“Age is just a number,” quipped actress Joan Collins. (Of course, the rest of the quote went on to say, “It’s totally irrelevant — unless, of course, you happen to be a bottle of wine.”)
For Sue Bird, the quip rings true. At 40 years old, she is the oldest player in the WNBA this season. And despite her continued success, the narrative of her retiring has been following her for a decade.
“I think it’s when I turned 30 that I started getting questions of, ‘How much longer do you want to play? What do you see yourself doing after you're done playing basketball?’ Which is so fascinating considering I am sitting here 10 years later.”
When Bird won her fourth WNBA title with the Seattle Storm last summer, the conversation hit a fever pitch. Now she says questions about how long she’s going to play are asked or sent to her by someone on almost a daily basis.
“There is a part of me that takes pride in the fact that I am still able to play at my age, still able to stay at a top level, kept my body healthy and in shape,” she says. “I joke I’m trying to make 40 the new 30.”
In many ways — joke or not — Bird is succeeding in that. Throughout her 20 seasons in the WNBA (some may argue it’s 18 as she missed the 2013 and 2019 seasons due to injury, but Bird is sticking with 2021 being her 20th), she has never once come off the bench.
“I think what you are seeing is a lot of players across a bunch of different sports play longer. Obviously the big names are LeBron James and Tom Brady. But with myself and Diana Taurasi in women’s basketball, we are players that are showing with modern science and technology you can stay in shape, you can stay healthy and play well into your late 30s, your 40s.
“So hopefully we are changing that narrative because the questions are annoying.”
Taurasi, who will turn 39 this year, is out of the Phoenix Mercury line-up for at least four weeks after fracturing her sternum. The two vets have won four Olympic gold medals for Team USA’s Women’s Basketball team, and are hoping to capture a fifth medal this summer.
“In some ways we are lucky that it happens during the WNBA season because you don’t have to worry about getting in shape or getting ready,” says Bird of the timing of the Olympics. “You have the best practice possible, which is playing with your WNBA team and playing in games, so you are going to be sharp.
“The hard part is that all these other countries are somewhere right now training, getting ready to whip our butt, and we are going to have maybe a week together before the games start. So that whole chemistry playing with each other, that gets challenging.”
So what about those retirement plans?
Already the all-time WNBA leader in assists, Bird is in the top five in the category for the current season. She has appeared in a WNBA-record 11 All-Star Games. Her team is 4-1 and leading the Western Conference. And, no — for the record — she has no plans to retire soon. So we can all stop asking.
“I’m going to play as long as I can.”