It’s a basketball legacy that—factoring in longevity, consistency, and success—is exceeded only by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s. Sue Bird played a record 21 seasons, all with the same team, the Seattle Storm; won four championships, each one achieved during a different part of her career; made 13 All-Star appearances; and has a future spot in the basketball Hall of Fame. In addition to being the WNBA’s all-time assist leader, she has a closetful of championship trophies from Europe, Olympic gold medals, and two titles from starring for what may have been the greatest college team in history, at the University of Connecticut. Bird never won an MVP, but her consistency and solidity have been unmatched, averaging double figures for her first 16 seasons in the league, always suppressing her own statistics to give what the team asked of her.
She is now retiring as the oldest player in the WNBA. Oh, and by the way, Bird has been the league’s most senior athlete since 2017. In other words, Bird is like Roger Bannister. No one thought the mile could be run in under four minutes until Bannister broke that psychological barrier, and then it became tangible for a new generation who crushed four minutes with ease. Before Bird, the idea of a woman athlete playing this long, in a league that is barely older than her career, was a pipe dream. Yet Bird did it, and even with the scant roster spots available in the league, others expect to follow her path.
That’s not the only mark Bird left upon her sport. In many aspects, she has been the avatar of the league, which has come into its own over the past two decades. When Bird started her playing career in 2002, the WNBA was attempting to fit into a monochromatic, very male media climate rife with skepticism about the future of a league that had only been around for six seasons. The WNBA was excited about Bird in 2002, a number-one overall draft pick with a college star pedigree and a media-friendly smile. She was seen as critical to the league’s constant PR campaign for a piece of mainstream attention. But much has changed for the WNBA and the broader sports world in the past 20 years. It was roughly halfway through Bird’s career that players, starting with LeBron James’s Miami Heat, began wearing hoodies in solidarity following the stalking and killing of Trayvon Martin by wannabe police officer George Zimmerman. This led to an escalating level of struggle by athletes across the landscape, using their platforms to speak out against racism, sexism, and homophobia, and for a broader spectrum of acceptance and love in our society. The WNBA has in turn been transformed through this off-court struggle, becoming not only a leader at the intersection of sports and society but also a groundbreaker of the first order. It wasn’t Colin Kaepernick who was the first player to protest during the national anthem following the police killings in 2016 of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling. It was the athletes of the WNBA. Then Bird, in 2020, led a player’s charge to elect the Rev. Raphael Warnock over WNBA franchise owner Kelly Loeffler, a decision that only ended up flipping the US Senate.
Covering this metamorphosis was a sports media that, while still having a long way to go, has become more diverse, with people passionate about women’s basketball actually covering women’s basketball.
Storm franchise governor Ginny Gilder told NBC Sports, “Sue to me in some ways is an example, or is an illustration of how the league has grown. She came in when it was just a few years old, and there was no social media then, and Sue was a much more private person then. Sue really has found her voice in the last five or six years, and the league has found its voice.”
In those years, Bird has “come out” publicly, and revealed a relationship with another sports icon and activist, Megan Rapinoe, a soccer star with accolades to rival Bird’s. Rapinoe has also spoken out in a manner that I believe would have mesmerized the young Bird, who was content to play ball and charm the press. As Bird said of Rapinoe, in speaking to ESPNW in 2017, “Megan feels really passionately about things. I just never felt that calling, if that’s the right word. I was living my life, just not necessarily leading the charge. But I never felt that made me any less real.”
As for Bird, despite the tears on her cheeks as she said goodbye to the sport she has played professionally for half of her life and a team for which she scored or assisted on 28 percent of the baskets in its history, she is entitled to a break. But if past is prologue, it won’t be a break she takes for long.