Entering her 18th year in the WNBA, Sue Bird had a bad feeling this offseason was a little different from others.
The Storm’s 38-year-old superstar retired from playing overseas in 2014, which gives her seven months away from basketball to recover and prepare for the league’s truncated summer season.
However, a few weeks before training camp, her surgically repaired left knee didn’t feel right.
“I’ve had numerous surgeries, so obviously things are going to be a little banged up in there,” said Bird, who has suffered from bone spurs and chronic arthritis in her knee for years. “This was like something is different.
“OK, take a week off and try again. Yeah, but something is different. I can’t sprint. That’s not good.”
After a slew of examinations and MRIs, doctors found what Bird said was a “loose bone” the size of a golf ball in her left knee that needs to be removed by surgery, which will keep her out indefinitely.
Dr. Michael Joyce will perform the surgery. In 2013, he also surgically removed a cyst from her left knee that forced her to miss the season.
The Storm did not specify a timetable on Bird’s return, but in similar cases typical recovery requires eight to 10 weeks.
“It’s surgery, so you never know what’s going to happen,” said Bird, who acknowledged there’s a possibility she could sit out the entire 2019 season. “Obviously, you have to have an awareness of that, but as an athlete the way I’ve always approached it is like I’m getting this to make me better. I’m getting this to extend my career.”
Losing the 11-time WNBA All-Star is another devastating blow to the 2018 WNBA champions, who still are coming to grips with the absence of reigning league MVP Breanna Stewart, who is out for the season after tearing her right Achilles tendon.
Additionally, coach Dan Hughes’ availability for the season opener Saturday against Phoenix is uncertain after he underwent surgery to remove a cancerous tumor last week.
Bird becomes the latest WNBA star who will miss at least a significant portion of the season joining Phoenix’s Diana Taurasi (back), Atlanta’s Angel McCoughtry (knee), Dallas’ Skylar Diggins-Smith (pregnancy) and Minnesota’s Maya Moore, who is taking the season off for personal reasons.
“There’s a lot of players that are out right now that are synonymous with the WNBA,” Bird said. “It’s the life of an athlete and you have to deal with it.
“Had I been able to figure out this out, which there was no way to figure out, five months ago maybe have the surgery then and I’m fine. But timing is what it is. There was no way to know.”
Before her latest setback, Bird showed no signs of slowing down.
Despite playing her 16th season, she was at the top of her game in 2018 while averaging a personal-best 7.1 assists. She also shot 46.6% from the field and 44.8% on three-pointers – both career highs.
Bird, who averaged 10.1 points and 1.1 steals, started 31 games as the Storm compiled a league-best 26-8 record and captured the No. 1 playoff seed.
“She’s a legendary point guard and it’s like having another coach out there running your team,” interim coach Gary Kloppenburg said. “She sees one play ahead. You really put your faith in her when she’s out there. She’s just an outstanding leader.”
Bird was at her best in the postseason last year, including a spellbinding performance in Game 5 of the WNBA semifinals.
Two days after breaking her nose in an 86-84 defeat at Phoenix, Bird donned a face mask and led a late-game comeback while scoring 14 of her 22 points in the fourth quarter of a series-clinching 94-84 victory.
“Fortunately, I’ve played in a lot big games in my career, but I can say with a fair amount of certainty that when it’s all said and done, that (Game 5 against Phoenix) will probably rank up there at the top in terms of my best games,” said Bird, a four-time Olympic gold medalist and two-time NCAA champion. “Normally, I’m getting other people the ball so they can make shots, and that time I got a few to go down.
“When you consider the circumstances, who we were playing against, it was Dee (Taurasi) and Phoenix. Great crowd. At home. We were down for most of that game. And it being a loser-go-home game, yeah, it doesn’t get better than that if you’re able to pull it out and go the Finals.”
Bird and the Storm won their third WNBA championship following a 3-0 sweep over the Washington Mystics. She tallied 10 points and 10 assists in the 98-82 clincher.
Before Bird’s injury, the Storm was a longshot to win a second consecutive title. Las Vegas oddsmakers gave Seattle 14-to-1 odds, which ranked seventh in the 12-team league.
Without Stewart and Bird, the Storm will be hard-pressed to finish among the top eight teams that advance to the playoffs.
Fifth-year veteran guard Jewell Loyd, a first-time All-Star last year and the team’s leading returning scorer (15.5 points a game), becomes the No. 1 scoring option. She has a team-high 16.0 scoring average in the preseason for the Storm, which was 0-2 in exhibitions.
Seattle also will lean heavily on forwards Natasha Howard, who had a breakout season in 2018, two-time All-Star Crystal Langhorne and defensive ace Alysha Clark.
“Any team in this league wants to get the playoffs and get to the championships,” said Jordin Canada, who replaces Bird at point guard. “Obviously, it might be a little more difficult considering the circumstances that we’re under, but our mindset remains the same. We want to have a chance to defend our title and make it to the playoffs.”
Meanwhile, Bird is forced to contemplate an uncertain future that includes months of rehabilitation.
“As an athlete at my age especially, you have to have an understanding that this is not going to last forever,” she said. “And I’m very aware of that. … I’ve started to make plans for my post-playing career in my own little mind. I don’t know exactly, but it’s in the back of my mind.”
Bird, who is in the final year of her contract with the Storm, intends to return next season to Seattle for another run at a title. She’s also targeted a trip to the 2020 Summer Olympics.
And yet, the future Hall of Famer acknowledged she might have played her final game last September while leading Team USA to a gold medal in the FIBA Women’s Basketball World Cup in San Cristobal de la Laguna, Spain.
“There are days when I’m like hey, if that was my last game and this (surgery) doesn’t work out then I can live that,” she said. “This knee has been through it and I’ve squeezed 38 years out of it.
“Simultaneously, I want more. … You try to have those retirement and end-of-career thoughts become less and less and just focus on what you have to do. I don’t know. That’s kind of where I’m at and it’s not a bad place to be.”