Tuesday saw Sue Bird leave the court for the final time, capping a career in the WNBA that began more than 20 years earlier. The Seattle Storm point guard was honoured by the crowd at Climate Pledge Arena despite a season-ending defeat. Bird struggled to hold back tears as the audience applauded her for her 19 seasons, repeatedly lifting her palms to the audience before vanishing into the tunnel.
Bird’s journey from the top choice in the WNBA draught to potential Hall of Famer appeared straightforward. She retires from the WNBA as the most decorated player in league history, having played her entire career in Seattle and earning a record 13 All-Star selections and four championships.
With double-figure scoring averages in each of her first 16 seasons and at least 4.8 assists in all but one of her campaigns, Bird was a model of consistency throughout the course of her two decades here. However, the consistent play required Bird to deal with a number of operations on her problematic left knee that threatened her career, a team that was constantly changing, and her own ageing.
It wasn’t just a case of having a fantastic team for a couple of years, as Bird said. “I’ve been on teams where we had to figure things out after each victory. We solved a whole other equation. I’m quite happy about that.”
Before recommitting to the Storm, Bird thought about leaving to finish her career somewhere else. As a result, she outlasted six head coaches, six teammates who had previously been inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, a building, and even more. (The former KeyArena is now the Climate Pledge Arena after renovations.)
We were completely inexperienced, as Bird recalls, and had no idea what we were doing. “Amazingly pleasant. It was the initial occasion. The excitement was genuine because it was the city’s first in [25 years]. We had 23. Every year, we had the impression that we would reach the Finals, but we didn’t.”
The Storm franchise was brand-new in every way when Bird was selected first overall by the team in 2002. Just two years before, the WNBA had expanded to Seattle, but unlike other expansion teams that swiftly grew, the Storm operated slowly. Due to this, Bird and Jackson, two brilliant basketball players with back-to-back top picks, were selected.
Jenny Boucek, who joined the Storm as an assistant under Anne Donovan before Bird’s second season, described both Lauren and Shea as “huge kids.” They participated in the game out of pure love. They had an indescribable excitement about them, and that was what set them apart. Sue and Lauren’s happiness gave them a boldness and naivete that overcame many obstacles that hinder teams and players. They were simply having a great time.
“Given how completely at odds with her nature that was, Anne found that to be a little bit of a strain. We’ve got to make the most of this, I’d say to Anne frequently. Our edge is here. Despite the fact that that is not how you work, our great players thrive in a lighthearted atmosphere.”
It’s hard to imagine now, but early in her career, Bird was asked how to manage a locker room full of more experienced players. The Storm concentrated on bringing in more experience after the 2003 season, which saw Seattle finish just outside the playoff picture despite Jackson winning MVP for the first time. After the Cleveland Rockers disbanded, Seattle added two seasoned starters, selecting Betty Lennox in a dispersal draught and trading for Sheri Sam and crucial reserve Janell Burse.
The actions went as planned. For the first time ever, the Storm won 20 games, and owing to other upsets, they had home-court advantage throughout the playoffs. Bird contributed 14 assists as Seattle progressed to the WNBA Playoffs despite fracturing her nose during the team’s first-round victory over the Minnesota Lynx and having surgery the day before the decisive Game 3 of the conference finals.
The Storm returned home to a packed KeyArena after dropping Game 1 in Connecticut and went on to win the following two games. Lennox was named Finals MVP as Seattle celebrated their victory at home.
The Storm’s championship roster suffered as a result of free agency, which was introduced to the WNBA as a result of a collective bargaining agreement reached after Bird’s rookie season. Sam, Kamila Vodichkova, another starter, and Tully Bevilaqua, Bird’s backup, left the game. The following year, Seattle still won 20 games, but the Houston Comets upset them in the first round. The Storm had fallen to.500 by 2007, the year Jackson won MVP for a second time, and they had been eliminated from the playoffs in the first round.
We had a championship roster, but as Bird noted, we were never able to add to it. “Due to the advent of free agency, we were never given the opportunity to see what would transpire. Let’s jump ahead to 2006 and 2007, and I’ll be honest: Those rosters weren’t strong enough to prevail. Could we have gone further and done more? Yes, but such teams didn’t necessarily win championships.”
In a manner, we were really mission-oriented, as Bird recalled of the 2010 campaign. “There was an objective. To win, that is.”
Boucek, who joined Seattle’s coaching staff once more in 2010 under head coach Brian Agler, witnessed the impact of five straight first-round exits.
We all seemed to assume that it would come “easy” and that we would automatically win most of them, according to Boucek. “It hadn’t happened in our world for a very long time. Therefore, there was a seriousness, attention, and understanding of how difficult this was that wasn’t there the previous time.”
Additionally, this was a distinct variation of Bird. She didn’t improve her game as anticipated in her mid-20s after winning the first championship. Each of her first four seasons saw her make the All-WNBA First Team, but at ages 25 and 26, she was left off both squads. Bird’s scoring average fell to 10.4 PPG in 2007, midseason arthroscopic knee surgery causing it to be the lowest in a decade.
Jackson was injured for the first-round losses in 2008 and 2009, thus Bird was forced to play more offensively aggressively. Her scoring average increased to 14.1 PPG in 2008. Bird averaged a career-high 14.7 points in 2011, and she was named to the All-WNBA team both years.
Bird added, “I usually say I’m a Robin, not a Batman. “But in some respects, I’m also chameleonic. I have to accommodate the needs of the team. Everything was centred around this player that we had. It felt like, “Okay, we’ve got to pick up the slack,” at this point.”
During this time, Bird’s propensity for making clutch shots late in games to help the Storm defeat opponents earned her a lasting yet foul nickname on a well-known WNBA message board: Sue That F—-ing Bird. Tanisha Wright, another teammate, enjoyed making jokes with her about it.
“I’m not sure when I first heard it, but it’s a terrible nickname, Bird remarked. It’s an admiration.”
Bird made two game-winning jumpers in the 2010 playoffs alone to help the Storm remain undefeated. Wright ran a pick-and-roll in Game 2 at Phoenix while Bird moved off the ball, and Wright then hit a catch-and-shoot three to finish the comeback from a 12-point deficit with 3:21 remaining and complete the sweep.
A week later, it was Jackson’s shifting screen that allowed Bird to shoot a pull-up jumper in the last seconds of Game 1 of the WNBA Finals against the Dream while they were running pick-and-roll.
Sue Bird is the most clutch shooter I’ve ever encountered, according to Agler. “Throughout the years I was there, she frequently displayed her ability to make crucial free throws and late-game jumpers. There is no other person in whom I could have greater faith than she does.”
Another turning point for Bird came during the 2010 postseason when, with Boucek unable to attend playoff games because of a temporary rule that only allowed teams to have one full-time assistant coach, they started watching film together to analyse opposing defences and determine how Bird could best counter them. According to Agler, this “took her game to another level.”