There will never be another Sue Bird.
That’s what she wants the next Storm point guard to know as she walks out the door and heads into retirement after 21 years in Seattle.
“Nobody has to fill my shoes,” Bird said. “That’s not how it works. I know that’s how it gets talked about and that’s how people frame it, but that’s not the reality. … I understand why the narrative is, the filling of the shoes, but I think whoever does become the next point guard of this team, they just have to make it their own and that’s all they can focus on.
“It’s not about comparison. They have to blaze their own trail or throw in whatever cliché you want. That’s the reality of it and that’s true for everything. … That would be the advice I would give. Not to compare and not to try to match anything. Just make it your own. As long as you try to do that and you work every day, I think you can be successful and maybe more successful. But it’s a trap to try and fill shoes.”
Maybe so, but it’s a daunting task to follow a legend.
Especially, someone like Bird, who is widely considered the greatest point guard in WNBA history and leaves behind an extensive legacy that includes four WNBA championships, 13 WNBA All-Star appearances as well as league records for the most victories (333) and assists (3,234).
“We’re not going to replace what Sue brings and what she’s done, but to have a capacity to regroup in a way from that position is exciting for me,” coach Noelle Quinn said. “Another year of growth and tweaking the system to fit the particular players that we need. I’m excited about that.”
Trivia question. Who started at point guard for the Storm before Bird?
That would be Sonja Henning, who Seattle selected with it second pick in the 2000 WNBA expansion draft from the Houston Comets. Henning started 65 of a possible 72 games for two seasons before Bird’s arrival in 2002.
Bird then became a fixture in the lineup while starting 580 games and compiling a 333-247 record for more than two decades.
Knee injuries forced her to miss the 2013 and 2019 season, which prompted the Storm to give the offensive reins to Temeka Johnson and Jordin Canada, respectively.
This year, Seattle abandoned its point-guard succession plans when they allowed Canada to leave via free agency and brought in 34-year-old Briann January, who is retiring from the WNBA after the season, as a backup point guard.
The Storm selected 20-year-old Jade Melbourne late in this year’s draft and retain her rights after she spent the year playing professionally in Australia.
However, it remains to be seen if Seattle replaces Bird with a rookie point guard taken in the third round or goes after a big-name free agent like four-time WNBA All-Star Courtney Vandersloot, who played at Kentwood High and Gonzaga University.
It’s a bit audacious to think any team can lose arguably the greatest player in franchise history and remain relevant, but Bird believes the Storm can continue competing for championships without her in part because she’s been grooming superstars Breanna Stewart and Jewell Loyd to fill the void.
“Early on it was showing them what a professional athlete does and what it means and what it is,” Bird said. “How to prepare. How to represent a franchise. How to be that person that takes on all the responsibility. I think they are really lucky in that they have each other. … Early on, it was really about teaching two 21-, 22-year-olds how to be a professional. It was that simple. And for the most part, I tried to do that by example.
“As time went, probably by 2018 I was actively telling them: ‘This is not my team. This is your team.’ … I was there to support them, not the other way around. I caught a couple of quotes every now and then where they wanted to win for me and all those things. But the reality is, we’re all here to support them and I’m part of that group.”
Bird, who turns 42 next month, empowered Stewart and Loyd to assume command on and off the court. And the young stars blossomed into two of the best players in the WNBA.
“When you come into the league you don’t always get great veterans, and you don’t always get a point guard who isn’t just about herself,” Loyd said. “I came into the league, I was one of the youngest people in the league. I didn’t know anything. Not only did she help me understand how to curl around a screen, but she drove me (around town). She literally went to the store with me.
“I’m forever grateful for everything she’s done for me. I wouldn’t be the player that I am right now without her. It’s hard knowing that we won’t have that on the court always. Her texting us and little things like that, that you take for granted. We’ve been very, very blessed to be with Sue. … It’s definitely sad knowing we won’t have her around to help us like that. Obviously, she’s a phone call away, but it’s not going to be the same.”
Stewart added: “To not have Sue on the court or in the locker room it will be completely different. She has an impact and her fingerprints are all over every single player on this roster. Every single person in this franchise.
“Her ability to bring people confidence, to make sure that we come together and gel together. Her IQ, the fact that what Jewell was talking about her ability to be herself, gave us the ability to be ourselves. We owe a lot to Sue.”
Admittedly, Stewart has been enamored by Bird’s emotional send-off and outpouring of affection she’s received by Storm fans this season, including the unforgettable “Thank You, Sue” chant that reverberated throughout Climate Pledge Arena on Tuesday night following a season-ending playoff loss to the Las Vegas Aces.
Still, Stewart, who is an unrestricted free agent, hasn’t committed to returning to the WNBA next year because of the league’s punitive prioritization rule that goes into effect in 2023.
Players with at least three years of WNBA experience will be fined if they arrive late to training camp due to playing overseas. And anyone who misses the start of the regular season will be suspended for the season.
Loyd is one of two players under contract with the Storm and Bird is willing to recruit free agents to Seattle.
“Yeah, I can definitely be whatever resource, whatever way I can show up and whatever I can do to help, absolutely,” Bird said. “It’s a huge offseason. How many people are under contract? Two. The good news is that means they have a lot of money to spend. It’s a big offseason. We’ll see what happens and I would definitely love to help in any way.”
Bird is open to serving the Storm in other capacities but doesn’t plan to pursue a role in the front office or coaching in the immediate future. She was also unsure if joining the team’s ownership group is a possibility.
For now, Bird will take solace that her mentorship of Stewart and Loyd has seemingly positioned the Storm for a prosperous future long after her departure.
“For me, it was always about both setting them up for success and putting them in position to be successful on the floor,” Bird said. “But also, being able to talk them about why they are in those positions and what’s happening in those positions. And they are both sponges, which is amazing.
“It’s very gratifying to know that I helped (Stewart) grow in her game. And I did the same thing with Jewell in the things that I’ve seen with her and helped her with. That’s been the progression of how I’ve been to kind of pass the baton and left them take over and be the faces of the franchise.”