Over a decade ago, after giving a speech to aspiring pros at a Nike Tournament in Arizona, Sue Bird was caught by a screaming, running high school student who just needed to meet her idol.
After a mad dash of at least 50 yards, Plum caught the attention of the Seattle Storm point guard. With the same poise we’ve come to expect on the court, Bird entertained the antics of the former member of the 10-and-under Connecticut Husky Pups Club.
“‘Hey, I just want to let you know that I’m gonna be like you some day,’” Plum recalled telling the star whose best UConn moments she’d watched time and time again on VHS.
“‘I bet you will,’ Bird said back. “‘Best of luck.’
It was just two seconds of conversation, but Plum still cherishes every detail.
For Plum’s generation, Sue Bird was — and remains — the superstar you thought you could actually emulate. At 5’9, Bird seemed a realistic role model even if her superior athleticism and basketball intelligence elevated her into rarefied company throughout her historic career. Her low-key demeanor has also helped make her seem deceptively relatable to those who look up to her. Of course, she also has the larger-than-life superstar habit of making clutch plays in the biggest moments, a one-in-a-million trait.
From her days as a high school star in New York through her title-winning years at UConn and her 16 seasons with the Seattle Storm, Bird’s ways have stayed consistent. The WNBA’s all-time leader in games played and assists rarely hunts for her shot until she must — she had Diana Taurasi to take on that load at UConn, and Breanna Stewart to do so now with the Seattle Storm. Instead, she impacts the game by delivering the ball to open teammates.
Even as the oldest player in the league at 37 years old, she was still an all-star in 2018 and still the leader of the team that drafted her in 2002. Now she has a trio of championships over a 14-year span. Nobody’s supposed to stay as talented as her for this long.
Sue Bird’s legendary potential was hiding in plain sight
Two decades ago, Sue Bird who was the ambitious high schooler when Connecticut head coach Geno Auriemma saw her play for the first time at an AAU tournament in Nashville. Auriemma was used to recruiting kids who dribbled too much or shot beyond their range in hopes of standing out. But Bird didn’t play recklessly or selfishly to impress. She just impressed, playing a complete game while moving the ball to teammates.
“She never really imposes herself even to this day,” Auriemma told SB Nation. “She’s going to be someone that, unless you’re paying attention, she’s not going to ‘wow’ you with stats or ridiculous plays. You really have to pay attention.”
Years after she helped UConn win a pair of NCAA titles and became a No. 1 overall WNBA draft pick, Auriemma can admit he didn’t know he was recruiting a legend in the making. He recalled Bird being a top-20 prospect by most rankings, with a low-key personality and a game that was more subtle than flashy.
“When we got Sue we knew that we were getting somebody really good, but you don’t know you’re getting a legendary player,” Auriemma said. “When we were recruiting Diana we knew we were. [Breanna Stewart], same thing. Maya Moore, same thing. When we recruited Sue, we were like, ‘Yeah, this kid’s going to be really good. I think she’s going to help us a lot.’ We didn’t know she was going to be what she is.”
What Bird has been is the the bold leader of every team she’s been on thanks to a competitiveness that her college coach deems unmatched.
“People know Diana [Taurasi] is maybe the best player ever,” Auriemma said of the WNBA’s best scorer and perennial leader in technical fouls. “But it’s in your face. Every game you watch you go ‘Holy shit’ this kid is unbelievable.”
Bird’s cut from a different cloth. She’ll credit the biggest night of her career to someone else and play off a jaw-dropping highlight as routine.
“She’s all about ‘what can I do to make everyone else better,’ Auriemma said. “When people do that, they’re sacrificing the way they’re perceived. They’re trying to divert attention from themselves.”
Bird’s a known facilitator. But when the game is on the line, it’s her moment.
Minnesota Lynx coach Cheryl Reeve instructs her teams to defend Bird differently depending on the quarter.
“I think she’s the greatest point guard of all time, and I had a really good one in Minnesota,” Reeve told SB Nation, referring to the recently retired Lindsay Whalen.
First of all, Reeve knows that Bird is too smart for a static approach.
“It doesn’t matter what coverage we’re in,” Reeve told SB Nation. “You can get away with it once, but you’re not gonna get away with it twice. Sue’s gonna figure it out.
Secondly, Reeve knows that Bird can impact the game in so many ways. Bird can be the Play Creator, The Mastermind, and The Executioner — and usually in that order. In the first three quarters, Reeve has her defense entice the league’s most creative passer to put up shots. It’s the last thing she knows Bird, a team player in the truest sense of the term, has on her mind so early in the game.
But that plan doesn’t work once it gets to crunch time. In the fourth frame, Sue Bird is inevitable.
“Where somebody might make five threes in a game, she might only make two,” Auriemma told SB Nation. “But the two she makes are going to be the ones that win the game.”
Bird’s ability to take over a game was on display during Seattle’s decisive Game 5 semifinal win over Taurasi’s Phoenix Mercury. With a spot in the 2018 Finals on the line, and just 48 hours removed from breaking her nose in Game 4, Masked Sue Bird went off 14 points in the final five minutes of the fourth quarter to break open a tight game.
While her teammates and opponents were hardly surprised by Bird’s closeout performance, her combative demeanor caught even longtime Bird watchers off guard. After not receiving a foul call on a play that resulted in her protective face guard being dislodged, she tossed her mask and flared up at the referees.
The crowd in Seattle, along with her teammates, roared at the sight of their even-tempered leader reaching unchartered territories. Meanwhile, Taurasi, no stranger to arguing with referees, wanted the Storm guard whistled for a technical foul after the outburst.
“Talk about a hypocrite,” Bird joked to SB Nation before the WNBA Finals. “Whatever I was saying, I’m telling you I’ve heard her say 100 times worse to referees and not get technicals.”
She watched the play again after the game to find evidence of the foul she wanted called. Problem was, she couldn’t. It didn’t exist. The referees got it right.
So, the Sue Bird of old came back postgame. She told SB Nation she apologized to the referees afterwards.
Sue Bird’s legacy is already assured
She may be the oldest player in the league, but Bird’s still a matchup nightmare, even for the freshest competition to enter the league.
“It’s terrible,” Plum said about guarding her idol. “She never stops moving and her decisions are so crisp with so much pace. Honest to God of anybody I’ve played against in the WNBA, she’s probably my least favorite person to guard.”
Surrounded by two all-stars in Seattle and the league’s most improved player, Bird looked renewed in 2018 while leading one of the WNBA’s most dynamic offenses to a championship. It may be late in her career, but she’s just getting started with a new superteam.
She stuck through a rebuild in Seattle to get here, too. Her decision to turn down opportunities to join Taurasi in Phoenix or Tina Charles in her hometown of New York has been validated.
“I feel a huge sense of ownership with this franchise,” Bird told SB Nation. “I feel a part of the fabric of it and I want it to succeed for years to come. I feel like my last gift to the franchise would be to help these younger players and get a jumpstart for them. And then I’d be long gone and they’d handle it.”
Her mark has been made. Wherever the title count ends up, Bird’s impact can also be measured in the successes of her teammates. Jewell Loyd, her 24-year-old backcourt teammate, was named to the all-star team, and Stewart, in her third season, was named MVP of the regular season and the Finals. Bird’s role in their development was instrumental, and an achievement on its own.
“I never set out to have the career I’ve had,” Bird told SB Nation. “The one thing I do know for sure is that I put winning ahead of everything.”
The play of a pass-first, low-ego guard might never get the attention it deserves, but there is no denying the accomplishments and dominance of Bird at every level she has played at.
“To be where I am now, I never could’ve predicted this.”