But a call from Nuggets president of basketball operations Tim Connelly opened the door for the three-time WNBA champion, all-time assists leader, and current Seattle Storm point guard to get a jump-start on what life after her playing days may look like.
“[Connelly] explained how keeping players involved in terms of experience and learning,” Bird told SB Nation in a phone interview. “He likes to do it while they’re still playing. He’s done it with other men’s basketball players. Through a mutual friend in Caron Butler, he probably saw me on TV, reached out to Caron, and wanted to do the same thing with a women’s player.”
In an interview with SB Nation, Bird detailed what drove her towards accepting a front office position, what’s expected of her, what she thinks she can bring to the Nuggets, and how she may be able to help another Washington basketball star, Isaiah Thomas.
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
SB NATION: When did this role become a reality?
SUE BIRD: It’s easier to start the story talking about Tim [Connelly.] Once we got on the phone, he explained how keeping players involved and getting their foot in the door in terms of experience and learning, he likes to do it while they’re still playing. He likes to plant those seeds. He’s done it with other men’s basketball players, and through a mutual friend in Caron Butler, he probably saw me on TV, reached out to Caron, and wanted to do the same thing with a women’s player. It was definitely Tim’s brainchild.
Before we spoke, I didn’t know what to expect. I always thought of coaching and front office jobs as something that if I did want to try it out, it would be post-playing career because it’s a time commitment. Since I was still playing, I didn’t think this would make sense.
But once we got on the phone he said everything that, as someone who’s still playing, I was loving every second of it. He was saying ‘Look, we know you’re still playing and that’s your priority, but we’d love to get you out here to see if things click.’
SB: Did the Nuggets suggest a front office spot, or is this a role you looked to get?
BIRD: I went to Denver about a month ago, and [Tim] was asking ‘What do you like so far, what are you interested in so far?’ So I think the door was open.
Tim is in the front office, and I’ve met pretty much everyone there — Arturas [Karnisovas, Nuggets general manager], scouts, Calvin Booth [Nuggets assistant GM], so right now those are the guys I’m mostly in touch with.
I would love to watch practices and see things and be involved in the basketball part of it too, but I’m going out there to learn and be a part of it. If I’m asked questions, I’ll be ready to answer them.
SB: What drove you to the front office rather than coaching?
BIRD: That’s what makes this so unique for me where I am right now in my life. This wasn’t about taking out a coaching position or taking out a front office position. In my mind I had that as an ‘I’ll check that out when I’m done playing.’ When Tim called, it was really a ‘Hey, wanna come learn?’
Whether you’re a coach or in the front office, it’s about learning the league. You need to learn the teams, the personnel, seeing your own team and what fits, seeing who will fit in years to come. The coaching part, from a player’s standpoint, comes more naturally to me. You’re focusing on these 15 guys and how to make it work. Basketball is basketball, so from a strategic standpoint, having a players’ perspective is valuable.
But this wasn’t about me wanting to coach a team versus be in the front office or anything, it’s really about Tim reaching out and opening this door for me to learn, and have the opportunity to dip my toe in while I’m still playing.
SB: What about the front office excites you? Is it player development, or putting the pieces together to make a championship roster?
BIRD: All of that is front office.
It’s funny because a lot of people outside of basketball have been asking me ‘Oh so you’re in the business side?’ No, no, no, no. A front office job, you’re very connected to the team and it’s all about putting the pieces together to build a championship-caliber team. It’s a lot harder than people think. It’s aways a challenge.
That’s what’s most attractive, the challenge of making a team that meshes together. I know first-hand. I’ve been on extremely talented teams that just don’t click, and I’ve also been on team with a little bit less talent, but they clicked, and because they clicked, they did better than other talented teams I’ve been on. That’s what attracts me most about a front office position.
But I have such a huge learning curve. A lot of the time it’s about finding a diamond in the rough. You have to have a scouting eye to do that and that’s what I’m looking forward to developing.
SB: What is your exact role?
BIRD: Your guess is as good as mine.
I’m going to try and get out there at least once a month for the remainder of the season. Every now and then I’ll get asked to maybe go watch this game or go check out that player, but for the most part I’m wide-eyed. I’m like the biggest sponge you’ve ever seen right now trying to learn as much as I can.
In my opinion, you can’t really have an opinion until you’ve done the work. I’m in a place where I need to learn a lot. What makes me unique is that I’m still a player, and I’ve won on a lot of different levels and been on a lot of different teams. From a players’ perspective I know what that feels like. That’s where my voice can be the most unique.
But a lot of it is about having conversations about players, about teams, and that’s where I think I can be of value.
SB: Are you going to be scouting other teams outside of Denver?
BIRD: Scouting takes on a lot of different forms. I think generally speaking as a player, when I hear the word scout, it’s usually ‘The Seattle Storm are playing the LA Sparks tomorrow, the assistant coaches are scouting the LA Sparks.’ And then they come to us and give a scouting report on the players and the team. More so than anything, it’s the plays they run, how they play on defense. They’re showing us film. That’s always been my idea of scouting.
But as it pertains to this, it’s more specific to scouting players. I’m making up an example, but I’m a point guard, so ‘Hey we need a point guard. Go watch some other team’s point guard.’ Or maybe, ‘Hey, this guy’s contract is almost up.’ It’s about gathering information about players, and maybe you watch a college game and see a guy with a lot of potential that you can get in the second round.
That’s more of the scouting part from a front office position. This is more of talent scouting.
SB: Did you have any front office experience in Seattle? We hear about star players being asked about who to draft and who to trade for all the time.
BIRD: Yes and no.
I think I was involved as much as a player should be. I think when you’ve played in a league for as long as I have, it would be foolish for a coach not to ask a player with that kind of knowledge about other players. A lot of this goes beyond the court. Are they a good teammate? Are they good in the locker room? What’s their attitude like. Do they work hard? With the combination of the WNBA and Europe, you’ve played with and against many players more than a WNBA GM can get their eyes on. I think to an appropriate point, I’m included.
From a player’s standpoint, you don’t want to be involved too much because you’re too close to your teammates and what’s happening. A GM needs to be a little less connected in terms of emotions. So I’ve definitely been included, more and more as I’ve gotten older, but it’s more just asking me about people and getting my opinion.
SB: What will it take for you to be like ‘I nailed it,’ after this Nuggets season wraps up?
BIRD: Make sure when they ask me to do something that I do a good job. And when I’m asked a question, I have a good answer for them.
The one thing I noticed right when I got to Denver last month for my visit is that you have the team on the court, but you have a team off the court, too, from Tim to Arturus to Cal. I met a ton of people, international scouts, college scouts, somebody who does analytics, and they all have their own team. You want to have chemistry within that team and have an environment that you can do your work well and have fun doing, and not be scared to show your opinion.
I think a lot of it is that you have to throw ideas out there. Sometimes they stick, sometimes they don’t, but you can’t be afraid to say it. What I saw was a group that was really cool to be around, they have that chemistry and camaraderie.
A successful couple of months for me means I’m more of a part of that. It’ll take more than a couple months, but I hope to know the league and learn it inside and out.
SB: Did you talk to Isaiah Thomas or Michael Porter Jr. (Nuggets players who played in Washington) before you took this position?
BIRD: I was just meeting Michael Porter for the first time, I didn’t know him that well, and I saw IT the first time, during the preliminary round in Denver to see if it clicked. So I didn’t have many in-depth conversations, because I was seeing what was what.
I’ve talked to IT about it since — he hit me up right after to say congrats. I know I’ll see him when I’m out there. He was really sweet and tweeted that he was really excited to learn from me, but simultaneously, I want to see the kind of work he puts in because I know he works super hard. He’s coming back from that injury on what he calls the “slow grind.” It’ll be fun to see that first hand and be a part of it, and be of help in any way I can.
I’ve had two hip surgeries, so that’s something we can connect on super easy. And I can share my wisdom, the little wisdom I have.
BIRD: [Laughs]. No, he’s not pissed.