For the past 4-5 years, at the start of every WNBA season someone invariably asks Sue Bird, the league’s oldest player who turns 40 in October, if this year will be her last.
Breaking from tradition, the Storm’s star point guard voluntarily brought up retirement during a Saturday interview via Zoom to explain why she’s resuming a Hall of Fame-bound career amid a coronavirus pandemic after missing last year due to injury.
“If I didn’t play basketball this summer, I don’t know, I might have been done,” said Bird, who sat out last season following arthroscopic surgery on her left knee in May 2019. “That’s just a reality. This isn’t me wanting to retire. This is not me wanting to stop playing.
“I was highly motivated to play. I don’t think that clouded my judgment in terms of my outlook on the virus and whatnot.”
If anything, Bird, who enters her 17th WNBA season, is more focused than ever before. COVID-19 did that.
At the onset of the pandemic, the virus forced lockdowns across the country and Bird sheltered at her apartment in Greenwich, Connecticut, with soccer superstar girlfriend Megan Rapinoe.
“The hardest part with all of us during the pandemic was getting access to basketball courts,” said Bird, who hosted a series of homemade shows called “A Touch More” with Rapinoe to pass the time. “Luckily I have some friends in some high places who have their own private courts at their homes.
“Probably some time in early June, I was able to touch the basketball and start to shoot a little bit. And then middle of June, I was in Seattle and that’s when we had access to the facility.”
The Storm’s practice at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida, on Friday night was the first time Bird was on the court with her Seattle teammates since sweeping the Washington Mystics to claim the WNBA title in September 2018.
“(It) was the first time I had somebody touch me on the court so that was kind of weird,” Bird said, laughing. “I think we’re all kind of in the same boat so we’re just getting through it and getting used to contact, because it’s a whole different beast once people start hitting each other.”
Still, Bird has returned from long layoffs before.
In 2013, she had a cyst surgically removed from her left knee, which forced her to miss the season. It took the 11-time WNBA All-Star roughly two years to return to her lofty standards while the Storm missed the playoffs in 2014 and ’15.
Not surprisingly, Bird’s revival coincided with the arrival of Breanna Stewart, the WNBA’s No. 1 overall draft pick in 2016 and two-time league All-Star.
When Stewart captured WNBA MVP honors in 2018, Bird returned to the top of her game while averaging a personal-best 7.1 assists and shooting a career-high 46.6 percent from the field and 44.8 percent on three-pointers.
Despite playing a career-low 26.5 minutes per game, she averaged 10.1 points, 1.7 rebounds and 1.1 steals while starting 31 games as the Storm compiled a league-best 26-8 record and captured the No. 1 playoff seed.
The Storm is closely monitoring Bird and Stewart, who missed the 2019 season due to an Achilles injury, with plans to slowly ease them into training camp ahead of a shortened 22-game regular season that’s set to start in late July.
“We’ve only had one practice, but from what I saw yesterday, Sue looks very good and very healthy,” said Jordin Canada, who filled in for Bird last year and tallied career highs in points (9.8), rebounds (2.4) and assists (5.2) while leading the WNBA with 2.3 steals. “She’s moving great. She’s very mobile.
“I’m just excited to play against her in practice and learn from her even more and to play with her once we start.”
Coach Gary Kloppenburg anticipates Canada, who underwent arthroscopic surgery on both knees last October, will return to the bench. The Storm is also expected to use lineups with Canada leading the offense and Bird moving off the ball.
Bird’s perimeter shooting should bolster a team that was sixth in the 12-team league last year while shooting 33.6 percent on three-pointers.
Additionally, Bird’s experience is invaluable at a time when coach Dan Hughes, who guided the Storm to the 2018 WNBA title, is staying home due to health concerns.
“She’s like a coach out there,” Kloppenburg said. “I talk to her all the time and I always want get her input on the pulse of the team.
“She’s a calm leader. She’s intelligent. She has a great rapport about her. Great communications skills with us as a staff and with her teammates. It’s a luxury that very few coaches at any level have that to have somebody like that as your leader out there.”
Bird, who is the WNBA Players Association vice president, has stressed to teammates the importance of adhering to the safety protocols inside the bubble.
“Sue has been really strict on the quarantine and we’ve been trying to follow the rules,” newcomer Epiphanny Prince said. “Sue has been so vocal and informative about this whole process.”
Bird admits she’s highly invested in this season for obvious reasons.
The Storm, which returns its top players from a team that finished 18-16 last season, is considered one of the preseason favorites and this could be Bird’s easiest — and perhaps last — chance at a fourth WNBA title.
“This is all one big game of trust,” Bird said. “I think (the bubble) is set up for success. It’s set up for us to do well and complete the season. With that, there’s a virus that no one has any control over. But that’s where it comes back to the trust.
“Coming into this experience, I felt comfortable that we would be able to trust each other. Obviously, things change and you can’t control everything, but for me that comfort level was there.”