Sue Bird, a point guard for the Seattle Storm, was one of the most accomplished players in the history of women's basketball and among the best professional athletes in Seattle’s sports history. She was a two-time New York state champion in high school and a two-time national champion and consensus national player of the year at the University of Connecticut. The Storm selected her with the first pick in the 2002 Women's National Basketball Association (WNBA) draft and she became a 13-time All-Star. She led Seattle to league titles in 2004, 2010, 2018, and 2020. She also helped U.S. national teams win five Olympic gold medals and four world championships. She even won multiple Russian and European championships between WNBA seasons. Perhaps her most impressive feat: being so good for so long. Her pro career spanned 21 years. She is the only WNBA player to win league championships in three different decades. Even before she retired at age 41, there were plans to erect a statue in her honor.
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 ... ").
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").
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.
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.
A Year Like No Other
Bird missed the 2019 season after undergoing arthroscopic surgery on her left knee that May. Her teammate Breanna Stewart, the league’s reigning MVP, also missed the season with an injury. Lacking its top two players and playing home games in Everett while Key Arena was being rebuilt, Seattle managed an 18-16 record and made it to the quarterfinals of the playoffs before being eliminated by the Los Angeles Sparks 92-60.
Seattle’s stars returned for the 2020 season, but everything about the WNBA was different. The coronavirus pandemic caused the season to be delayed and shortened, with all games being played in Bradenton, Florida, without fans in the stands. Players were confined to the IMG Academy sports complex for three months. Bird’s knee gave her problems. She played in only 11 of the 22 regular-season games while Stewart led the Storm to an 18-4 record, but was healthy for the playoffs. Seattle swept past the Minnesota Lynx to face the top-seeded Las Vegas Aces in the finals. Bird contributed a playoff record 16 assists in the opener and the Storm defeated the Aces in three straight games. With its fourth WNBA championship, all with Bird as floor leader, the Storm had won two more league titles than any other Seattle pro team. There was no victory parade, however, because of pandemic restrictions on public gatherings.
The Storm seemed loaded for another title run in 2021 and posted a 21-11 regular season record. But Stewart was injured for the playoffs and Seattle was eliminated in its opening game, an overtime loss to the Phoenix Mercury. Bird had played to her usual standards, averaging 10 points and 5.3 assists for the season, but she nearing 41. She was old by basketball standards. Retirement was a likely option. But the fans at that playoff game had other ideas. After the loss, with encouragement from Bird’s old UConn teammate and close friend Diana Taurasi of the Mercury, the crowd at Everett’s Angel of the Winds Arena raised the chant of “One more year! One more year!” Bird later said that played a part in her decision; she would indeed return for another season.
Over and Out
With about a month remaining in the 2021 schedule and the Storm thriving in its new home, Climate Pledge Arena, Bird made it official: That would be her last year. Announcing her intentions enabled two special locations – New York, where she played in high school, and Connecticut, where she starred in college – to honor her when the Storm played the Liberty and the Sun. Other teams also used her final game on their courts as time to celebrate her unprecedented career.
Her final regular-season game in Seattle drew 18,100, the biggest crowd in team history, bigger than any drawn by the building’s other tenant, the National Hockey League’s Kraken. The Storm lost to Las Vegas 89-81, but Bird’s fans stayed to cheer her, chanting “Thank you, Sue! Thank you, Sue!,” as she struggled, microphone in hand, to maintain her composure while thanking them back.
Bird rose to the occasion in her farewell playoffs. She had 18 points and 10 assists, both season highs, as the Storm finished off the Washington Mystics and advanced to the semifinals, once again facing the top-seeded Aces. The Storm scored a surprising victory in the opener in Las Vegas, but the Aces prevailed in Game 2, tying the series as it headed to Seattle. Game 3 could have been the dramatic highlight of Bird’s career, with her leading the Storm back from a 15-point deficit and sinking a three-pointer for a two-point lead with 0.8 seconds remaining. But the Aces improbably were able to score a lay-in off the inbounds pass to tie the score as time expired and then romped to victory in overtime. That gave them a 2-1 series lead, and they made the most of it, ending the semifinals with a 97-92 victory. A disappointed crowd stayed to once again deliver the chant, “Thank you, Sue! Thank you, Sue!”
“She might have been born in New York,” said a Seattle Times editorial, “but she became the beating heart of Seattle sports for two decades.”
Finally — after 580 WNBA games, all as a starter — Bird was done playing. She made her league debut May 30, 2002 and left five weeks shy of her 42nd birthday. She had won four league championships, made 13 all-star appearances and set WNBA career records that included most victories (330) and most assists (3,234). All that establishes her as the league’s best ever point guard. Adding her international accomplishments – the five Olympic gold medals and four FIBA world championships -- and she ranked with the best anywhere.
She already was a minority owner and advisor for NJ/NY Gotham FC of the National Women’s Soccer League, a co-owner of the women’s sports media brand TOGETHXR, and a member of USA Basketball’s board of directors. She also has worked as a women’s college basketball analyst and planned to launch an ESPN show about college basketball called Sue’s Place.
Her next steps were undetermined. Bird didn’t see herself getting into coaching but left open the possibility of taking an executive position or a piece of WNBA ownership, having seen both player and management sides while being in negotiations leading to the league’s collective bargaining agreement. As she headed into her final WNBA playoffs, she said:
"Something that I feel really passionate about as I go into retirement is hoping that women’s athletes don’t have to fight for scraps. We always talk about how we want to get a little piece of the pie and trying to build that pie so it’s not fighting for scraps. To know that, and I never thought of it this way, but to know that I was already doing that as an active player is something that I think I’ll hold close. Because it’s literally what I want to do when I retire" (Kortemeier).