You could say that Sue Bird’s decision to return for one more year – she’s not quite ready to say one last year – took shape last September in Everett, at the precise moment when everyone was wondering if they had just seen her final game.
And it was the thunderous chant of “One More Year!” by the 5,375 fans at Angel of the Winds Arena that knocked the gnawing thoughts of retirement right out of Bird’s head.
Sitting at the Storm Championship Center podium on Tuesday to discuss her return for a 19th season with the Storm (spread over 21 years), Bird said the impromptu but robust plea by the fans resonated far more profoundly than they might have imagined.
“I think that (retirement) was kind of circulating in my head throughout last season,’’ Bird said. “And when the final game came, and when the final buzzer went off (signifying a season-ending playoff loss to Phoenix), I knew immediately that could have been it. And then the fans chanted, and I think it just gave me this whole other perspective on things. I never thought this was just about me, but that really made me realize this decision is not just about me.”
Bird put it bluntly at another juncture of the press conference: “If that chant hadn’t happened, I don’t think that I’d be sitting here.”
Bird, 41, long ago secured her place as one of the most beloved, and certainly the most decorated, athletes in Seattle sports history. She is keenly aware of being a first-hand participant in the sometimes bumpy rise of the WNBA, and is able to joke about the touchstones of her longevity.
“It was probably 10 or 15 years ago, the first time I stepped on the court against an opposing player and they whispered in my ear, ‘I had your poster on my wall growing up.’ Now you fast-forward and it’s just increasing in a way,’’ she said.
“It kind of dawned on me in a conversation a couple days ago. I’m the only player currently that played with and against not only Lisa (Leslie) and Sheryl (Swoopes), but also against Rebecca (Lobo). You know, the three founding women for this league. I’ve worn all the uniforms. I’ve pretty much seen it all. It’s mind blowing to think about all the changes that I’ve seen, to know I’ve been a part of it, but also just a witness.”
And it is that living history she exudes, on top of her warm and endearing personality, on top of being, in the words of Storm coach Noelle Quinn, “obviously the best point guard to have ever played our game,” that has made Bird seem to Storm fans almost like part of their family. And caused them, almost by osmosis, to send the strong message they weren’t ready to see her leave quite yet.
“I don’t know every single fan personally,’’ Bird said. “But there is a relationship that gets built. I really feel like they’ve watched me grow up. They’ve seen my evolution as a player, as a person. They’ve had literally front-row seats to it.
“I’ve said this before: My first couple years, they were kids who were maybe like 2, 3, 4. There were moms who were pregnant. And now those kids are 20. I’ve seen some of their kids grow up. So there is just something that connects us.”
After the Phoenix loss, Bird spent about three days weighing her future, with the chant still ringing in her ears.
“And very quickly, I was kind of like, ‘All right, I think I want to play again. So let me act as if I am,’ ” she said.
Bird contacted her trainer, Susan Borchardt, to tell her she needed to prepare for another season. She informed Storm management to proceed as if she was coming back – “and if something changes, I’ll let you know.”
Bird then took to the court to assess whether her body could withstand the rigors of another season.
“The last couple of years have taught me a lot about my body and different alarm bells, if you will, that can go off,’’ she said. “No alarm bells, so I was good to go. And that was really the final hurdle for being like, ‘All right, let’s do this.’ ’’
Bird on Tuesday was admittedly a bit bleary eyed from a 2:30 a.m. wakeup call to watch her fiancée, Megan Rapinoe, speak about the U.S. women’s soccer team’s settlement of their equal-pay lawsuit against the U.S. Soccer Federation. Bird called the $24 million settlement “such a turning point for women’s soccer, but also for women in sport and women in general. … What Megan did today with her teammates is going to impact my friends’ kids and maybe anyone in this audience who has daughters, so it is pretty amazing.”
As for her own future, Bird laughed when the first question at the press conference was about whether 2022 would truly be her last year.
“I should have said $100 if that’s not the first question,’’ she joked to Quinn and Storm general manager Talisa Rhea, sitting next to her on the stage.
Earlier, Quinn had perhaps inadvertently delivered the news when she said, “For this season, I know it’s going to be her finale, but I’m not even thinking about that.”
But Bird, in answering the question she knew was coming, wasn’t as definitive as her coach – if only to circumvent the pomp and fuss she knows would accompany such an announcement.
“It’s interesting,’’ she said. “I’ve used the term ‘one more year,’ I’ve said, ‘another year.’ I think it’s assumed to be my last, and I do believe all arrows are pointing in that direction.
“For some reason, I don’t necessarily want to operate in that space because I think, for my personality, it doesn’t necessarily fit. For every game I go into to be ‘Oh, this is Sue’s last time in this city,’ and ‘This is Sue’s last time putting her shoe on.’
“I don’t really operate that space well, but I understand that kind of comes with it. … I really want to make this about a celebration for everyone. It’s not just about me. I don’t think my career has ever been just about me. So I would love for it to be a celebration of all things Seattle Storm.”
It seems obvious where this is headed. But when the 2022 Storm season ends – with what Bird hopes is her fifth WNBA title – no doubt the fans will try to change her mind one more time.
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