The 19-year-old who had just scored 19 points to lead her team to the national championship game sat in the locker room appearing neither nervous nor overconfident. She just looked ready.
Sue Bird wasn’t new to the spotlight: She had played for high school powerhouse Christ The King in New York City and was a sophomore for the UConn Huskies, although she had lost most of her freshman season to a knee injury. But the 2000 women’s Final Four was her biggest stage yet: in Huskies coach Geno Auriemma’s Philadelphia hometown with a title-game matchup between UConn and the Tennessee Lady Vols when their rivalry was at a zenith.
As a media throng enveloped Bird to ask her to put it all in perspective after UConn’s semifinal win, she did just that. So well, in fact, that a reporter summed up the feelings of others walking away: “Whatever ‘it’ is, that kid has got it.”
She still does. If that was “how it started,” this is “how it’s going”: Bird is in her 19th and final WNBA season with the Seattle Storm, a future Hall of Famer seeking a fifth league title to match her five Olympic gold medals. She is the league’s all-time leader in assists (3,202) and games played (575, not counting 54 in the playoffs). This week, she will play her final two regular-season games in Seattle, on Wednesday (10 p.m. ET, NBA TV) and Sunday (3 p.m. ET, ABC).
But Bird won’t disappear. If anything, she might become an even larger presence in the sports world after her playing career. She is not a ride-off-into-the-sunset type. While she will take some time to rest, relax and reflect, there are many things she can and will pursue. That might be team management and ownership, or in coaching, broadcasting and media. Fashion and product endorsement? Social activism? Likely, it could be a combination of all of the above, and also things she hasn’t discovered yet.
“There are no limits,” Auriemma said. “There are no boundaries that are going to prevent Sue from being successful in whatever endeavor she chooses — whether that’s within sports or outside the sports world.
“There’s a tremendous push now that I think she’s at the forefront of, among others, in bringing a lot more attention, recognition, support and appreciation for women in general, and women in sports in particular.”
As Bird’s career winds down, it’s a celebration for that increasingly rare athlete who is linked to one franchise: Her entire WNBA career has been with Seattle, where she is on the city’s mythical sports “Rushmore.” Tears will be shed and the applause will crescendo as she finishes her final moments in a Storm jersey, whenever that is.
And then? Bird will be “young” again, starting in a world beyond that of a professional athlete.
“I have 100% internalized being ‘old’ for the last several years,” said Bird, who turns 42 in October. “I’ve been the oldest player in the league since 2017, constantly asked about it. You can’t ignore it. I know being in my 40s is not a spring chicken by any means. But in the grand scheme of things, I have a whole life to live and so much to do.”
“I want to do things in a way that grows the pie for everybody. I feel really passionate about that, given my experience as a female athlete fighting for scraps. I don’t want that to be the case for the next generation.”
When Bird stopped playing in Russia after the 2014 overseas season, she started spending her WNBA offseasons pursuing other things. She was an analyst for women’s college basketball games, worked in the Denver Nuggets front office, did public speaking and helped launch a multimedia and commerce company, TOGETHXR, with fellow athletes Alex Morgan, Chloe Kim and Simone Manuel.
“I started out just dipping my toe in some waters,” Bird said. “I didn’t want to be the 42-year-old intern who didn’t know anything. I wanted to learn before I retired from playing. Staying involved in basketball and sports is really important to me. That could mean a lot of different things.”
Here’s a look at what might lie ahead for Bird after she plays her final WNBA game.
A future in management, ownership
Natasha Cloud can’t get the 3-pointer to fall as the Storm grab the win and clinch a playoff spot.
Bird was on court as KeyArena swelled with a cacophony of joyful yells and thunderstix as the Storm won its first of four WNBA titles in 2004. She was there in 2008 when Seattle lost the Sonics. She is there now after a $1 billion-plus renovation transformed the building into state-of-the-art Climate Pledge Arena, which is also home to the NHL’s Seattle Kraken.
The WNBA was at its peak of 16 teams in Bird’s 2002 rookie season. She has seen six franchises fold, three relocate (two of them doing so twice) and two expansion teams join the league. She has been part of four collective bargaining agreements between the WNBA and the players union, the WNBPA.
Bird has observed how franchises and leagues work and how they don’t. She recognizes the complexities of infrastructure, and that negotiation means give-and-take. She knows that growth and loss are part of business, and professional sports are at their core just that: business. But they also can be so much more to cities, regions and countries.
Thus, involvement in team management and ownership may be part of Bird’s future. In fact, it already is: In July, Bird joined an ownership group for the National Women’s Soccer League’s NJ/NY Gotham FC, where she is expected to have a significant advisory role.
— NJ/NY Gotham FC (@GothamFC) July 29, 2022
Bird’s time with the Nuggets gave her greater insight into the player evaluation and development side of sports, too. She spent time with former Nuggets executives Tim Connelly and Arturas Karnisovas, along with current Denver general manager Calvin Booth.
“It was the guys on the staff who build the roster,” Bird said. “I would sit in on all their meetings, whether it was about the current roster, the future, trade scenarios. You start getting into the salary cap ins and outs. I’d watch film of players and give my opinion.
“I learned so much that I’ve taken with me to the WNBA, and it showed up in some of the CBA conversations we had, seeing how the NBA does things and picking what works for us.”
Ginny Gilder, one of the Storm’s owners, said Bird’s time with CBA negotiating and being involved in some Storm business matters showed she understood both sides of the equation between labor and management, along with what is needed to get deals done.
“She knows how to listen, how to ask questions, how to negotiate,” Gilder said. “She understands that you can’t just push for what you want. You’ve got to think about what the other side wants, too, and that ‘win-win’ is the way to do it.”
No one who has watched Bird in even one game would question the point guard’s ability to expertly run a team on the floor. Everything else that is required of a coach — scouting, strategizing, decision-making, communication — fits her skill set as well.
“I like things to flow right,” she said. “It’s actually the highest compliment if someone says that when I’m on the floor, things just make sense.”
But does Bird want to coach? For now, she doesn’t, but she won’t shut that door entirely.
“Just the X’s and O’s, figuring out strategies and schemes, how to beat certain teams — that to me is probably how people feel when they create music,” Bird said. “There’s like a harmony to it, and I love it.
“But there are all kinds of other things in a coach’s life that really don’t interest me. It is so stressful worrying about subbing, players’ mentalities, preparing for games — all the things that cause sleepless nights. And to some extent, I feel like I’ve already lived that life as a player.”
Auriemma coached Bird at UConn and with the national team in two Olympics and two FIBA World Cups. He thinks the competitive itch can be scratched in many ways beyond coaching.
“More former players are now looking to go into the places where you have the most impact, and that’s not as a coach,” he said. “They will be looking at ownership and front-office jobs.”
But Bird said that if she does decide someday to coach, she would be interested in the highest-level pros. With her two decades on the national team, she could present an intriguing option for USA Basketball. Even if she didn’t coach elsewhere, perhaps she could be an assistant or even head coach of the U.S. women’s national team. The way it is now, college and pro coaches take that on as an extra job.
“That’s an interesting question,” Auriemma said. “If you’re a former player with enough credibility, you are given a little more leeway in coming into coaching than someone else.”
Auriemma has teased Bird that he hopes she coaches at some point, “Just so she will see how miserable it is. She’ll feel terrible about how bad she made it for everybody who coached her because she always thought she was smarter than us.”
In all seriousness, Bird has been a coach on the floor for so long that this would seem a natural progression.
“Never say never,” Bird said. “But I just don’t know if I’ll ever get into it.”
A path ahead in media, endorsements and activism
Bird acknowledges she hasn’t thought a lot about her personal branding. But she understands it better in the last stage of her playing career.
“The first things that come to mind are my confidence and my power, and how I have come into just being myself,” she said. “Authenticity and being genuine are really the keys.
“We’re all constantly on a journey of figuring ourselves out. I’m a really good example: I didn’t even come out as gay until I was 36, and I feel like life really began in that moment because I was living my truth. I started to see other things I was interested in, things just kind of lying dormant inside me because I was a product of society saying to just fit into certain molds.”
Bird is engaged to U.S. women’s national soccer team star Megan Rapinoe, who recently won the Presidential Medal of Freedom for her activism as an athlete. The two have done television commercials, photo shoots and appeared on panels together.
“Pinoe is a born change-maker,” Gilder said. “I think Sue has stepped into that space as well.”
Rapinoe and Bird did a podcast called “A Touch More” during the pandemic, and Bird and Taurasi combined during the women’s Final Four for an alternate broadcast that featured them chatting and interviewing people during the games. Bird said the production part of those endeavors and TOGETHXR interests her as much as being the “name” talent involved, as she’s intrigued by the technical aspects of how to plan and organize shows. That is the point guard in Bird coming out.
“As somebody who’s been interviewed my whole life, I totally embrace and accept that being the interviewer is a whole different thing,” Bird said. “And with commercials, they have great writers. But you have to work to get the comedic timing right.”
Some athletes can maintain or even increase their popularity and influence long after they have stopped playing.
“And think about someone like John Madden — entire generations know him as a broadcaster and from the Madden video game,” Auriemma said. “They don’t remember him as a coach. That’s the same way for former players like Shaquille O’Neal or Charles Barkley or Rebecca Lobo, who have taken on different roles. I believe people like Sue are exceptionally well-positioned to carve out a career that is going to define them to a whole new group of fans.”
Whatever Bird does will always have a strong aspect of social conscience. Bird was in high school when the WNBA launched in 1997, so she remembers when a women’s pro basketball league didn’t exist in the United States. Her time with the union has shown her the contrasting challenges of protecting a growing league while also pushing the needle for change. She knows women’s sports still battle age-old prejudices, just as women themselves do.
It’s why she was eager to invest in the NWSL team, and why she no longer avoids controversial topics that benefit from her insight.
“I want to do things in a way that grows the pie for everybody,” Bird said. “I feel really passionate about that, given my experience as a female athlete fighting for scraps. I don’t want that to be the case for the next generation.”
Gilder, an Olympic silver medalist in rowing, understands the transition from world-class athlete to the rest of life. She entered the business world in the 1980s and then was part of the Force 10 Hoops group that bought the Storm in 2008 and kept them in Seattle when the NBA’s Sonics left for Oklahoma.
“The thing about being an athlete on a day-to-day level, is you don’t really have to think about your purpose,” Gilder said. “You’re focused on taking care of your team, making sure you’re healthy and as strong as you can be. Sue’s been playing this sport her entire life. Soon, she won’t have the safety net of always knowing what you need to do when there’s another game.
“She deserves the opportunity to just take a breath and see what it’s like. And then it’s, ‘What does she want?’ Sue can do anything. There is more of a roadmap for her and other athletes now. Are you willing to push for change? To put your credibility on the line as you do that?”
Bird’s biggest focus right now, of course, is what is right in front of her with the Storm’s season. She has always been able to keep the team front and center. But at some point later this year, the rest of her life starts.
“I’m going to miss playing basketball terribly,” Bird said. “I think there are aspects of it that are just so hard to replicate or duplicate outside of sports, but I also have no regrets.
“So it’s gonna be — easy is not the right word, but manageable. I feel at peace in so many ways. And, yeah, I’m very excited.”