Two weeks ago, Sue Bird carved out 20 minutes in her busy schedule for an interview to talk about her fifth trip to the Summer Olympics, which began with Friday’s Opening Ceremony.
We’ve chatted like this many times in the past, including in 2016 before she traveled to the Rio Games, where she won a fourth Olympic gold medal and met U.S. women’s soccer star Megan Rapinoe.
Five years later, they return to the Summer Games as the power couple at the Olympics.
So, the idea was to chat with Bird about her fiancée Rapinoe, what motivates the Storm star, who is pursuing a record fifth straight Olympic gold medal, and what makes the Tokyo Games special from the rest.
But then, midway through the interview she casually says: “This is definitely my last Olympics. That’s for sure. I can confidently say that.”
Wait … what?
The words spill out so nonchalantly, and the Storm star is surprised why anybody would be surprised by her admission.
“I think it’s time,” Bird said. “I think there’s a variety of reasons if that makes sense. But I’m done.”
At face value, perhaps it’s not so shocking that the 40-year-old Bird, who is the oldest player in the WNBA, plans to retire from Olympic competition following the Tokyo Games.
Bird was noncommittal about returning with the U.S. women’s national team for the 2022 FIBA Women’s Basketball World Cup in Sydney, Australia.
And when the conversation shifted to her future with the Storm beyond the 2021 season, she gave a version of the patented response that she’s delivered for nearly a decade, which goes: “I’ll have to listen to my body and if I’m healthy and able, then why wouldn’t I play?”
But when it comes to the Olympics, Bird repeatedly affirmed that this will be the last time she suits up in the red, white and blue.
To those within Bird’s inner circle, it’s not a secret. She’s shared her plans with Rapinoe, family members and friends.
However, in keeping with her team-first personality, the last thing Bird wants to do is to take any focus away from the mission at hand, which is Team USA’s bid for a seventh straight gold medal.
So Bird hasn’t spoken publicly about this being the end of her Olympic career. A handful of her U.S. women’s basketball teammates, including Storm star Jewell Loyd, said Bird has not told the team about her plans to retire from Olympic competition.
“I don’t talk a lot about it because that’s not what the story needs to be,” Bird said. “That’s just one element to it all. We still have to go there and take care of business. But I can’t imagine playing in another Olympics.”
In many ways, it’s difficult to imagine a world where the seemingly ageless and indomitable Sue Bird, who has dunked on Father Time, isn’t playing basketball on the biggest stage in the sport.
“Once you hit 40, three years is like dog years,” said Bird who would be 43 ahead of the 2024 Paris Games. “What’s dog years? (Multiplied by) seven? I forget. So, it’s 21 years away. I just feel that I’m in a place to say this is my last Olympics.”
For the past two decades, Bird, who is arguably the greatest point guard in women’s basketball history, has been synonymous with three basketball teams.
After winning NCAA titles in 2000 and 2002 at the University of Connecticut, the former No. 1 overall WNBA draft pick collected four league championships with the Storm in 2004, 2010, 2018 and 2020.
However, Bird’s tenure with USA Basketball has been the most dominant during a career that will send her to the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame.
In the international realm, Bird is the most decorated basketball player, male or female, in the history of the sport with a combined nine Olympic and FIBA World Cup medals.
She’s won four straight Olympic gold medals in 2004, 2008, 2012 and 2016. And Bird has also claimed FIBA World Cups gold medals in 2002, 2010, 2014 and 2018 and a bronze medal in 2006.
“Sue’s legacy is the fact that she’s a legend,” said Storm forward Breanna Stewart, who is making her second trip to the Olympics with Team USA. “She’s a leader. She’s all the things. And she’s Sue Bird. If you say Sue Bird, everybody knows who that is and knows what that means on and off the basketball court.
“For what she’s done for the WNBA and for USA Basketball, it’s like no other. It’s something that is going to be very hard to top. She will definitely leave USA Basketball better than when she first came.”
Well, that would be true if Bird, Stewart and a collection of WNBA stars can continue Team USA’s 49-game winning streak at the Summer Games.
However, the U.S. women’s national team appears to be surprisingly vulnerable for the first time since its last Olympic defeat in 1992.
On July 14, Team USA lost 93-85 to the WNBA All-Stars before falling two days later to Australia 70-67 in a pair of exhibitions. The U.S. rebounded with a 93-62 blowout win over Nigeria in its final pre-Olympic tune up.
“If anything, those losses could end up being our biggest wins,” Bird said before Monday’s 9:40 p.m. PT rematch with Nigeria in the first of three preliminary Olympic Games.
Due to a revamped format, 12 qualifying teams are divided into three pools of four and compete in a round-robin format, with each team playing the other teams in its group for a total of three games each.
The U.S. is in Pool B with Japan, Nigeria and France.
The first and second-place teams in each pool and the two best third-place teams overall advance to the knockout rounds. The quarterfinals begin Aug. 4 while the semifinals are Aug. 6. The bronze medal game is scheduled for Aug. 7 and gold medal game is Aug. 8.
“The goal is always gold,” Stewart said. “To know that this could potentially be Sue’s last Olympics, we want to make sure that we send her out on the right note. That goes for everything.
“Because Jewell and I have the opportunity to play with her in Seattle, we appreciate all of our opportunities with her and make sure we’re doing the best we can. We hope she’ll play forever, but chances are she won’t.”
When Bird was a prep standout at Christ the King Regional High in New York, her basketball role model was point guard Jennifer Azzi, who was one of the many standouts on the 1996 U.S. women’s national team that started a streak of six straight Olympic gold medals.
During her Olympic debut in 2004, Bird was a backup behind Dawn Staley, who now coaches the U.S. women’s national team.
And now Bird is ready to pass the baton — or basketball, in this case — to the next generation of WNBA stars, including Olympic first-timers Chelsea Gray and Skylar Diggins-Smith.
“Look, I have no doubt that USA Basketball and women’s basketball for that matter will be in great hands with these kids — I can call them kids — that will be stars and already are stars in our league,” Bird said. “The game has gotten so much better than when I first entered. The players are better in terms of bigger, stronger, faster and more skilled, and that’s what you want to see.
“This next wave of players, let’s call them the third wave or maybe the fourth wave, are in a better place to push the game forward because they grew up in a world where the WNBA existed. That wasn’t the case when I was growing up. … Back then, after college you played in the Olympics if you were good enough and maybe you played overseas.”
Perhaps as an homage to her greatness, the United States Olympic Committee selected Bird and baseball player Eddy Alvarez as Team USA flag bearers for the Opening Ceremony.
“I wasn’t anticipating this,” Bird said. “Totally unexpected. But it’s something that’s joyous and something to be celebrated. It’s a moment that, not that you don’t carry the gold medals with you forever. You do. But there’s something about being a flag bearer that … I think is this lifelong memory that I’ll always have and not many people get to claim that.”
Bird said one of her favorite Olympic memories came in 2004 when she participated in the Opening Ceremony in which Staley was the Team USA flag bearer.
When asked why the USOC selected her to lead the American athletes Friday night, the deferential Bird was forced to acknowledge her incredible career in what felt like a retirement speech.
“The Olympics, you think about how difficult it is to get here and how difficult it is to win, and I think what I embody is someone who has been somebody who has been able to stay at that high level for a very long period of time,” she said. “I’ve been told today a number of times that I’m the oldest to do this. I know within USA Basketball I have the most world championship appearances and now tying Teresa Edwards for the most Olympic appearances.
“So, I think there’s something that athletes respect about longevity because they all know how hard it is to stay on top of your game. So, I think they see that within me. And then, what I hope they see is someone who is a leader, is selfless, tries to play the right way and tries to win. Period. No matter what it takes. Hopefully the combination of all that is why they selected me.”