To think, the Storm could have lost the WNBA draft lottery after finishing tied with three other teams — the Detroit Shock, the Washington Mystics, and the Indiana Fever — for the worst record in the 2002 season.
Under previous rules, in fact, the Mystics would have been handed No. 1 by virtue of a tiebreaking formula the league decided to discontinue. What a legacy changer that would have been.
Or the Storm could have traded the No. 1 overall pick, as coach/general manager Lin Dunn seriously contemplated, or used the selection on Oklahoma guard Stacey Dales-Schuman, as The Seattle Times had forecast in its mock draft.
Instead, the fledgling organization, born just two years earlier, came to its senses, embraced its serendipity, and used the pick on a 5-foot-9 point guard from Connecticut named Sue Bird.
It was the best decision the Storm would ever make, one that changed the course of its history.
As Dunn said on draft day, “Our team got better when we started thinking about selecting Sue Bird.”
The entirety of Seattle sports — of Seattle, period — got immeasurably better with her arrival, in fact. Bird has been a beacon of professionalism, athletic excellence and community involvement ever since.
And here we are, 20 seasons later, still watching her excel on the court after getting to witness, in time-lapse fashion, Bird’s evolution from eye-popping youngster to eminent elder stateswoman.
The Storm announced Monday that Bird will be back in 2021 to play her 18th season with the team, having missed two full seasons (2013 and 2019) following knee surgery. Every year, you wonder if she can muster the will to give it another go — and then give thanks when she does.
This is a perfect time to reflect, yet again, on just what a magnificent run it has been for Bird in Seattle. The mere act of staying 20 years with just one organization stamps her as a sporting unicorn, on par with luminaries such as Kobe Bryant, Derek Jeter, Cal Ripken Jr. and Steve Yzerman.
But Bird has done it with flair and unending accomplishment. Teaming with Lauren Jackson, she helped lead a Storm team that had finished 6-26 and 10-22 in its first two years of existence to WNBA titles in 2004 and 2010.
When injuries forced Jackson out, a brilliant new on-court partner for Bird emerged in Breanna Stewart. Bird added titles in 2018 and 2020, and credited Stewart with reinvigorating her career, along with Jewell Loyd. Bird had seriously contemplated leaving Seattle via free agency after the 2015 season but recommitted to the organization, with a renaissance not far off in the future.
“I haven’t said this to her face — I’ve said it publicly — but (Stewart) saved my career. I’m not even being dramatic about that,” Bird said in October in an interview on “All The Smoke with Matt Barnes and Stephen Jackson” on the Showtime Basketball YouTube Channel.
“I was at a point where it was kind of like, it was 2016, I’m 36, I’ve done a lot but I’ve also had to endure a lot with my body, some injuries. And then we get with her and Jewell Loyd, who got drafted the year before, these youngsters, it was like this breath of fresh air. It took over our franchise, it took over me. I had this new purpose, which was to help them out.”
The four WNBA titles (a matching set with four Olympic gold medals and four World Cup championships, plus two NCAA national championships with Connecticut) are a large part of Bird’s legacy. The mounting statistical milestones (most assists and games played in WNBA history, most points and steals in Storm history — and that’s just a small slice) are yet another.
Bird’s off-court achievements are notable as well. Her social-justice advocacy is gaining force with every season. Bird and soccer star Megan Rapinoe, who announced their engagement in October, are one of the leading power couples in sports. Bird is active in the WNBA union as vice president of the players association and helped spearhead the movement to elect Rev. Raphael Warnock over Atlanta Dream co-owner Kelly Loeffler in the Georgia senatorial race.
If and when she does retire, Bird has a vast array of options at her disposal. She could go into broadcasting, having dabbled in commentary on ESPN. She could embrace NBA front-office work after a stint doing scouting and other basketball-operations duties for the Denver Nuggets two years ago. Bird could tackle coaching, politics or some other realm that captures her passion.
We know in our hearts that Bird can’t stay on the court forever, and the end is nearing for her career. Bird missed half of the regular-season games in last year’s season shortened by COVID-19 after suffering a knee bruise, and she admitted it had never been harder to muster the determination to persevere.
Yet when the lights shone brightest in the postseason, Bird rose up to play magnificently in leading the way to another Storm title. After setting a WNBA Finals record with 16 assists in Game 1, she broke the overall mark with 33 assists as Seattle swept Las Vegas. The words of coach Gary Kloppenburg had never rung more true: “Sue knows you’re open before you’re open.”
As Storm co-owner Lisa Brummel said this week, Bird has earned the right to determine where and when she wants to end her career. One can only hope she isn’t lured away for a random season in some far-flung locale, jarring the senses like Johnny Unitas in San Diego or Joe Namath with the L.A. Rams. Bird is as ingrained in Seattle’s consciousness as the Space Needle and views of Mount Rainier.
It wasn’t always that way. After the draft, a few days before Bird was introduced locally for the first time during a timeout of a Sonics playoff game at packed KeyArena, she told the media what she knew about this mysterious place, 3,000 miles away from home:
“I definitely heard about the rain. I know (Lauren Jackson) is Australian. I’ll have to figure out the rest when I get there.”
She’s done that beyond anyone’s wildest dreams.