How did a girl from Syosset, New York, who once claimed soccer as her first love become one of the most successful basketball players in the world?
But Friday, Bird reaches another milestone: It’s her 40th birthday.
From winning state titles at Christ the King and two NCAA crowns at UConn to capturing four WNBA titles and four Olympic gold medals, Bird has celebrated championships around the globe.
And while the WNBA’s all-time assists leader got shoutouts from LeBron James as he also closed in on a fourth title in his 17th season, her legacy extends off the court. Bird helped shepherd a historic collective bargaining agreement last January and spearheaded social justice issues in the WNBA bubble this past season.
We look back at the legend of Sue Bird.
How it started
Little did Suzanne Brigit Bird from Long Island know just how far she’d go on a basketball court. Baby Bird played AAU ball — shown in the photo below at a girls 11-and-under national championship in 1992, just three years before the UConn women would win their first national championship.
Bird has always been a steady, consistent player on the court, but like Seattle teammate Breanna Stewart, tends to come up big when the game is on the line.
Just days before Bird and the Storm completed a sweep of the Las Vegas Aces in the WNBA Finals on Oct. 6, UConn coach Geno Auriemma said no one was better prepared.
“Sue’s been training for these moments every single day since her rookie year,” Auriemma said during a Zoom media call. “Some people don’t have the stamina to be able to do that. They don’t have the discipline to do that.”
Helping the Huskies return to the top
Bird’s freshman season at UConn was cut short by an ACL tear, suffered just eight games into 1998-99. But she quickly made an impact when she returned to the court. Bird averaged 10.9 points and 4.3 assists as a sophomore, helping the Huskies go 36-1 and win the NCAA title. Nowadays the Huskies are synonymous with perfect seasons and three-peats, but at this point it was only the second national championship for UConn.
At the time, nothing was bigger in women’s college basketball than the UConn-Tennessee rivalry, and they met three times that season. In her first game in the series, Bird scored 25 points on 8-for-10 shooting as the Huskies won a January 2000 meeting in Knoxville, Tennessee. A month later, the Lady Vols repaid the favor, ruining what had been a perfect season to that point with a one-point win in Storrs, Connecticut. But UConn got the last laugh that season, easily beating Tennessee in the final in Philadelphia, Auriemma’s hometown.
“I think the series helped establish my identity as a player,” Bird told ESPN’s Mechelle Voepel last year. “As someone who, hopefully, makes their teammates better and when needed can come up with big plays and big shots.”
The best NCAA championship team ever?
Now we’re starting to see the beginnings of the next dynasty in women’s college basketball. The 2001-02 UConn team, which had Bird and three other seniors (Swin Cash, Asjha Jones and Tamika Williams) in the starting lineup, is largely regarded as the best in women’s college basketball history. The Huskies went 39-0 and steamrolled opponents by a 35.4 average margin of victory, with just one single-digit win.
Bird, with then-sophomore Diana Taurasi beside her in the UConn backcourt, averaged 14.4 points and 5.9 assists and was the consensus National Player of the Year, winning the Wade Trophy and Naismith Award. Bird, shown below celebrating with Auriemma during a victory parade through Hartford, Connecticut, went 114-4 at UConn.
Less than three weeks later, Bird was the No. 1 pick in the WNBA draft — and Cash, Jones and Williams also were selected within the first six picks of the first round.
Led by Taurasi, the Huskies would go on to win three consecutive titles (2002-04) for just the second three-peat in women’s college basketball history.
Prestigious pack of point guards
It didn’t take the rest of the country long to put Bird on par with point guard royalty in the professional ranks. During the 2003 NBA All-Star Weekend, Bird lined up alongside the Seattle SuperSonics’ Gary Payton, the New Jersey Nets’ Jason Kidd, the Phoenix Suns’ Stephon Marbury and the San Antonio Spurs’ Tony Parker before the Skills Challenge.
Bird is a lock — and likely first-ballot choice — to join The Glove and J-Kidd in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame when she retires.
The Greek squad
The 2004 WNBA regular season went on hiatus in August that year as the Athens Olympics were held. Lisa Leslie, Dawn Staley and Sheryl Swoopes headlined Team USA as youngsters like Bird, Taurasi, Cash and Tamika Catchings made their Olympic debuts. Bird was an understudy as Staley capped her USA Basketball career, coming off the bench in seven of eight games as the Americans won their third consecutive gold medal.
But it laid the foundation for the future. The torch was passed, and by 2008, Bird was a regular starter for the Olympic team, adding gold medals in the 2008 Beijing Games, 2012 London Games and 2016 Rio Games.
Bird is 142-6 all time when competing for Team USA.
Make it a double
A month-and-a-half after winning gold, Bird and the Storm brought a title back to Seattle for the first time since the Sonics’ 1979 championship.
The Storm’s first title was a few years in the making. In 2001, Seattle drafted Australian post Lauren Jackson (holding trophy with Bird, below) with the No. 1 pick. Bird arrived in 2002. And coach Anne Donovan took the reins in 2003.
The Storm went 18-16 in Donovan’s first season. In 2004, Seattle added shooting guard Betty Lennox with the sixth pick in the dispersal draft after the Cleveland Rockers franchise disbanded, and everything slowly fell into place as the season unfolded.
Seattle actually finished second in the Western Conference behind the Los Angeles Sparks, and limped into the playoffs having lost six of its final nine games of the regular season when the league resumed after the Olympic break. The Storm swept Minnesota in the best-of-three Western Conference semifinals, but things got harder from there. Despite losing the opening game in overtime of the Western Conference finals against Sacramento, Seattle rallied to reach the WNBA Finals, where it again lost the opening game but then won two straight to beat the Connecticut Sun.
Donovan became the first female coach to win a WNBA title. Bird averaged 12.9 points and 5.4 assists.
A world away
Bird began playing overseas in Russia during the WNBA offseason in 2004. After two seasons with Dynamo Moscow, she signed with Spartak Moscow. Owned by onetime Soviet Union spy Shabtai von Kalmanovic, the players lived a life of luxury with salaries that far exceeded what they were paid to play in the WNBA. The rosters were equally lavish, even Dream Team-esque, as players such as Lauren Jackson, Taurasi, Tina Thompson and Bird (below, from left, with von Kalmanovic) teamed up to sweep Russian Super League and EuroLeague titles.
In 2011, Bird made the move to UMMC Ekaterinburg, where she added three more consecutive titles in the Russian League.
Seattle lost in the Western Conference semifinals for five consecutive years following its 2004 title. But when the 2010 postseason arrived, the Storm didn’t lose a game.
First came a 2-0 sweep of the Los Angeles Sparks in the semis, followed by a 2-0 sweep of the Phoenix Mercury in the conference finals. Seattle added three more straight victories over Atlanta in the WNBA Finals to return to the top of the WNBA.
Seattle’s Lauren Jackson also swept regular-season and WNBA Finals MVP honors that season, but Bird had her big moments, too, en route to Seattle’s second championship.
In Game 2 of the Western Conference finals, Seattle overcame a 19-point deficit, and Bird had an assist, a block, a rebound and then hit a 24-foot jumper with 2.8 seconds left for the win. And in Game 1 of the WNBA Finals, Bird’s 18-footer was the game-winner with 2.6 seconds to play.
In one of the most iconic images in Storm history, Bird leaped into Jackson’s arms on Atlanta’s home court to celebrate the title.
Bird credits a strict diet and workout regimen for her longevity. And though she sat out the 2013 and 2019 seasons after knee surgeries, she holds several career marks.
On Sept. 1, 2017, Bird became the WNBA’s all-time assists leader, breaking Ticha Penicheiro’s mark. Through this past season, Bird has 2,888 assists.
Bird ranks eighth in the WNBA in career points (6,262), and is the WNBA leader in career starts (519; she has never come off the bench) and career minutes (16,430).
She has appeared in a WNBA-record 11 All-Star games, and ranks first in playoff appearances (14).
In Game 5 of the 2018 WNBA semifinals, the top-seeded Storm were trailing the Phoenix Mercury entering the fourth quarter. Bird wasn’t shooting well, missing eight straight shots at one point and was 1-for-6 on 3-pointers through three periods.
Enter Breanna Stewart. The regular-season MVP reminded Bird, “Sue, use your legs.” Bird — who was wearing a mask to protect the broken nose she had suffered in a game just two days earlier — knew Stewie was right.
“A lot of the shots I had been taking in that third quarter, I was really short,” said Bird, who was 37 at the time. “I’m happy Stewie reminded me of that.”
Over the final six minutes of the game, Bird hit 5-of-6 shots and scored 14 of her 22 points in the fourth quarter, helping Seattle clinch a spot in the WNBA Finals. Bird later called it a “career-defining moment.”
Seattle went on to sweep the Washington Mystics in the WNBA Finals and Bird — who averaged a career-best 7.1 assists per game in the regular season — was a champion again. Stewart, the Finals MVP, wore the shirt above during the Storm’s championship parade.
The definition of a power couple
Quick, name a cooler couple in sports. Didn’t think so.
Bird revealed she was gay and dating U.S. Soccer and Seattle Reign star Megan Rapinoe in an ESPN story in 2017. Days later, Rapinoe sat courtside when the Seattle Storm hosted the WNBA All-Star Game. Since, they became the first gay couple to pose in ESPN The Magazine’s Body Issue (2018) and set the bar both for their sports dominance and commitment to social justice issues.
In 2019, Bird cheered on Rapinoe in France as she won top player honors and captained the U.S. women’s national team to the Women’s World Cup title. And this summer, Rapinoe lived with Bird in the WNBA bubble in Bradenton, Florida.
But whether they’re calling for unity against racial injustice as hosts of the 2020 ESPYs with Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson, or merely hanging courtside at the 2019 NBA All-Star Weekend (below), they are a world-class athlete power couple whose popularity has spawned “Rapinoe-Bird 2020” T-shirts.
Let Russ … pay homage to Bird
Female athletes never need male athletes to justify them. But when one of the leading NFL MVP candidates arrives to his Sunday Night Football game — and his postgame news conference — wearing Bird’s Storm jersey, it’s worth taking notice.
And listening. Because Russell Wilson not only wore Bird’s jersey backward so her name and number were easily seen, the Seattle QB likened himself to Bird, who had voiced a minutelong segment that NBC aired prior to the game calling for “Russ for MVP.”
The Seahawks trailed the Minnesota Vikings by five points when Wilson orchestrated a 94-yard drive in the final 1 minute, 57 seconds, including a 39-yard completion on fourth-and-10. Seattle won on Wilson’s 6-yard touchdown pass to DK Metcalf with 15 seconds to play.
When asked about the game-winning drive, Wilson responded: “I feel like Sue Bird in the clutch.”
How it’s going
In 2015, the Storm selected Notre Dame star Jewell Loyd with the No. 1 draft pick. The following year, fresh off of four consecutive NCAA titles, Stewart became the next No. 1 overall pick to come to Seattle.
But something else important happened around that time: Though free agency loomed, Bird decided to stay put and re-signed a multiyear deal with the Storm in February 2016.
Now Seattle has won two titles in three seasons, and likely will be the preseason favorite in 2021.
Will there be more locker room champagne celebrations in Bird’s future? Bird, who was limited to 11 regular-season games this season due to knee issues but also averaged a career-best 9.2 assists per game in the playoffs, has said she hopes to play through the 2021 calendar year, which would include her 18th WNBA season and her fifth Olympics.
“The way I feel right now, if I can go through my offseason and continue to build on that in a good way,” Bird said following Seattle’s title, “I don’t see why I won’t be playing next summer.”
Now that would be a gift for us all.