Seattle guard Sue Bird sat in her post-game video interview with an amused smile and a comedic little eye directed at teammate Breanna Stewart, who threw green and gold Storm confetti at her. Bird was thrilled to celebrate her fourth title after a resounding 92-59 victory over the Las Vegas Aces on Tuesday in Game 3 of the WNBA Finals.
But there was also a touch of disbelief, after a grueling season in the WNBA bubble in Florida during a pandemic. Bird has been in the league since her No.1 draft in 2002, and she thought she had seen it all, but this season was unlike anything anyone had seen before. The fact that the enormity of his accomplishment and the knowledge that his 40th birthday is coming next week, October 16, made Bird sentimental and philosophical as his teammates danced and the champagne flowed.
“Being younger you talk about being in the present moment and you don’t even know what that means. But as an older player I fully understand, ”said Bird, before attempting to describe the environment. “Listen, it’s weird over there. There are no fans. Like the level of excitement – and just because of the way the game ended with the score, it was kind of like that – we didn’t really know how to react.
“So I think for me right now it’s a little – it’s almost surreal, a shock. I’ll be honest, even today as I got ready for the game, thinking about it, I was getting a little emotional at the prospect of potentially winning. I have a feeling it’s going to hit later, and for me as an older player, I think it comes out more emotional than excitement. ”
Bird became the second-oldest player to win a WNBA title behind Taj McWilliams-Franklin, who was 13 days old when she was 41 when she won with the Minnesota Lynx in 2011.
This is the fourth title for the Storm, tying them for most of all time with Houston (1997-2000) and Minnesota (2011, ’13, ’15, ’17). But Storm’s titles didn’t all come in a tight group of years; the previous ones were in 2004, 2010 and 2018. Bird is the only common denominator for all, as she finished her 17th season in the WNBA again in the lead.
“I think the fact that I’ve been able to do it over different decades, with the same openness, not many people can tell,” Bird said. “Recreating it over time and staying at a high level over time is definitely something I’m proud of because it hasn’t been easy. ”
Bird underwent knee surgery in May 2019 and missed all of last season. Then, she suffered a bruise on the same knee early in the season and was limited to 11 of 22 regular season games.
“This is the only time I’m not going to cover it in sugar.” It was difficult, ”she said. “Lots of ups, lots of lows. I think the hardest part of being an older player is when there is that physically, you start to wonder if you can do it more. You start to wonder why you are doing it. You start to wonder if it’s worth it because it can be difficult. ”
However, once the playoffs began, Bird was once again in charge, as if she wanted the years to pass. Bird averaged 9.5 points and 9.2 assists in those six games. His 16 assists in Friday’s opener were a career and WNBA Finals record and an overall playoff record. On Tuesday, she had five points and seven assists in a game decided long before the fourth quarter, which Bird spent happily on the bench trying to take it all.
Bird has won universal praise in the basketball world, including from Los Angeles Lakers LeBron James, who is also in his 17th season and aiming for his fourth NBA title.
“The fact that LeBron recognizes me that way is obviously a huge compliment,” Bird said. “I think we’re two of the players – you can throw Tom Brady and Diana [Taurasi] in there – the four of us are sort of in this elite company of people who are closer to the end than the beginning but still able to have a huge impact on the game. ”
Combining university, WNBA, foreign leagues and international competitions like the Olympics, Bird has celebrated championships all over the world. In the WNBA, she first arrived in front of the sold-out crowd at KeyArena in October 2004. Bird was days away from her 24th birthday by then, and admits she thought at the time that playing for titles would be. a regular event.
But with so much talent concentrated in a relatively small league, even making the WNBA Finals is a challenge. The Storm didn’t do that until 2010, when they swept the Atlanta dream away. As the deciding Game 3 wrapped up in Atlanta, Bird leaped into the arms of teammate Lauren Jackson, who was the league’s MVP that year.
No one then realized how close to the end of his career, Jackson, 29 at the time, was due to injuries. She would only play parts of two more seasons in the WNBA.
Eight more years passed before Bird returned to the final in 2018, and won again in a sweep, this time against the Washington Mystics.
UConn coach Geno Auriemma was at this game and he continued to watch with pride as his former star point guard continued to win.
“For Sue, her incredible consistency as a player comes from her consistency as a person,” said Auriemma. “She is an incredible leader on the basketball court of epic proportions. As long as she has the opportunity to lead the team, she will find a way to win. “
Six years ago, however, Bird wondered. She underwent knee surgery that cost her the 2013 season. In 2014, the Storm missed the playoffs and coach Brian Agler left to take over from the Los Angeles Sparks. Bird had felt physically mediocre the whole season and she knew some people thought she was almost done as she approached 34.
Bird is committed to getting back into the best shape of her life. She has also decided to stay with the Storm, rather than exploring options as a free agent.
His belief in the organization has borne fruit with luck, as the Storm secured the first pick in 2015 (guard Jewell Loyd) and 2016 (forward Breanna Stewart), who have become key contributors to the last two championships. of the Storm. Stewart was MVP of the Finals in 2018 and again this year, averaging 25.7 points, 7.8 rebounds, and 4.0 playoff assists, while Loyd averaged 17.8 , 5.2 and 3.2.
“With Stewie and Jewell their talent is really insane,” said Bird. “They’re the current generation, but they’re also the next generation for the next five, 10, 15 years, who knows how many years. “
In recent years, Bird has become more outspoken on many issues, including those involving the LGBTQ community. In 2017, Bird declared himself publicly gay and opened up about his relationship with American football star Megan Rapinoe – who was with Bird in the bubble in Bradenton, Florida – and the two have become a popular couple in the sport.
“It’s her leadership on the pitch,” Seattle coach Gary Kloppenburg said of what Bird means for the Storm, “but also how she has developed as a leader off the pitch defending a lot. for things that need to be done, and for a lot of progress we need to make in this country. ”
Social justice wasn’t just a buzzword for the WNBA this season; that was the foundation of the bubble. Bird was a big part of the Vote Warnock movement, as players urged people to vote against one of the league’s owners, Kelly Loeffler of Atlanta Dream, in her Senate race against Raphael Warnock. Loeffler’s remarks questioning the league’s support for the Black Lives Matter movement have alienated players.
“A women’s league, a black women’s league, a gay women’s league,” said Bird, who admitted that in the past she tended to avoid anything that was controversial. “We sort of tick all those boxes of people who are just being left out or not being talked about. So who better to talk about these issues than those directly affected by them?
“There was a lot on everyone’s plate, and for a variety of reasons. What I discovered is that when you are in this world of activism and organization, there is this other energy that you expend. And then, oh par it is also necessary to be a basketball player. For many people it was exhausting at times. At one point everyone must have hit the “Wubble” [WNBA bubble] wall and find a way to overcome it. ”
Message of appreciation from Sue Bird 🐐 pic.twitter.com/LlkKtOPrki
– SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) October 7, 2020
She did this and now has her fourth WNBA Championship. Bird hopes to play until at least next year, when she could compete in her fifth Olympics.
“How I’m feeling right now, if I can get through my offseason and continue to build on that in a good way, I don’t see why I won’t be playing next summer,” Bird said. “I’m not trying to be elusive but like I’ve always said things happen. That’s what the last two years have taught me. Everything can happen. So I’m just like, you know, cautiously optimistic.
“Throughout my career I’ve been lucky in a way. My position and the way I play allows longevity. I never really relied solely on my speed, speed or size, obviously. So as long as I keep adding to my game from a mental standpoint, I was always going to be able to stay on the floor, assuming the physical part stayed with me as well. ”
Auriemma credits Bird’s resolve and willpower.
“Sue’s discipline is, ‘I want to win championships every year that I’m in the league. And I’m going to let go of all the things that keep me from doing that, “” Auriemma said. “It’s unusual, but that’s how you last so long.” ”
Of course, says Bird, she walks around the extra piece of cake or glass of wine. She diligently adhered to an exercise and sleep schedule. She fought the pain and monotony of rehabilitation that comes with injuries.
For someone who never talks about her own greatness, who instead always frames her as part of a collective effort of everyone around her – teammates, coaches, owners, fans – Bird has reached a peak that few athletes in any professional sport do.
“There are definitely sacrifices you make,” Bird said. “There is a certain lifestyle that I feel like I have entered into. But I don’t see it as giving up something, because you get it back. “