Bye Bye, Birdie
Two-time NCAA Champion. Naismith Award winner. No. 1 WNBA draft pick. Five-time Euroleague Champion. Four-time WNBA Champion. Four-time FIBA World Cup Champion. Five-time Olympic gold medal winner. Five-time All-WNBA First Team. 12-time WNBA All-Star. Most WNBA assists, most WNBA All-Star appearances, most WNBA seasons played, most WNBA games played, most WNBA minutes played, all-time. Vice-President of the WNBA Players Association. Named to the All-Time Best WNBA Lists in the 10th, 15th, 20th, and 25th anniversaries of the league.
This is Sue Bird’s quantitative legacy on the game of basketball. But her impact on the WNBA and the world of basketball as a whole stretches much farther.
Bird’s career started in 2002, 20 years ago, when Nickleback was on the radio and Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones was in theaters. She was selected to the WNBA All-Star team in her rookie season, and was the runner-up for the Rookie of the Year award, losing to Tamika Catchings.
2002 was only the WNBA’s sixth active season. There were 16 teams, nine of which are now defunct. Much of the public opinion of the league was that it wasn’t worth watching because the women “couldn’t dunk.”
The league pushed a marketable image to the public: hyper-feminine straight women who played basketball. The logo consisted of the same
colors as the men’s leagues of MLB, MLS, the NFL, and the NBA. This further solidified the WNBA’s connection to the NBA, as their logos were strikingly similar.
In 2002, Bird was picked first overall, going to the Seattle Storm. During her rookie year with the Storm, she started all 32 games, being the only player on the roster to do so. At the conclusion of the season, Bird, alongside Catchings, were named to the All-WNBA First Team, becoming the first rookies in league history to be named to that list. That same year, she was selected to represent the United States at the FIBA Women’s World Cup (then the FIBA World Championship for Women), and won the gold medal with the U.S.
In 2004, Bird was hoping that her hard work with the Storm would earn her a U.S. Olympic call-up, and it did. The New York native was named to her first Summer Olympics roster, where the U.S won their third consecutive gold medal. Back home with the Storm, she had an equally successful year, scoring her 1000th point and starting her 100th consecutive game to help lead her team to their first franchise championship. Alongside other stars like Lauren Jackson and Betty Lennox, the Storm were able to hoist the WNBA trophy, which marked a monumental year for not only Bird but basketball in the city of Seattle. At the time, she said, “There's a reason we won tonight and that's because other people stepped up. They tried to take me and Lauren away, and you saw what happened…"
By 2006, Bird was a very established player in the league. It was no surprise when she was again called up to the United States national team for the FIBA World Championship, where the team finished third place overall.
Within the next four years, the U.S won another Olympic Gold with a 92-65 win over Australia, and they won another World Championship against the Czech Republic. Both teams featured Bird, who in consecutive World Championships led the team in assists. When she returned home to the Storm after the World Championship, she helped lead the team to the playoffs. After a successful playoff run, Bird lifted another championship trophy.
In 2013, the WNBA released an updated logo, and many believed that the silhouetted player featured in it was Bird.
However, Bird didn't play this season, with a knee injury sidelining her. "Believe me when I say, I would much rather not be having these surgeries, but you have to play the hand you're dealt and if it means I can keep playing for the next four or five years so be it," Bird said in an email to the Associated Press. She was correct in saying this, given that she would go on to play for nine more years.
The 2016 US Olympic team has been said by Bird to be one of the best teams she has ever seen. She said that almost everyone on the team was at their peak, and they earned a gold medal once again.
In an interview with USA Basketball before the tournament, Bird said, "Now that I am older, I see that I am really lucky. Really lucky to be here, and I’m really excited and honored. And I’m just looking forward to it." This was the first Olympic team that featured Breanna Stewart, who was 22 at the time.
This was also the year that Stewart was drafted into the WNBA, to the Seattle Storm. This came at a time of uncertainty for Bird when she was considering leaving Seattle.
"[Breanna] saved my career,” Bird later said. “I’m not even being dramatic about that. I was at a point where it’s 2016, I’m 36, I’ve done a lot, but I’ve also had to endure a lot with my body and some injuries and we get her and Jewell Loyd who got drafted the year before… it was like a breath of fresh air."
Stewart has much praise for Bird as well. Coming back from an injury, she said, "Being able to play with Sue, I guess it just makes you appreciate more. I want to win.”
In 2017, Bird broke the all-time record for most WNBA assists, which she still holds to this day. The previous record was 2,600 assists, held by Ticha Penicheiro. By the end of the 2021 season, Bird had 3,048 assists.
This same year, she came out as a lesbian to ESPN and announced that she was dating U.S. Women's National Soccer Team player Megan Rapinoe. "It's happening when it's happening because that's what feels right,” Bird said “So even though I understand there are people who think I should have done it sooner, it wasn't right for me at the time. I have to be true to that. It's my journey."
In 2018, the Storm won their third championship, led by Bird and Stewart. Bird had what is described by many as her best career match in Game 5 of the semifinal. Fresh off of breaking her nose in the previous game, her team was down with six minutes to go. After being down the whole game, she got hot, scoring 14 points. Stewart also credits Bird for her own 28 points in the game, citing advice she gave her before the fourth quarter.
"Oh yeah, this is for Sue,” Stewart said after the last game of the Finals. “This is all about Sue. Her leadership and what she means to this team—and not just this team but this league and women’s basketball in general. I know I didn’t want her career to end without getting back here."
That same season, Bird broke the Seattle Storm's all-time scoring record, passing out her former teammate, Lauren Jackson. The previous record was 6,007—as of 2021, Bird stands at 6,695 points.
2019 marked another year on the sideline for Bird, with another knee injury. This same year, the Storm were also missing Stewart, making it difficult for them to defend their WNBA title. They ended up viewing 2020 as a sort of title defense year, with Bird saying, "It's not exactly the same as coming back the next year after winning the title, but there are vibes about it, there are feelings about it that do make us feel that way."
In 2020, during the COVID-19 pandemic, the WNBA was the first league to return to play, in the summer. Bird led some of the Black Lives Matter efforts in the WNBA bubble, such as organizing the league to wear Vote Warnock shirts in opposition to Atlanta Dream owner Kelly Loeffler. This was part of her work as the WNBA Players Association Vice President. Some other recent examples of this work was her involvement in safely forming the 2020 bubble season, as well as prioritizing the social justice messaging throughout this season.
"What this summer has taught I think all of us in the WNBA is that we have a voice and we do have this platform,” Bird said. “And we also have these unique experiences that we can share — and again, all in the name of having a positive change on our country."
At the end of this historic bubble season, the Storm won their fourth WNBA championship, led by the "Big 3" of Bird, Stewart, and Jewell Loyd. They swept the Las Vegas Aces in three games, to win in what people have called the most difficult WNBA season ever, given the circumstances.
In 2021, the Storm lost in the semifinals against the Phoenix Mercury. Bird was obviously emotional in interviews after the game, as rumors swirled about her retirement at the end of that season. Her longtime friend, Diana Taurasi, Phoenix Mercury player, led the crowd in a chant of "One More Year!"
In June of 2022, Bird officially announced that she would retire at the end of this season, citing the "One More Year" chant as her motivation to continue playing. The Storm are heading for the playoffs again now.
Now, 21 years and 19 seasons later, Bird is retiring as a legend of the game. She has done what few do and stayed with one team throughout her entire career. Her long list of achievements on the court represents one part of her, and the way that the WNBA has changed under her leadership represents another.
She played her entire career in Seattle with the Storm, something that few athletes do these days. When she won with the Storm in 2004, it was the first championship brought home to the city, in any sport, since the now defunct Seattle SuperSonics men's basketball team won the NBA championship in 1979.
Bird has become the face of Seattle sports. ESPN has a billboard for her in Seattle, a part of their "There's No Place Like Sports" campaign. It reads "Where else do you spend decades taking a nation by Storm?"
Will Conroy, ex-NBA player and Seattle native, said to The Athletic, "When she broke her nose and she put the mask on and played and didn’t want to sit out — that just embodied our city… The hard work, that we’re always gonna get back up and fight through it — that’s our city.”
Also speaking to The Athletic, current Storm Head Coach Noelle Quinn said about Bird: "I think there’s something to say about someone who has chosen to ride or die with an organization, grow with an organization, grow with the fans, grow with a team. That’s just loyalty. For Seattle, the best point guard in the world is playing on your team every single year. That just gives you confidence to know that anything is possible.”
Some other off-the-court achievements of Bird's include work with UNINTERRUPTED, a company that describes their mission as "inspiring athletes and those in sports culture to be More Than through entertainment, product, and apparel, social impact, and events." Bird has a collection and mission with UNINTERRUPTED called Love Is, which she operates with Rapinoe. Their goals are protecting LGBTQIA+ people and lives, especially LGBTQIA+ youth, LGBTQIA+ people of color, and transgender people.
Bird is also a co-founder of TOGETHXR, along with soccer player Alex Morgan, swimmer Simone Manuel, and snowboarder Chloe Kim. TOGETHXR is a platform where culture, activism, lifestyle, and sports converge. They aim to support and uplift women's voices in these communities.
Bird has clearly grown as both a player and a person over the course of her career. And although many, many things are different now than they were in 2002, one thing has clearly emerged as truth since then: Bird's impact on the WNBA and women's basketball as a whole has been great and unmeasurable.
As one of the most marketed players in the league from the beginning, she became the representation of a female athlete, both at the league and national level. When she later came out, she was one of the faces of the LGBTQIA+ community in sports—and she still is, as her and fiancée Rapinoe are lauded as the biggest power couple in sports.
Her work as one of the loudest white voices in the WNBA speaking out for racial justice has also been impactful, inspiring others to follow in her footsteps.
Many players in the league today cite Bird as being an inspiration to them as children growing up playing basketball. Her long-lasting career has allowed her to collect experience and fame and cemented her among the all-time greats of the league. With her career coming to an end, it is time to celebrate her achievements and leadership on and off the court. These are all the things that make her, quite possibly, the greatest of all time.
Tune in for Bird's final regular season game ever on Sunday, August 14, at 5:00 p.m. EST on ABC against the Las Vegas Aces.