Sue Bird’s unrestricted free agency after the 2015 season could’ve shaken up the entire dynamic of the WNBA. One of the most accomplished point guards ever was on the market for the first time. Her team finally removed her CORE tag, which works similarly to the NFL’s franchise tag. Although Bird was always leaning towards returning to the Seattle Storm, nothing could be certain.
Bird already won a pair of championships in Seattle, a city to which she had no attachment before she was drafted No. 1 overall in 2002. She’d also appeared in nine All-Star Games and on four All-WNBA First Team lists. She’d accomplished everything a player could want.
At this critical point, she had to decide what to do with the end of her career: Ring-chase, or ride it out with the Storm, who were dreadful enough to earn consecutive No. 1 picks in the 2015 and 2016 drafts. (The Storm finished 31 games under .500 in a four-year stretch after Lauren Jackson’s retirement.)
The answer wasn’t clear. Unlike the NBA, the WNBA does not allow a player’s current team to offer a longer and more lucrative contract than its opposition. While Seattle remained on the table, other situations were appealing.
Bird considered coming back home to play for the New York Liberty. The Long Island product could’ve teamed up with All-Star Tina Charles to form a lethal pick-and-roll duo and play at Madison Square Garden. That could’ve been a win-win that’d return her back to the east coast and maybe stop all the losing.
She also spoke to long-time friend and former UConn teammate Diana Taurasi about teaming up in Phoenix with the Mercury alongside Brittney Griner. That team would have been a title favorite from the jump, and the Taurasi-Bird backcourt might’ve been the best to ever do it.
But in the end, she resisted the temptations to go elsewhere.
“As an athlete, as a free agent, you owe it to yourself to explore your options. So I did that,” Bird told SB Nation in an interview three weeks ago. “And it came back Seattle.”
Now she’s a three-time WNBA champion.
Bird bet on the future Seattle was building.
In 2015, the team selected Notre Dame guard Jewell Loyd, one of the best shooters in the world with the No. 1 pick. Bird knew that the Storm also had 2016’s top pick and UConn’s Breanna Stewart was on the horizon.
But there was never a guarantee either would blossom before Bird was ready to call it quits. All of the losing was really taking its toll on Bird.
“When you’re losing, and you’re losing again, and you’re losing 3 … 4 … 5 games in a row, it can be frustrating,” Bird admitted. “And you can question things.”
Basketball players have short careers that can end in a moment. Playing for a decade or longer is uncommon. That’s why athletes take so much time in determining their futures: Wasting prime playing years to lose a whole bunch of games can be mentally draining and damaging to their legacies. Bird’s ability to shake all that off is part of what made her decision so unique.
Bird had no idea that her team would become a pioneer of 5-out modern basketball and have a historic offensive year that’d easily earn them the No. 1 seed three years later. She couldn’t have known that Breanna Stewart would win an MVP in her third season, or that the Storm would land one of the most coveted free agents in Natasha Howard, who’d win Most Improved Player of the Year. She had no idea that the Storm would appoint coaching great Dan Hughes, a defensive mind who’d then spend three days in Golden State to pick apart the Warriors and see what his team could mimic.
So what kept her in Seattle?
Simple: she bought into the city’s basketball culture and never looked back, even when clearer paths were screaming her name.
“There’s so much admiration, respect and love throughout that community,” Bird said. “You hear about players like Jamal Crawford who’s constantly giving back. Isaiah Thomas, even though he’s from Tacoma, he went to U-Dub and he’s constantly giving back to the community. Those are the names you hear, but it goes much deeper than that.
“It’s a rich, rich basketball community.”
“I understood the path that I chose,” Bird told SB Nation. “And when it’s all said and done, regardless of what happens in the playoffs this year, arguably this could be one of the more gratifying experiences to have gone through the past couple of years I’ve went through and be on a team like this one on the other side of that.”