On Wednesday night in Climate Pledge Arena, the Las Vegas Aces knocked the Seattle Storm out of the Women’s National Basketball Association playoffs. But after the game, fans cheered anyway. They cheered not just for a team that had played another great season but also for one player who had given them a great career.
Sue Bird played her last game on that night. She might have been born in New York, but she became the beating heart of Seattle sports for two decades.
In 2002, the Storm was only a couple of years old, part of a Women’s National Basketball Association expansion. It was coming off a losing season and, with the No. 1 pick in the draft, chose Bird.
Everything changed for the team and, more important, for its fans.
The superlatives are easy. Bird led her team to four WNBA national championships, most recently in 2020. She was a 13-time all star and was named to the All-WNBA First Team five times. She won five Olympic gold medals and four FIBA Women’s Basketball World Cup championships.
Yet the superlatives and trophies are her least important accomplishments. Bird became an icon in Seattle, a role model for uncounted young people who aspired to greatness. Young girls who started watching Bird play 21 years ago now are adults, and they had their favorite player along for the entire journey. Both on and off the court, she eschewed drama and controversy. She showed that hard work and character — and some talent — could take a person far.
Bird, who played college basketball at the University of Connecticut, embraced her new West Coast home. Fans might spot her sipping coffee or singing karaoke around town. She came out as lesbian here and fell in love here. She and her fiancée, soccer star Megan Rapinoe, live in the Queen Anne neighborhood. In 2018, the two of them became the first same-sex couple to appear on the cover of ESPN The Magazine’s “Body Issue.”
She elevated the fledgling WNBA, becoming one of the league’s first superstars. Fans this year knew she was retiring at the end of the season, and they turned out in droves to watch her final games. Attendance averaged 10,631 during the regular season, 2,000 more than the next closest team.
Immensely talented athletes often chase the dollars in free agency. Could Bird have made more on another team? It’s hard to say. What Seattleites do know is that she chose to stay here for her entire professional career, becoming a mentor to younger Storm players. That sort of loyalty is a rare, precious thing in sports and in life.
Bird is only 41 years old. She has many years ahead of her, time enough for a second act. We hope it unfolds in Seattle, where she shaped entire generations of young sports fans who had never seen anyone like her and might not again for a long time.