Sue Bird no longer wears the clear plastic facemask she donned during the 2018 WNBA Finals to protect a broken nose and became a symbol of toughness among her legion of fans.
These days, the Storm point guard walks around IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla. sporting a surgical mask, a must-have accessory inside the WNBA bubble, which has remarkably kept the coronavirus at bay the past three months.
Still, Bird sat down in front of a camera on the eve of her fourth WNBA Finals sporting the remnants of a black eye.
“She banged into my cheek,” Bird said while detailing a collision weeks ago with Dallas forward Satou Sabally. “Must be a pretty hard cheek because she was concussed and I got a nice shiner.”
When asked to describe this season, Bird, the WNBA’s oldest player who turns 40 in two weeks, said it has been the most difficult season during her 19 years in the WNBA.
At least three times, she used the word “endured,” to punctuate the hurdles and challenges the No. 2 seed Storm and No. 1 Las Vegas Aces needed to overcome to reach the best-of-five championship series that begins 4 p.m. Friday.
“This has probably been one of the more challenging seasons for me personally,” Bird said while noting the bone bruise in her left knee that forced her to miss 11 of the 22 regular-season games. “It’s been well documented that I’ve had my fair share of injuries, but the truth is I missed two WNBA seasons and other than that, I’ve never been out this much. Usually, when I’m in, I’m in.
“This has been mentally challenging for sure. Physically challenging in that the two incidents, I’ve had that happen to me literally three times in my WNBA life and two times have been in the past month in a half. It feels like just bad luck and I’m just trying to not think too much about it. Not get too bogged down. It’s not easy because I wanted to be out there playing.”
Bird has put so much into this year after sitting out in 2019 following arthroscopic surgery on her left knee.
But then COVID-19 hit and delayed the start of the 2020 season. In her role as vice president of the Women’s National Basketball Players Association, Bird worked with the league on safety protocols to conduct a shortened 22-game regular-season schedule inside of a bubble.
And then Louisville police officers killed Breonna Taylor in March, which preceded a summer of racial reckoning across the country and prompted the WNBA to dedicate its season to the 26-year-old Black woman. Bird, who championed equal pay for women athletes and LGBTQ rights, suddenly became a vocal advocate for racial justice.
“In some ways, the off-the-court stuff was easier for me just because that’s how I’m wired,” Bird said. “I see a problem or a situation and I’m thinking, ‘OK, how can we solve this? What can we do? How do we mobilize?’”
On the court, Bird’s season came to a halt after three games following a knee-to-knee collision that forced her to miss five games. She came back to play four games before stiffness in the knee returned her to the sideline for four games.
Then Bird ran into Sabally and missed the final two regular-season games. The Storm guard turned in two muted performances to start the WNBA semifinals before tallying 16 points, nine assists and three three-pointers in Game 3 to eliminate No. 4 Minnesota 92-71 on Sunday.
“Being in and out and in and out, that’s been tough,” said Bird, who has averaged a career-low 9.8 points while shooting a career high 49.4% from the floor and 46.9% on three-pointers. “It’s probably been the most mentally challenging season I’ve ever been in. And then you add all the wubble aspects to it, but those pale in comparison to be honest to what I’m feeling from a basketball standpoint.
“Right when I was getting into my groove, I had to sit down again. So that’s kind of disappointing. But I’ve also learned through my career, I can handle a lot mentally.”
Bird laughs when she’s called the Iron Lady who has spent nearly half of her life in the WNBA. But that’s what she is.
Her 17 seasons on the court and handful of WNBA all-time records is the byproduct of her commitment to a training and diet regimen that’s inspired young female athletes the way 40-year-old Tom Brady is a role model for football players.
“To be honest, if you were to go read a book or Google something on athletes and longevity, it’s usually based on studies that have been done on men,” Bird said. “For me, it was important to surround myself with people who were going to do things geared for women and an athlete like myself. People weren’t doing this 10 years ago.”
Five years ago, Bird adopted a rigorous routine developed by Storm trainer Susan Borchardt and nutrition consultant Dr. Susan Kleiner, which includes yoga, massages and a gluten-free diet during the season.
“I definitely subscribe to the 80-20,” said Bird, who loves sweet potatoes and avocados. “Eighty percent of the time, I’m on it. I don’t budge and follow my plan. But then you do have to have a certain amount of time when you let yourself live. You go out with friends. You have some drinks. You eat the pizza. That for me is important to have that balance.
“When you’re operating in that 80, it can be hard at times. But just like anything, when you go through it and you see the results, that’s the motivator. You know what you’re doing is going to work and you know that you’re going to benefit from it.”
Aside from the knee injury, Bird has shown no signs of decline or given any indication when she’ll end her spectacular career. She’s expressed a desire to play in next year’s Tokyo Summer Olympics and doesn’t sound like someone pondering retirement.
Still, Bird recognizes better than anyone how special it is to return to the WNBA Finals, where she has an 8-1 record.
With three more wins, Bird becomes the 10th player in league history with four WNBA titles. Rebekkah Brunson is the only player with five championships.
“They do start to feel (special) and you start to hold on to them a little more,” Bird said. “When you’re younger you kind of think it’s always going to happen.
“Then you start to realize just how hard it is. When you’re in the moment, you really start to grab at it because you know it can slip away.”