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


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

Bird slithered into the lane, drawing a defender. Then, without looking, she whipped the ball over her head and into Howard’s awaiting palms.

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

Bird counts the pass amongst her favorite assists in her 19 seasons with the Storm. She has loads of passes to select from: Bird is the W.N.B.A.’s profession leader in assists.

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

“Oh, there’s also one other one to Lauren,” Bird said. “It was within the playoffs against Minnesota. I believe it was like 2012 and we were down 3. We would have liked a 3, and it wasn’t a flowery 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 built her fame on. “The timing around an incredible pass is so the person you’re passing to doesn’t must change anything that they’re doing,” Bird said.

At 41 years old, Bird is inside weeks of the tip of her W.N.B.A. profession. In June, she announced that she would retire at the tip of the season, though most individuals had expected as much. At the tip of the 2021 season, fans chanted “yet one more 12 months!” at an emotional Bird and kept up the campaign with hashtags on social media for months through the off-season. In January, Bird nodded to the campaign in an Instagram post and wrote “OK.”

Her résumé had room for yet one more season, but just barely. She is a 13-time All-Star and has won 4 championships. She toppled Ticha Penicheiro’s profession assist record of two,599 five years ago and now has 3,222 regular-season assists in a league-record 578 games.

Because the assists have piled up, Bird has evolved as a passer.

“Once in a while, it will possibly be fancy,” Bird said. “Once in a while, you do must look the defense off, but for me, it’s just all the time about attempting to read the defense and be one step ahead, so you’ll find that person.

“As I’ve gotten older, I’ve definitely used the no-look more, and after I do a no-look nowadays, I’m not attempting to appear to be Magic Johnson did or something like that. I’m really just attempting to look off the defense. I’m just attempting to get them to think my eyes are looking someplace else, in order that I could make the play.”

No other player is as synced with the league’s infancy and growth, its history and present, as Bird, the consummate floor general who excelled through consistency by delivering the ball to the proper person at the proper time in the proper spot, 12 months after 12 months, decade after decade.

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

Hearing those kinds of compliments has been one in all the nice and unexpected byproducts of announcing her retirement, Bird said.

“You only all the time knew what to anticipate from me,” Bird said. “Everyone knew in the event that they turned on a Storm game, what they were going to see. So, it’s sort of hard to assume it not being there, since it’s been there for 20 years.”

Bird entered the W.N.B.A. in its sixth season as the highest overall pick within the 2002 draft, carrying heavy expectations into Seattle after two N.C.A.A. women’s basketball championships at Connecticut.

She made her first pro assist to Adia Barnes, now the ladies’s basketball coach at Arizona. Barnes, 45, last played professionally 12 years ago and spent several years as a broadcaster before coaching, all while Bird continued stacking one assist after one other.

“I totally forgot that,” Barnes said of Bird’s first assist, laughing. “I made the shot, in order that was a superb thing. I don’t remember it, but you possibly can act like I do. Make it sound good, please.”

Barnes does recall Bird’s steadiness from the start. The pair often roomed on the road.

“She was just a real point guard, and I believe what separated Sue is, she’s a connector, so that you desired to play together with her.”

Barnes won a championship in 2004 with Bird and Jackson, who became a dynamic pick-and-roll pairing, and Bird and Jackson won one other in 2010. They left defenses helpless. If a defender ducked under a Jackson screen, Bird could bury a 3. In the event that they doubled Bird, Jackson could drive to the rim or come out for an open jumper. The ball typically arrived on time.

“There was really no technique to help it,” Barnes said. “It was just very, very, very hard to protect they usually made it look seamless.”

Bird said her awareness of angles and spacing was all the time on, even when walking through a mall.

“You’re all the time moving in a way, seeing things in a way that is comparable to being on the court,” Bird said. “Obviously, you’re not in a game, so that you’re not having to maneuver fast or do things with urgency, but I believe you simply all the time move that way when you could have that form of vision. That sounds insane. It’s actually not.”

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

Receiving a pass from Bird inspired confidence, Langhorne said. Here was one in all the sport’s greats, entrusting her with the ball and to make the proper play.

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

Injuries forced Jackson to go away the W.N.B.A. in 2012. Bird found her next post partner in Stewart, one other Connecticut product who Seattle took with the primary overall pick in 2016. The 2 won championships in 2018 and 2020.

“She knows where everyone seems to be presupposed to be before sometimes we even do,” Stewart said. “She knows which block I would like to get the ball on or which pass goes to get through and which isn’t. Sometimes, once you’re on the basketball court, a player makes a cut after which the pass comes, and sometimes with Sue, the pass comes after which the player makes the cut because she’s seeing the defense sometimes quicker than us.”

Bird said Penicheiro, who retired in 2012, and the Chicago Sky’s Courtney Vandersloot are among the many point guards she has most enjoyed watching because “they’re really fun.” Vandersloot recently passed Lindsay Whalen to change into third on the W.N.B.A.’s profession assists list. She’s the energetic player closest to tying Bird — and she or he’s still greater than 800 assists away.

Bird broke Penicheiro’s record together with her 2,600th assist to a cutting Carolyn Swords in 2017.

“It was actually a reasonably nice pass, and she or he deserves it. And records are supposed to be broken, and if anybody breaks your record, you would like it to be a player like Sue Bird,” Penicheiro said.

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

Even one assist from Bird is a moment to recollect. Thirteen players received one assist from Bird, based on Elias. The list includes Courtney Paris, who regarded Bird as one in all her favorite players growing up and spent most of her W.N.B.A. profession on alert as an opponent who had the unenviable task of attempting to play team defense against her.

“The second you go to assist, she’s going to search out the smallest piece of space to get the ball to whoever must get it,” Paris said.

Paris joined the Storm in 2018 and didn’t play often in her two seasons in Seattle as her playing profession wound down. Paris didn’t remember the form of pass she received from Bird or how she scored, but she recalled being excited over the sequence.

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

Ashley Walker, one other member of the one-assist from Bird club, who played with Seattle in 2009, was similarly appreciative.

“She’s one in all the pioneers,” Walker said. “She’s someone that individuals look as much as, and she or he did it with such grace, such confidence. And it’s just amazing to know that I’m an element of that have and I actually get a probability to say: ‘I caught a pass from Sue Bird. What did you do?’”

Bird has also made her mark throughout the postseason together with her assists. She set a playoff record with 14 assists in a 2004 Western Conference finals game against Sacramento, then broke it with 16 in Game 1 of the 2020 finals against Las Vegas. Vandersloot broke that postseason record last 12 months, with 18 assists against Connecticut.

The chapter is closing on one in all the W.N.B.A.’s most memorable careers. Bird said she achieved every part she desired to within the league, establishing goals within the moment.

“The straightforward analogy here is, who does everybody chase within the N.B.A.? Michael Jordan,” Bird said. “Because Michael Jordan played a full profession. He won six rings. So, six rings became the usual. In our league, after I got into the league, that didn’t really exist.”

She continued: “There was no real path to follow, because no person had that 20-year profession yet. So, I actually didn’t know what to dream, and so to sit down here now with all of the championships I even have, I just feel really satisfied.”

Now a young player — Bird named Arike Ogunbowale of the Dallas Wings for instance — can model the milestones within the careers of players comparable to Maya Moore and Diana Taurasi.

Many, after all, will take a look at Bird’s illustrious profession.

“I believe there’s something that motivates you in that way, but at the identical time, forging your personal path, I enjoyed that as well,” Bird said. “I’m unsure. Possibly having something to chase is best. Possibly there’s more pressure.”

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