basketball Edit

Sue Bird Just Keeps Getting Better With Age

If Seattle Storm point guard Sue Bird retired today, her career would be immortalized for its incomparable stretch of sustained victories -- two decades of winning in basketball’s most competitive moments.

The list of Bird’s high-profile trophies has grown impossibly long: two collegiate championships at the University of Connecticut, five Russian championships and five EuroLeague championships in the WNBA offseasons, four FIBA World Cup championships, four Olympic gold medals, and -- perhaps her most impressive feat -- three WNBA championships with the Storm, each of them with a different coach and a different core group surrounding her.

The accomplishments have to be listed because, of course, the last thing Bird will do is revel in her past victories. Or, maybe it’s more accurate to say that the last thing Bird will do is look ahead to retirement. Even though a knee surgery has knocked Bird out of the entire 2019 WNBA season, with just a small handful of regular season games remaining on Seattle’s schedule, she has maintained her signature focus on the next major competition.

So as Bird sat and talked with Storrs Central at a recent Seattle Storm practice, her conversation remained forward-looking.

Take Bird’s work with Seattle-based nutritionist Ashley Besecker. Bird was a guest on Besecker’s Crave Health podcast earlier this summer, when the two discussed the minute changes in Bird’s diet based on Besecker’s research into her genetic makeup, such as limiting caffeine. Bird frames her work with Besecker as one of the many necessary steps she takes in order to find incremental areas of improvement.

“I think for us, as athletes, you know, we’re in a world where one percent of difference can make all the difference. And so if you can have any kind of advantage, it’s going to help you on the court. And Ashley comes from a world where that’s what she’s doing. ...she can really help in those little one percent categories,” Bird said.

A theme throughout Bird’s career -- after playing with such a huge network of teammates over the years -- is a sense of inclusiveness that extends beyond the walls of her current locker room. This inclusiveness comes through in the long-running series of videos played at Storm home games, Between Two Birds, a show that has convinced many a WNBA player to step into a greenscreen-ready bodysuit.

Just this week, Bird was the subject of a cover story on InStyle magazine with girlfriend Megan Rapinoe, the Team USA soccer player of earth-shattering power pose and World Cup-wining fame who isn't afraid to speak her mind. In addition to solidifying herself as a fashion icon and social commentator, the UConn legend is broadened her horizons professionally with a stint in the front office of the NBA's Denver Nuggets.

“I don’t think there’s any job in America that if you said ‘We’re gonna put Sue Bird in charge of it...’ that you would go wrong or regret doing it,” Geno Auriemma said.

Bird is also using her position at the center of so many basketball worlds to help author the next chapter for the American national team. While being sidelined for the Storm’s 2019 schedule, Bird has joined with longtime national teammate Diana Taurasi to create a lengthy practice and exhibition game schedule for the American side during the WNBA offseason, in anticipation of the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo. In addition to Bird and Taurasi, the touring version of the national team will consist of six other A-list mainstays -- Elena Delle Donne, Skylar Diggins-Smith, Sylvia Fowles, Chelsea Gray, Nneka Ogwumike, and A’ja Wilson -- in addition to four rotating players.

Although Bird and the national team played several exhibition games ahead of the 2008 Games in Beijing, she is quick to point out that the upcoming program is a completely different beast, starting from the sheer amount of time required of the participants.

“The difference is, this is a commitment from the eight players that they’re going to be at every single one of these, and it’s much longer in duration,” Bird said. “Much longer. I mean, this [in preparation for 2008] was like we were together a week. Now we’re talking, we’ll be together a total of anywhere between 30 and 50 days, depending on how it works out.”

Bird, well aware of the history of the national team, points out that the better comparison is the edition of the women’s national team that went on a year-long exhibition schedule before the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta. That team -- led by current Stanford head coach Tara VanDerveer, and featuring current national team coach Dawn Staley at point guard -- went a combined 60-0, including running the table during the Olympics and securing a gold medal. The 1995-96 version of the national team was equally dominant and influential: Sara Corbett’s book about that team, Venus to the Hoop, details how the business plan for the WNBA itself was created in the midst of their international touring schedule.

In 2019-20, Bird and the touring national team will probably be playing to much larger audiences than the 1995-96 team enjoyed. But Bird isn’t focused on the squishy and hard-to-define meaning of how this national team may slot into the arc of the sport’s history. At age 38, Bird is looking forward to getting on the practice court.

“I think the main goal of the tour is to get us together and have us practice,” Bird said. “I think the nice byproducts that will come from that is we’ve going to have an even better team than we have had in past years -- only because those other teams didn’t have time to practice. Believe me, they would have been great. And they were great as it was, but practice, of course, is going to help any basketball team.”

It’s honestly a bit difficult to find the areas for potential improvement that Bird is talking about. Bird was on the national team that ran the table at the 2018 FIBA World Cup, winning their games by an average of 20 points. This is, technically speaking, a downward trend: Bird and the 2016 Olympic team in Rio de Janeiro won their games by an average of 37 points. Since Bird first played in the FIBA World Cup, after her rookie WNBA season in 2002, the team has a 70-1 record across major competitions.

But, then again, that’s the whole point, isn’t it? If Bird had been entirely satisfied with each of the major victories over her career, the next wins would never have followed.

Bird and Taurasi have won four gold medals together. No basketball player, ever, has won five.