Twenty years ago, Sue Bird entered the WNBA as the No. 1 overall pick out of UConn, the talent factory of women’s basketball, looking to make a career in a league that had only been brought to life five years earlier.
A two-time national champion, Big East player of the year and AP College player, the expectations were high for the point guard coming into the league.
Four WNBA titles, five Olympic gold medals, 12 WNBA All-Star nods and becoming the league’s all-time assist leader later, Bird has decided to walk away from the women’s game leaving it a better place than she found it.
But how exactly do you put into words two decades’ worth of extraordinary play on the court matched with moving not just women’s basketball, but the world as a whole forward off the court?
It’s easy to look at the point guard’s ability to see the court, make a play for a teammate to find the basket and also be a sharpshooter of her own, even past the age of 40.
Not only that, but Bird has managed to accomplish everything in her career with one team, the Seattle Storm — even pre-Breanna Stewart, before the Storm won in 2018 and again in the WNBA bubble in 2020, Bird had done it all repeatedly.
“I am very proud of playing my whole career here in Seattle, not that it has nothing to do with the fact that it’s rare these days or it is nothing to do with any of that, I just have enjoyed all of my time here,” Bird said to the media in her farewells.
“I think as you go through a career, you realize it’s really about the people, so I’m just really lucky that I’ve played for a first-class organization alongside some of the world’s best, and I wouldn’t trade it for anything.”
The lesser-seen side of Bird, the one that advocates for those with quieter voices than her own, knowing that life is bigger than basketball, knowing that when she advocates, she speaks from a league of women, a league of Black women, and a league of gay women.
When she first entered the league, going to college just one year after the WNBA’s inception, there was no knowing if there was going to be a future for women’s professional sports, but those who put their money where their mouth is can see the on-court product from players like Bird.
Now, with the growth of the WNBA and players who never gave up on the dream of playing women’s basketball as a career, Bird leaves the league as one of the highest-paid players in the league, being able to sustain her life off professional sport, something many women and girls didn’t believe was possible.
“I could argue that some of my best days were in my last … I mean, I was if memory serves, I was WNBA first-team when I was 35, two championships at age 37 and 39, so I think that is a big part of it,” said Bird.
“What I’m proud about in terms of that is I hope other players can see a career like this one, see the length of it, see the success of it, and know that they can do it too, because not that it’s not that it’s easy, but it’s doable, right?”
You can look into the career stats — 6,653 career points, good for seventh all-time, 702 steals, good for fourth all-time, and 3,118 assists, good for the most anyone who has ever stepped onto a WNBA court has tallied.
She also has the most turnovers in the WNBA all-time but that comes with the territory of sticking around for 20 years.
There have also been changes in the league itself due to Bird advocating for change and growth, knowing that even her home in the WNBA is not perfect, and there is always room to learn and grow as an organization.
The league now offers the Commissioner’s Cup as a way for more prize money to be shared — a trophy Bird managed to hoist in its first-ever edition because one of the greatest of all time knows how to win hardware.
She also advocated for changing the playoff format from two rounds of single elimination games to give teams more of a chance in the playoff as only eight teams make it as it stands in the 12-team league.
And in 2022, the format changed after Bird’s comments to give more opportunity to those who have earned their playoff seeding through hard work and dedication to their season.
“I think women’s basketball is in a great place, I think women’s sports is in a great place, so many differences in a good way from when I first entered the league and obviously, I think we can all feel that momentum feel that momentum building,” said Bird.
“I couldn’t be more proud of the younger generation right now because they’re the ones that are now entering this league and really pushing the envelope.”
Even with the next generation pushing for change and demanding more from women’s sports, from viewers and from investors, being able to ask for better off the backs of players like Bird is not lost on those who enter the league 20 years after her.
For someone who seems quiet and reserved in the face of the media, especially in the presence of her partner in crime Diana Taurasi, who has never shied away from answering a question, the impact Bird has had on the game is immeasurable when it comes to looking at 20 years of legacy even if she won’t give herself the credit.
“Of course, I’m sad, it’s a little bit of like a mourning knowing I’m going to miss it, but I mean, I have no regrets … I feel wonderful about my career, the people I’ve met, the things we’ve all accomplished. That’s kind of the sum up of that and I am excited for the next chapter — like I said, I get to start this new life,” said Bird.
Bird didn’t just prove that you can, sometimes, beat the test of time as an athlete — she also proved the investment in women’s basketball is a worthwhile one.