bird has benefited as the league’s pop culture currency has grown out of that bubble season. Her Carmax commercials with two-time WNBA champion Candace Parker and NBA star Stephen Curry are exactly what the league needs. Her tunnel fits place her in fashionista status. She makes appearances on popular basketball podcasts and is safely in celebrity territory. That signifier has been rare for WNBA players.
What’s next for Sue Bird?
Bird has spent much of the past decade dipping her toe in other professional waters, including as a TV basketball analyst and in the Denver Nuggets’ front office. In March 2021, Bird launched TOGETHXR, a multimedia and commerce company, with Olympians Alex Morgan, Chloe Kim and Simone Manuel.
When the superstar quad announced the news, it cited the 2018 report from the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) that roughly 40% of sports participants are women, but only 4% of media coverage goes to women’s sports.
Bird is creating it herself in multiple ways. Her weekly “A Touch More” Instagram Live with Rapinoe was a huge hit during the early months of the pandemic. No episode was more popular than a four-hour marathon chat with Taurasi, who joined Bird for an ESPN Megacast of the women’s Final Four in Minneapolis in April.
She has already jumped into the ownership tract with NWSL club NJ/NY Gotham FC.
“The club has demonstrated sustained business growth and is established as a critical pillar in the community,” Bird said in a statement announcing the news in late July. “There is a lot of talk about the power of investing in women’s sports. As an athlete in a position to invest, I’m excited to now lead by example.”
She also will get into an evolution, to borrow the term of another legend retiring after 20-plus years. (And a wedding, of course, if the “nightmare” soccer schedule will ever align.) She deserves it after a career longevity that feels mind-blowing.
Bird’s professional basketball career started as the first camera phone was released in the U.S., before the first episode of “American Idol” aired in June 2002 and before Avril Lavigne’s debut album “Let Go” filled car CD holders.
Two decades later, it’s a completely different world. Forget excitement over a camera; fans watched Bird’s final games on cellphones. Kelly Clarkson, the first "Idol" winner, featured Bird’s media company on the TV show she hosts. And neck ties that Lavigne popularized are barely worn for work in a remote world post-COVID. Through all of that change, Bird earned her stay at the top of the basketball world. Now, it’s time we all let go and appreciate the memories.