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How Sue Bird and Kyrie Irving became basketball’s best point guard friendship

Bird and Irving’s friendship is bound by sneakers and appreciation for each other’s brilliance.

Illustration by Tyson Whiting/SB Nation

Kyrie Irving remembers the first time he met Seattle Storm basketball legend Sue Bird in person. The point guards were sent to autograph basketballs in Brazil during the 2016 Rio Olympics, where both would win respective golds for the American men’s and women’s basketball teams.

Irving said he was star-struck seeing the two-time WNBA champion and four-time Olympic medalist in person. But Bird thought he played it off cool.

“He was so friendly and like ‘Yo, Sue I’m a big fan. I love your game,’” Bird told SB Nation. “You could tell he was excited, which was cool for me. Obviously I’ve seen him play and I’m a huge fan of his game.”

A relationship that now features occasional texts and FaceTime video calls was forged not by autograph signings but a shared love for sneakers. Specifically, the green and gold colorways of Irving’s signature brand that Bird had custom made to wear on the court, a unique pair that the Celtics superstar didn’t even own.

“‘You’ve seen the shoes that I wear,” Bird recalled saying to Irving. “‘You watch us? Oh we’re gonna be cool.’”

It’s unsurprising for basketball players to be sneakerheads, but these two are on another level.

“I went to Nike and I was like ‘Are you seeing the greatest point guard to ever play the game wear my shoes?’ Irving told SB Nation. “‘Okay yeah, give her whatever she wants.’

And they did.

Irving’s appreciation for Bird goes back much further than their Olympics meetup. Growing up in New Jersey, not far from where Bird was raised in New York and played college ball with the Connecticut Huskies, she was a household name to Irving, who’s 11 years younger than the Storm great.

“As time went on, you always heard about Sue Bird and Diana Taurasi and Tina Charles and Sylvia Fowles. Even the girls before them like Sheryl Swoopes and Lisa Leslie,” Irving said. “Sue is right along that lineage.”

Flash-forward to Irving finding his own success in the NBA, when he knew he had to see Bird play in person. He flew out to Seattle five years ago to see Bird in action and was awestruck to see one of his idols live.

“She’s such an amazing quarterback,” Irving told SB Nation.

“For me, when I think about Sue, I think about management of the game,” he continued. “Her bounce passes and over-the-top no-looks that she throws that drops into bigs’ hands ... When she was playing with Lauren Jackson way back when, you used to see them run pick-and-rolls all the time. She used to drop GEMS.”

Bird’s greatest hits mostly feature her threading the needle to find a cutting teammate, or driving the lane and dishing where nobody is looking. But her talents stretch far beyond that. When she must, she can take over as the team’s go-to scorer.

In a closeout Game 5 win in the semifinals against the Phoenix Mercury for a trip to the Finals, she went off in the final quarter with 14 points on four 3-point makes.

Sporting a face mask to protect the her nose — which was broken 48 hours earlier for the fifth time in her life — Bird washed away her best friend and most evenly-matched rival Diana Taurasi’s season in the latest signature moment of her career.

It was a death by three — really, really deep threes that Bird’s emphasized as she’s aged and lost some explosiveness.

“Big-time players are going to play in big-time moments,” Irving told SB Nation. “I feel like Sue has been preparing all season for that, managing the team well. I think that she has the will of a champion. A broken nose isn’t gonna stop you.”

Masked Sue became an internet meme, much like Masked Kyrie last NBA season. He could definitely relate to her anger after her mask was knocked around during a scramble for a loose ball in Game 5.

”She got pissed,” Irving said. “You rarely see Sue get mad. When you get popped in the face with that mask, you’ll definitely cross some feathers.”

Bird knows Irving is one of few players on Earth who can match her level of late-game intensity and heroics. Their styles may contrast, but she’s just as big a fan for his way of success, too.

“His signature move to me is the way he handles the ball when he’s got a one-on-one situation,” Bird said. “How creative he can be.”

“I picture up-and-under layups where he goes up, gets them up, and scoops it back around for a layup. Or that fadeaway he hit on Klay Thompson. Or maybe the game-clinching three in Game 7. However it finishes, his signature move starts with his ball-handling and getting a defender off-balance, basically spinning.”

As usual, the connection between Bird and Irving will be evident when she takes the court in the WNBA Finals. After wearing a 100-pair exclusive ‘Green Lobster’ colorway of Irving’s shoes in the semifinals, she’s got something even more eye-catching for when she faces the Washington Mystics.

In Game 2, she’s set to debut a pair of Irvings designed with pictures of the grandmother from Looney Tunes, designed by known NBA shoe artist Kickstradomis.

“She is the grandma of the league and she’s not ashamed to talk about it either,” Irving said of the WNBA’s oldest player at 37. “That’s the funny part about Sue. She’s such an incredible spirited person.”

“She knows she’d old in the WNBA right now, but she’s still kicking ass.”