Start building the statue now. Scope out a spot in the rafters for the retired jersey No. 10. Reserve a prime location on Seattle’s mythical Mount Rushmore.
Those are the ceremonial trappings of Sue Bird’s magnificent career that can now be set into motion as she begins her valedictory tour of the WNBA. Her statistical body of work, the astonishing catalog of championships she’s accrued at every level of basketball, including four here in Seattle with the Storm — those are the tangible artifacts of Bird’s legacy.
But when Bird on Thursday announced she will retire at the end of this season, it was the emotional wallop the news packed that hints at the void she will leave. After 21 years, it will simply be hard to fathom that Bird will no longer be leading the Storm up the court, as she has done with such distinction through two decades and counting. Or I should say, counting down.
Bird’s regal presence, through her 20s and 30s and now into her 40s, was something you could always count on through the vicissitudes of the local sports scene, as players came and went, teams rose and fell. Certainly, Bird felt the gravitas of her decision as she addressed the media during an impromptu news conference. A wave of emotion hit Bird, and not for the last time during a mostly upbeat half-hour session, as she was talking about the physical toll the game has taken on her.
“I’m out there, I’m still able to help my team, I’m still able to perform. But I don’t feel like I’m fully myself anymore,’’ she said.
“And so there’s parts of that where it’s sad to let that go, or sad to know that that’s gone. But there’s also a realization, like, I’m 41. That’s OK, too.
“I feel like I’ve played as long as I can at a very high level, both physically and mentally, and it’s just gotten harder. So know when to say when, you know?”
It’s a reality every athlete must face eventually, even the seemingly eternal ones like Bird. And it hits every one of them right in the heart, often unexpectedly when they are sitting at the podium reflecting on their career. I’ve been to a lot of farewell news conferences, and even the coolest customers, the ones who swear they won’t break down, invariably succumb to what these days is often called “all the feels.”
Bird, who can always be counted on for an eloquent summation of the moment, put it in the proper perspective when she was discussing whether she considered this a happy or sad day. Sagely, she said it was a combination of both. She was able to reflect on the joy of playing her entire career in Seattle (“I just feel so connected to the team, to the city, to the fan base, to all the people that have come through”) and laud the mentors, teammates and friends she’s associated with along the way.
But Bird is also well aware that a major chapter of her life is nearing an end, and there’s a profound weight to that. She is coping with her own mortality, in the sports sense, and so, in a sense, are we all. Bird’s departure is another poignant reminder that we, too, are getting older.
“It’s a little bit like a mourning,’’ she said, then joked that a big reason she postponed her retirement announcement was to keep the sentimentality at bay.
“The sadness, I think, is just, how do you not get sad?’’ she mused. “I mean, this is a like a major life decision … I’ve been doing this since I was 5 or 6 years old. It’s really all I know. So, of course, I’m sad, knowing I’m going to miss it. But I mean, I’ve got no regrets. I feel wonderful about my career, the people I’ve met, the things we’ve all accomplished. And I am excited for the for the next chapter. I get to start this new life.”
Bird cited Derek Jeter, who said when he retired that he looked forward to being young again. An athlete at 41 is ancient and unable to forestall decline; but an adult at that age still can forge a productive, meaningful life — which I have little doubt Bird will do in whatever venture she chooses to pursue next (she was noncommittal on that question).
“It’s really exciting, just to know that whatever’s ahead of me, I can be young again,” Bird said. “I can try new things and see what’s out there.”
The Storm could easily provide Bird a storybook ending with a fifth WNBA title to walk away with; they have that kind of talent, and Bird is still a significant contributor. But she said she will be content even if that doesn’t happen.
“The reality is one season, one game, one moment — it doesn’t change your career.”
As much as the rings and trophy celebrations, Bird said she’ll miss the camaraderie with teammates. And also the arduous days in the gym and on the court, the grueling monotony of preparing for a season.
“Those offseasons are long, but I always had a purpose,’’ Bird said. “When I woke up in the morning, I always knew I had to get my workout in because I was getting ready for a season. And I think even though, believe me, there’s tons of wonderful things to look forward to — like not setting alarms, and going on vacations, all the things that a basketball schedule keeps you from, and I’m looking forward to those — I think I will miss a little bit of that purpose and a little bit of that grind, right? The grind and the hard parts. Those are the good stuff. Like, that’s what makes you a professional athlete.”
Bird has been an exemplary member of that community for about as long as most of us can remember. The fact that she gets to go out on her terms, with a treasure trove of memories left behind, makes this a happy day. But the fact we won’t get to see her play much longer makes it a sad one.