After leading the Huskies to their first Final Four last season, Plum was eager to pick Bird’s brain about what it would take to repeat UW’s success. Here are snippets of their 45-minute conversation.
The plan seemed simple enough: Somehow coerce Seattle Storm great Sue Bird to spend a few minutes during her busy offseason to sit down with Washington Huskies star Kelsey Plum inside an empty gym.
Maybe take a few pictures before turning on the camera and getting out of the way.
Just let the ladies talk. A future Hall of Famer and a young superstar grilling each other about their games.
“I’m fascinated by her,” Bird said as we walk into a UW women’s basketball practice a few weeks ago. “She intrigues me.”
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Plum, a 22-year-old Southern California native, grew up watching Bird and was inspired by the former Connecticut standout who led the undefeated Huskies to a NCAA championship in 2002 before winning the college Player of the Year award.
Bird, 36, also captured two WNBA titles (2004 and ’10) with the Storm. The nine-time WNBA All-Star and four-time Olympic gold medalist is considered perhaps the finest point guard ever to play women’s basketball.
They’re similar in size (Bird is an inch taller and five pounds heavier at 5 feet 9 and 150), but their games are vastly different despite both being point guards.
Bird, who averaged 11.7 points in college, ranks first in school history with a 45.9 three-point shooting percentage and second with 585 assists. She won two national titles and had a 114-4 record with star-studded UConn teams.
Entering her senior year, Plum already is the best in the history of the program. She holds the school’s career scoring record and ranks fourth on the Pac-12 list with 2,418 career points.
If Plum matches the 25.9 points per game she averaged last season, she would shatter the conference record (2,737). Only 11 NCAA Division I women players have scored more than 3,000 points, and Jackie Stiles tops the list with 3,393.
“I should be nervous, but for some reason I’m not,” Plum said before the cameras began rolling.
After leading the Huskies to their first Final Four last season, Plum was eager to pick Bird’s brain about what it would take to repeat UW’s success.
Here are snippets of their 45-minute conversation:
Bird: “You wear No. 10. Let’s start with an easy one. Why do you wear it?”
Plum: “To be honest, when I was in high school and I was a freshman that was the only jersey that fit.”
Bird: “So it’s not because of me?”
Plum: “It came into being that. Like from now on … “
Bird: “You’ll say that?”
Plum: “Yes. I will.”
Bird: “All right, good.”
Bird: “You guys had an amazing year last year, and obviously you led the team and all that good stuff. And you had a chance to leave school. … So what that ever an option? Did you even consider it? Like tell me all about that process.”
Plum: “I definitely thought about it, but I just felt like … college is such a prized time. I love my teammates. And I really like the city of Seattle and UW. So I was kind of excited for my senior year. But also, I felt like I had a lot to get better at and still get better at to get to the next level. So why rush that process when I have another year to learn from different people?”
Bird: “Since you brought it up, what do you think you need to get better at?”
Plum: “Well, defensively. Especially at the next level. I’m going to have to guard a lot of people that are faster and probably bigger than me. Also my range on my shot. I’ve been working on that a lot because I know the (three-point) line is further back. My right hand always needs work. But also I think just as a person being more compassionate and just leading – not just by example – but loving and stuff like that. It’s just an opportunity to work on that. We have four freshmen that are bug-eyed. They go hard, and I just need to have a lot more compassion and just lead in the right way.”
Bird: “How do you see your position? Like what would you call yourself and how do you see that position in terms of the way you play it?”
Plum: “I think I’m a point guard. I’ve been asked to score a lot here, but that’s just how our offense works. I consider myself a point guard. I call the plays. I’m a leader. I pass. Not like you, but I pass.”
Bird: “You seem to be doing all right.”
Plum: “I just think that people have highlighted because I score so much (they’ve) made me into a two guard. At the next level, shoot, wherever I can get on the floor at – I’ll do that. But I definitely want to be a point guard.”
Bird: “You guys are coming off of a Final Four berth, which is incredible. How do you see the season playing out this year? What do you want to see happen?”
Plum: “To go back would be the ultimate goal and to do a lot better. We got there, but we did not perform well. I personally didn’t play well that game, and that constantly haunts me all the time. Just more than that, as a player I’d like to see myself grow and get other people the ball. I think over the course of the tournament run, I got a lot better at that. I think people saw that, and that’s why our team made such a run because everyone was involved. So as I continue to play this year, that would be the biggest goal. And it’s more fun. Everyone has more fun when everyone is touching the ball.”
Bird: “So what do you think the challenges are with that? I know for me, people always ask, ‘Oh you’re a point guard, but you can score. Do you know when to pass? How do you know when to score?’ So how do you see that? What do you think the challenges are with that?”
Plum: “I really love to score, and I think I’m pretty good at it. So when I – I didn’t mean it like that, but you know what I mean.”
Bird: “I got you. A little bit of an understatement. I feel you.”
Plum: ”It’s tough. I think progressively you get better at it. It doesn’t happen like that (snaps her fingers). It’s always a constant battle to make that decision. Some days you’re on and some days you’re off. So I just think my on days should be better than my off days.”
Plum: “This might be kind of weird, but I’ve always really wanted to know how do you get your hair the way you do.”
Bird: “I knew that was coming. I wore this ponytail just for today. If I told you, then everybody would know.”
Plum: “That’s true. That’s so true. But at least off camera at least tell me.”
Bird: “Off camera? Do you want me to talk about what you just did off camera how you had to fix the braid before it (the camera) came on?”
Plum: “No. Like I knew this was happening today, so I literally, I was in the locker room like (mimics brushing her hair) with hair spray and everything.”
Bird: “A little bit water. A little bit of hair spray.”
Plum: “It just does the trick.”
Bird: “A little bit of love. I don’t know. That’s all I got. It’s really not that complicated.”
Plum: “Well, it works.”
Plum: “Are you going overseas?”
Bird: “No, I’m not going overseas.”
Plum: “OK, so with that what do you do to get better? Because I’m not saying you’re old, but … ”
Bird: “No, I’m old. It’s cool. I’m like 100 in basketball years. I’m OK with it. What do I do to get better? So you’ll find once you leave (college), the hardest part – once you kind of get into the cycle that is a professional basketball player, female professional basketball player – is you’re going to go from your WNBA team to your overseas team and back and forth and back and forth. And before you know (snaps finger), it’s like 10 years go by and you haven’t really necessarily had the opportunity to work on your game because you’re just constantly playing games. Think about your offseasons now, your summers. That’s your chance to get in the gym and maybe work on your ball handling. Maybe work on – like you said – your right hand. Whatever it is. But do you ever do that during the season. It’s kind of hard. You don’t get the chance to really do it. So that’s what happens. You’re just always in season, so you never really get the chance. So first piece of advice is always take – even if it’s 20 minutes – for your own game. I didn’t do that. I wish I did. I didn’t do that nearly as much as I should have.”
Plum: “You didn’t do that?”
Bird: “Don’t get me wrong, I shot the ball. You stay after and shoot. But you know what I’m talking about. Like that actually individual work. So I just started doing that recently. This is going to be my third year of not going (overseas). So the last two offseasons is when I really started focusing on myself. Really started focusing on my game. What I wanted to add. What I wanted to do. What I wanted my body to look like. What I wanted to feel like. These are major questions I had to ask myself. I wish somebody would have been telling me at the young age of 21.”
Bird: “Twenty-two, whew. Old age of 22. So yeah, this right here (motioning toward Plum) this is you. This is all you got. And you got to take care of it.”
Plum: “What piece of advice would you have for me in my senior year and also my rookie year? Give it to me straight.”
Bird: “Senior year I would say, you guys are coming off of a major high. You made the Final Four. There’s a little bit of a punch-drunk thing happening I’m sure. It’s not going to be the same year. You might have more highs than you did last year, but you might have more lows. And regardless, last year is last year. You can’t live in last year and you have to live just in this year. And you can not think ever at any point, ‘Well, last year this happened.’ Or, ‘Well last year it went this way.’ Or, ‘Last year we did this.’ Uh-uh. Because if you fall into that trap, you’ll just be living in it and it will be hell in your head. So you don’t want to do that. This year is this year. It’s not going to be the same as last year. It doesn’t mean it has to be worse. It could be better in a lot of ways. But it is going to be what you make it and how you approach it from a mentality standpoint. So that would be my first advice for this year. And it’s your senior year. You want to have an enjoyable year, correct?”
Bird: “You don’t want to get too low when it’s low. And you don’t want to get too high when it’s high. You just want to enjoy it. The second thing on that would be, it’s never that bad. If you lose a game, it’s never that bad. It’s going to feel bad because you guys went to the Final Four. And it’s going to feel bad because it’s your senior year and you want it go perfectly. But it’s not that bad and you bounce back from it. Just kind of keep a level head with that.
“Going into your rookie year, whatever team does take you, and you get to camp there’s going to be a lot of talent in that gym. You’re going to walk in a gym – and no matter what – there’s going to be a lot of talent. And it’s going to be about how do you separate yourself. How do you show that you deserve to be on that roster? Obviously, talent speaks for itself, so, yeah, you got to go in there and you got to play well. You got to play your game, but that’s kind of the easy part in some ways. But how else can you separate yourself? The things that I see, you can be that player that shows the coach that you’re willing to do whatever they need you to do. Whatever role they have you in, you need to not just be happy with it but understand it, accept it and do it to the best of your ability. And not try to play outside of that necessarily. I don’t mean that in the actual game of basketball. I mean that in terms of what you can bring to a team. That’s how the WNBA is a lot of times. It’s being in the right place at the right time and fulfilling a role. All of us in some way, shape or form are role players. We have to do what our teams need of us. So whatever that is for whatever situation you’re in, just try to make the most of it. I mean it doesn’t hurt to shoot and stay after (practice) and show how into it you are. That never hurts. But I don’t think that will be a problem. You seem to be a little bit of a gym rat anyway.”
Plum: “I definitely found myself saying … “
Bird: “Well, last year … ”
Plum: “Yeah. Especially like we have a new coaching staff, new freshmen and that type of thing.”
Bird: “This happens. I know this because it happened with some of my championship years. You just have this tendency to want to re-create because it was so great. Like how amazing was the run at the end? Amazing. You probably don’t remember any of the losses prior to that. All you remember is like this high you guys were on. And that was great and you deserve to enjoy that. But at some point, you got to put it behind you because it’s never going to be like that again. Even if you get to the Final Four, it will never be like it was.”
Plum: “Because you already had the high?”
Bird: “You already had it.”
Plum: “Unless you win it (the national title).”
Bird: “Well, yeah. I mean, obviously … 2016 was 2016. I hope you get there again. I’ll definitely be watching.”
Plum: “You’re coming to more games, right?”
Bird: “Yeah, I’m going to try. I’m going to try. I’m back and forth a little bit, but I’ll try. I came to a few. I was at the Final Four. I even wore a UW shirt. I don’t know if you saw that.”
Plum: “You wore a UW shirt at the Final Four?”
Bird: “Yep. Well, Connecticut played first. And then I switched sides.”
Plum: “Shut up. That is so cool.”
Bird: “Yep. I’ve kind of been living here forever so … ”
Plum: “That’s so awesome. I didn’t know that.”
Bird: “I rocked another Husky shirt. Just for that 20 minutes.”
Plum: “Man, I feel the love right now. OK, so when you come to games will you wear a UW shirt?”
Bird: “I don’t know about that. That was special. If you get to the Final Four again, I’ll rock it again. I don’t know where it is.”
Plum: “We can get you more.”
(Who wins in a game of one-on-one?)
Bird: “Her. She would.”
Plum: “This is the thing, and I want to make this very clear.”
Bird: “She’s thought about this.”
Plum: “I’ve wanted to say this to you for a long time. I’m not Sue Bird. I want to make that very clear.”
Bird: “And I’m not Kelsey Plum.”
Plum: “But I had gotten into an argument with someone because they tried to convince me I was better than her at her age. At 22. I was like, Sue was on the national team when she was my age. It was during (the Rio Olympics). And I was like, do you see me in Rio? No. So I’m realistic. Our games are different, but she’s better.”
Bird: “We’re very different. But you would beat me one-on-one, though. I’m very confident in that.”
Plum: “Right, but that doesn’t mean anything.”
Bird: “I think she would beat me one-on-one if I was 22. If we were both 22, she would beat me one-on-one.”
Bird: “I’m not a good one-on-one player. She’s like a phenomenal one-on-one player. And I’m OK with that.”
Plum: “But she’s like the human computer.”
Plum: “No seriously, I went to a game this year and you were 7 for 9 from the field. You had eight assists, seven rebounds and no turnovers. And I’m just sitting there like, I wish that could happen to me. That’s the most efficient basketball you can play. And they won of course by a ton. You guys shot like 60 percent. That’s something to strive for. Scoring comes easy for me, but you don’t’ see people talking about my assists numbers. I think it’s going to come, especially because we have better players and stuff like that.”
Bird: “Well, it’s because you can score so well you’re going to have better assists, too. That’s where you have to find that balance. You’re impressive. I enjoy watching you play. For real. It’s fun to watch. The thing about women’s basketball that we lack sometimes is exciting players, and I think you’re one of the few that I see now in college basketball that’s exciting to watch. A lot of what you do will translate (to the WNBA). You bring something that a lot of people don’t have. So you just need to like amplify that and quiet all of the other stuff. That’s really all it is. Everybody had strengths and weakness. It’s who can hide the weakness and who can play to their strengths. But I see a lot of strengths in you. For real, I enjoy watching you play. And I don’t say that to many people. I don’t think I’ve said that to anybody.”