Sports

Sue Bird Became the Legend She Needed: ‘There Was No Real Path’

Sue Bird peeked upcourt as she caught the outlet go. Her Seattle Storm teammate Natasha Howard had streaked forward of her like a large receiver, as she normally did at any time when Bird was operating the offense in transition. Howard realized that she was open beneath the basket and braced herself. Bird, she knew, would discover her like at all times. She simply didn’t know the way.

Bird slithered into the lane, drawing a defender. Then, with out wanting, she whipped the ball over her head and into Howard’s awaiting palms.

“My hands were always ready for Sue when she passed me the ball,” mentioned Howard, now with the Liberty. She added: “That right there, it’s like: ‘Wow, OK, Sue. You got eyes behind your head.’”

Bird counts the go amongst her favourite assists in her 19 seasons with the Storm. She has loads of passes to select from: Bird is the W.N.B.A.’s career chief in assists.

“I have a little bit of a Rain Man brain so hold on a second,” she had mentioned as she tried to choose her favourite help. After a second, she cited the no-look go to Howard, in 2018, and a between-the-legs pass to a trailing Lauren Jackson in the 2003 All-Star Game. She wasn’t completed.

“Oh, there’s also another one to Lauren,” Bird mentioned. “It was in the playoffs against Minnesota. I think it was like 2012 and we were down 3. We needed a 3, and it wasn’t a fancy assist by any means, but we ran a play to perfection. I hit Lauren. She hits the shot.”

Those are the sorts of assists that Bird constructed her fame on. “The timing around a great pass is so the person you’re passing to doesn’t have to change anything that they’re doing,” Bird mentioned.

At 41 years outdated, Bird is inside weeks of the finish of her W.N.B.A. career. In June, she introduced that she would retire at the finish of the season, although most individuals had anticipated as a lot. At the finish of the 2021 season, followers chanted “one more year!” at an emotional Bird and stored up the marketing campaign with hashtags on social media for months via the low season. In January, Bird nodded to the marketing campaign in an Instagram post and wrote “OK.”

Her résumé had room for yet another season, however simply barely. She is a 13-time All-Star and has gained 4 championships. She toppled Ticha Penicheiro’s career assist record of 2,599 5 years in the past and now has 3,222 regular-season assists in a league-record 578 video games.

As the assists have piled up, Bird has advanced as a passer.

“Every now and then, it can be fancy,” Bird mentioned. “Every now and then, you do have to look the defense off, but for me, it’s just always about trying to read the defense and be one step ahead, so you can find that person.

“As I’ve gotten older, I’ve definitely used the no-look more, and when I do a no-look nowadays, I’m not trying to look like Magic Johnson did or something like that. I’m really just trying to look off the defense. I’m just trying to get them to think my eyes are looking somewhere else, so that I can make the play.”

No different participant is as synced with the league’s infancy and development, its historical past and current, as Bird, the consummate ground normal who excelled via consistency by delivering the ball to the proper individual at the proper time in the proper spot, year after year, decade after decade.

“She is the W.N.B.A,” mentioned Crystal Langhorne, who transformed 161 of Bird’s passes into buckets, the fourth-most of any teammate behind Jackson (624), Breanna Stewart (345) and Jewell Loyd (217), in accordance with the Elias Sports Bureau. “It’s going to be crazy with a league where she’s not there anymore. Sue is the prototype.”

Hearing these sorts of compliments has been considered one of the nice and surprising byproducts of asserting her retirement, Bird mentioned.

“You just always knew what to expect from me,” Bird mentioned. “Everyone knew if they turned on a Storm game, what they were going to see. So, it’s kind of hard to imagine it not being there, because it’s been there for 20 years.”

Bird entered the W.N.B.A. in its sixth season as the high general decide in the 2002 draft, carrying heavy expectations into Seattle after two N.C.A.A. ladies’s basketball championships at Connecticut.

She made her first pro assist to Adia Barnes, now the ladies’s basketball coach at Arizona. Barnes, 45, final performed professionally 12 years in the past and spent a number of years as a broadcaster earlier than teaching, all whereas Bird continued stacking one help after one other.

“I totally forgot that,” Barnes mentioned of Bird’s first help, laughing. “I made the shot, so that was a good thing. I don’t remember it, but you can act like I do. Make it sound good, please.”

Barnes does recall Bird’s steadiness from the starting. The pair typically roomed on the highway.

“She was just a true point guard, and I think what separated Sue is, she’s a connector, so you wanted to play with her.”

Barnes gained a championship in 2004 with Bird and Jackson, who grew to become a dynamic pick-and-roll pairing, and Bird and Jackson gained one other in 2010. They left defenses helpless. If a defender ducked below a Jackson display, Bird may bury a 3. If they doubled Bird, Jackson may drive to the rim or come out for an open jumper. The ball usually arrived on time.

“There was really no way to help it,” Barnes mentioned. “It was just very, very, very hard to guard and they made it look seamless.”

Bird mentioned her consciousness of angles and spacing was at all times on, even when strolling via a mall.

“You’re always moving in a way, seeing things in a way that is similar to being on the court,” Bird mentioned. “Obviously, you’re not in a game, so you’re not having to move fast or do things with urgency, but I think you just always move that way when you have that type of vision. That sounds insane. It’s actually not.”

Teammates would spot Bird carrying binders and notebooks to check the sport. “You don’t really need to ask how she does it,” Howard mentioned. “She just does it.”

Receiving a go from Bird impressed confidence, Langhorne mentioned. Here was considered one of the sport’s greats, entrusting her with the ball and to make the proper play.

“Even when I was working on my 3s and I wasn’t as confident, if I knew Sue kicked it back to me, I was like: ‘Oh, yeah, shoot it. She’s giving it to you for a reason,’” Langhorne mentioned. “Which I never even really said out loud before.”

Injuries compelled Jackson to depart the W.N.B.A. in 2012. Bird discovered her subsequent put up associate in Stewart, one other Connecticut product who Seattle took with the first general decide in 2016. The two gained championships in 2018 and 2020.

“She knows where everyone is supposed to be before sometimes we even do,” Stewart mentioned. “She knows which block I would prefer to get the ball on or which pass is going to get through and which isn’t. Sometimes, when you’re on the basketball court, a player makes a cut and then the pass comes, and sometimes with Sue, the pass comes and then the player makes the cut because she’s seeing the defense sometimes quicker than us.”

Bird mentioned Penicheiro, who retired in 2012, and the Chicago Sky’s Courtney Vandersloot are amongst the level guards she has most loved watching as a result of “they’re really fun.” Vandersloot not too long ago handed Lindsay Whalen to turn out to be third on the W.N.B.A.’s career assists checklist. She’s the energetic participant closest to tying Bird — and she or he’s nonetheless greater than 800 assists away.

Bird broke Penicheiro’s file along with her 2,600th help to a slicing Carolyn Swords in 2017.

“It was actually a pretty nice pass, and she deserves it. And records are meant to be broken, and if anybody breaks your record, you want it to be a player like Sue Bird,” Penicheiro mentioned.

“Everybody loves Sue,” she added. “If she was an ass, it’d be easier to go against her and try to stick it to her, but she’s too nice and I am, too.”

Even one help from Bird is a second to recollect. Thirteen gamers obtained one help from Bird, in accordance with Elias. The checklist contains Courtney Paris, who regarded Bird as considered one of her favourite gamers rising up and spent most of her W.N.B.A. career on alert as an opponent who had the unenviable job of attempting to play crew protection towards her.

“The second you go to help, she’s going to find the smallest piece of space to get the ball to whoever needs to get it,” Paris mentioned.

Paris joined the Storm in 2018 and didn’t play typically in her two seasons in Seattle as her taking part in career wound down. Paris didn’t bear in mind the kind of go she obtained from Bird or how she scored, however she recalled being excited over the sequence.

“It was a full circle moment from watching her when I was a younger player,” Paris mentioned.

Ashley Walker, one other member of the one-assist from Bird membership, who performed with Seattle in 2009, was equally appreciative.

“She’s one of the pioneers,” Walker mentioned. “She’s someone that people look up to, and she did it with such grace, such confidence. And it’s just amazing to know that I’m a part of that experience and I actually get a chance to say: ‘I caught a pass from Sue Bird. What did you do?’”

Bird has additionally made her mark throughout the postseason along with her assists. She set a playoff file with 14 assists in a 2004 Western Conference finals sport towards Sacramento, then broke it with 16 in Game 1 of the 2020 finals towards Las Vegas. Vandersloot broke that postseason file final year, with 18 assists towards Connecticut.

The chapter is closing on considered one of the W.N.B.A.’s most memorable careers. Bird mentioned she achieved the whole lot she needed to in the league, establishing objectives in the second.

“The easy analogy here is, who does everybody chase in the N.B.A.? Michael Jordan,” Bird mentioned. “Because Michael Jordan played a full career. He won six rings. So, six rings became the standard. In our league, when I got into the league, that didn’t really exist.”

She continued: “There was no real path to follow, because nobody had that 20-year career yet. So, I really didn’t know what to dream, and so to sit here now with all the championships I have, I just feel really satisfied.”

Now a younger participant — Bird named Arike Ogunbowale of the Dallas Wings for instance — can mannequin the milestones in the careers of gamers comparable to Maya Moore and Diana Taurasi.

Many, after all, will have a look at Bird’s illustrious career.

“I think there is something that motivates you in that way, but at the same time, forging your own path, I enjoyed that as well,” Bird mentioned. “I’m not sure. Maybe having something to chase is better. Maybe there’s more pressure.”

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