When the all-day lovefest for Sue Bird was over, and the scores of posters expressing pure adulation had been taken down as the record crowd dispersed, the woman of the hour reflected on what it all meant.
Specifically, she was asked what the rookie version of herself would have thought of Sunday’s raucous celebration at Climate Pledge Arena as Bird played her final home regular-season game for the Storm at nearly 42. It has been 21 years of first earning respect from the fan base (and the league at large), and then admiration, and finally devotion and deep affection.
“I think 21-year-old me would be surprised I’m still going,” she said with a laugh. “Not because she didn’t think I had it in me. She wouldn’t have even thought those things. So I think she’d be really proud. And, you know, she’s still inside here.”
Along with everything else, all the tributes and rapturous ovations, it was a day of connections — between Bird and her youthful self, between Bird and the adoring fans, Bird and her family and friends, who all poured into Climate Pledge to tell Sue goodbye (at least until the Storm return for a playoff game, which Bird vowed would happen).
But mostly, it was a day that connected the WNBA’s past with what appears to be a bountiful future, as reflected in the woman who has become synonymous with Seattle and the league itself. And as the last player standing from the WNBA’s early days, Bird watched with almost maternal pride as she prepares to pass the baton to the likes of Breanna Stewart, A’ja Wilson and Kelsey Plum.
It was almost an afterthought that the Las Vegas Aces of Wilson and Plum defeated the Storm, 89-81. But it was hard to ignore the sellout crowd of 18,100 at Climate Pledge Arena — largest ever to see the Storm play — and the energy that crackled through the arena starting hours before tip-off, right through Bird’s brief but heartfelt postgame address (she promised a much more thorough one at a later date).
“I’ve played here 21 years, so I know my name has become synonymous with this franchise,” she said. “And it’s become a little bit of a household name in the city, in this community. … But what I represent is all the players who have played here, all the championships we’ve won, all the coaches who have come through, everyone who’s come through the front office, everyone who’s been on staff here, you name it.
“I’m just that one name. So I think today was, yes, in honor of me, and people showed up and showed out for sure. It really was amazing, but I think it’s really, truly a celebration of Storm basketball … because I am kind of Storm basketball.”
Mind you, that’s a statement made with no ego or self-promotion. If anything, it’s Bird trying to deflect the attention that’s been flooding down on her ever since she announced her pending retirement in June. But there is also a sense of keen pride in watching the steady advancement of the WNBA, and seeing next-generation players in their mid-20s such as Stewart and Wilson — the two leading lights of Team USA — continuing their fierce MVP battle with brilliant efforts (35 points and 10 rebounds for Stewart, 29 points for Wilson).
“The WNBA has turned a corner recently in the last couple of years in terms of popularity, in terms of notoriety, people talking about us, covering the story lines, marketing opportunities,” Bird said. “And that wasn’t always the case.
“But the one thing we could always count on was the product on the floor was going to be amazing. And I personally feel — and I’m sure I have bias — that my generation, and I could sit here and name names for days, that generation of player, we kept the league afloat. When we weren’t getting the money, we kept the league afloat with our play.
“And I think what that has done is allowed these players now to have these amazing opportunities … it’s exciting to know we have players like that who can kind of take that torch and carry it. And they’re going to have to set it up for the next generation. That’s just how it works.”
As for Bird, she had her moments Sunday that awakened memories of her glorious past — a deft pass to set up a Tina Charles basket, a pullup midrange jumper, a three-point shot from the corner, a fast-break layup ahead of the pack after a long pass from Stewie. She ended up with nine points and six assists, and allowed herself a moment to reflect on the relentless consistency and cerebral prowess of her two-decade career.
“I relish in the fact that teams have to game plan for me,” she said, “because I’m not the quickest. I’m not the most athletic. I’m not jumping over you. Maybe not in the last couple years, but I know for a really long time there you had to talk about me in shoot-around. You had to try to figure out what to do with me, because I played it my way. I used my smarts. … I wouldn’t say I’m unique in any way. I think what I do a lot of players can do. But I just found ways to always be consistent with it. And it became a mind game out there. And that’s when I would thrive.”
The days of watching Bird unleash her mind game are counting down. But the memories will be eternal, which is why so many fans (and players) had tears in their eyes, knowing that soon the memories will be all that’s remaining.
Pokey Chatman, Seattle’s acting coach Sunday, was asked about the “haters” who refuse to acknowledge the growth of the WNBA that Bird helped engender.
“Listen, the game is tremendous,” she said. “People feel it. That’s always our niche in women’s basketball at the professional level. You feel it, you take us home with you. You feel like you know a Sue Bird, because that’s how we market the game. And it’s very intentional. And haters going to hate, but they can’t deny what’s being built around the world. But especially in Seattle, with women’s basketball. … Sue embodies the GOAT spirit.”
The 21-year-old that still lives within the legendary point guard was no doubt smiling at that.