September 28, 2022
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As Sue Bird’s career nears its end, her true impact comes into focus

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SEATTLE — Last week, after Sue Bird watched Serena Williams confront a similar, looming finality, she thought about authenticity. From white hair beads as a teenager to diamond-encrusted Nikes as a 40-year-old mother, Williams has always been original and comfortable. Bird is in awe of Williams. It took Bird decades to grow into herself.

There is no textbook way to handle celebrity. However, there is only one path to healthy fame — your own — and discovering it challenges people not to lose themselves in the expectations of the crowd. When Williams made her “I’m just Serena” declaration at the U.S. Open, it was more mission statement than mic drop.

And after the past five years, since Bird came out as gay and started using her influence to amplify every social issue on her mind, she can say now she’s just Sue.

On Tuesday night, she and the Seattle Storm will try to extend her distinguished basketball career. They trail the Las Vegas Aces 2-1 in a thrilling best-of-five WNBA semifinal series, bringing Bird one loss from retirement. The past 2½ months have been full of celebration and nostalgia, but today she feels the same urgency Williams felt in what was likely her tennis farewell. Even if this is it for Bird, appreciation will outlast the closure.

Her enduring star power cannot be measured just through accumulation, all the trophies and statistics and accolades. You must look at what she shedded, too. Long gone is any fear, any mask, any submission to perception. She is celebrated for her athleticism, her audacity and her empathy. As Bird grew, the greatest point guard in women’s basketball history, known for dishing to others, figured out how to give herself an assist.

“There’s power in who I am,” Bird said. “It’s just for me personally. I forget everybody else. I feel good about that. I go to bed at night feeling good about that.”

The arc of Bird’s life so far embodies the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson: “To be yourself in a world that is constantly trying to make you something else is the greatest accomplishment.” She knew she was gay during college at Connecticut, but she already had been painted as the girl next door, with the trademark ponytail and a natural, mesmerizing charm. So she smiled for the cameras and maintained privacy.

No one who has known Bird, at any point in her life, would consider her fake; she’s too warm and personable. But she was guarded. She rarely said anything controversial. When she did, she made amends quickly. In 2003, during her second season with the Storm, Bird agreed to a bet with a male sports radio host about her assist-to-turnover ratio: If it was high enough, the host would buy season tickets. If it wasn’t, she would get spanked. It caused an uproar. Bird called off the bet, apologized and expressed embarrassment. She remained insightful and accommodating with the media, but she perfected the ability to hold back while still seeming open.

“It was interesting to have a public persona in terms of what people saw on the court and who I was as a player and maybe a glimpse of who I am as a person, but know that I was also hiding something within myself,” Bird said. “I was hiding my sexuality, not really showing that side of myself. And that’s a big part of who you are, because it’s who you love and it’s who you’re going to spend your time and your life with. So for me, I was growing up as a basketball player and feeling in the early stages that I wasn’t really being my authentic self. Then I had that moment where it was time to do that.”

Bird advanced from her 20s into her 30s. She won and won and won. Two collegiate titles with Connecticut. Four championships with the Storm. Five Olympic gold medals. She also fell in love with soccer superstar Megan Rapinoe, now her fiancee. In 2017, she let the world know she was gay. By 2020, she was helping her WNBA colleagues revolt against former Atlanta Dream co-owner Kelly Loeffler by supporting the candidacy of the Rev. Raphael G. Warnock for a Georgia Senate seat. Warnock ended up winning. Loeffler, who was at odds with WNBA players over their decision to protest police lethality, later sold the Dream.

The league had found its voice and realized its power. Bird was a vanguard in this shift, a White woman supporting an effort most personal to Black women. In men’s sports, the Black athlete continues to wait for more White stars to abandon their privilege and stand with them. But the women who play these games — who combat constant sexism and marginalization — understand the need for synergy. Bird came into her own at a good time. The point guard, who has been around for 21 of the WNBA’s 26 seasons, grew with the sport.

“We’re a league that’s like, ‘This is who we are,’ ” Bird said. “We finally have embraced that. We were just trying so hard. We were throwing things up against the wall, trying to survive, to see what would stick. We were trying to do that in a society where we thought: ‘Oh, we’ve got to put the feminine side forward. Oh, we’ve got to be cuter, maybe more fans will get into it.’ And then it just became, nah, you’ve just got to be yourself. And people are really going to love you or hate you. But at least it’s real.”

A few weeks ago, after her final regular season game in Seattle, Bird addressed a record crowd of 18,100 at the new Climate Pledge Arena. It was the most intimate five-minute conversation a person could have with the masses. During her remarks, she mentioned Wildrose, a 37-year-old lesbian bar in the Capitol Hill neighborhood, among the oldest of its kind on the West Coast. Bird first visited the Rose, as regulars call it, early in her career. A Storm fan approached her that night and wondered if she was in the right place. Bird feigned naivete, but she knew where she was. She was home.

In referencing Wildrose, Bird could sense “about 10,000” people were cheering. She told the story to emphasize the impact Seattle has had on her. She grew up in Syosset, N.Y., went to high school at Christ the King in Queens and stayed close for college at U-Conn. But she has become a Seattle sports institution. She grew with a league, a city and a bar still kicking despite struggles during the pandemic.

“There was a sense of acceptance,” Bird said. “Also, a sense of protection.”

Martha Manning, a Wildrose co-owner, was visiting family on the East Coast and missed Bird’s regular season finale. Her phone pinged with text messages all afternoon.

“We just love Sue,” Manning said. “Whenever she visits, I’ve never seen her turn anybody away. She’s accessible almost to a fault. Sometimes, we don’t know if we should go and run interference, but she never seems bothered.”

Bird notices everything. Her vision extends far beyond the basketball court. You can walk past her on the street, share the briefest interaction, and she will mention it several days later. You can ask a meandering question, and she listens so well she can pinpoint exactly what you want to know. Former Storm coach Brian Agler, who won a championship with Bird in 2010, likes to tell the story of a practice interaction with the point guard. She told him she wasn’t feeling right.

“I think I’m a pound or two heavy,” Bird told Agler.

The coach was amazed. He laughed and asked, “You know when you’re a pound or two heavy?”

With that kind of self-awareness, imagine how she felt knowing she had more of herself to share. It took almost 36 years for her to fully trust, not just the public but herself, too. She’s 41 now, and though that makes her an old athlete, the remainder of her life is full of possibilities: basketball coach, general manager, television personality, entrepreneur, activist, motivational speaker, life coach. But what she does won’t matter as much as who she is.

“I wish I would’ve done it sooner,” Bird said of being herself. “The timing wasn’t right. And that’s okay, too. I feel like, if you’re somebody who’s in maybe a similar situation, the timing has to be right for you. But the lesson to be learned is the sooner, the better. The sooner you are your authentic self, things just feel better.”

Bird adapted to fame, and then she made fame adapt to her. She collected more than two decades’ worth of hardware, but as she attempts to keep winning and playing, she doesn’t need to worry about how she will be remembered. She’s just Sue. That title, invaluable and robust, is enough.



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