UConn women’s basketball legend Sue Bird on her WNBA journey: ‘You play to win’

Photo of Paul Doyle

Sue Bird was a UConn senior 20 years ago as she anticipated the next level of her basketball life.

There was chatter the Seattle Storm would select Bird with the No. 1 pick of the WNBA Draft. Bird, though, was unsure as she contemplated her future those last few weeks in Storrs.

“It’s not real until your name is called,” Bird said Tuesday. “Not until (commissioner) Val Ackerman stepped up there and said ‘With the No. 1 pick’ and said my name, did it become real.”

It was April 19, 2002 when the career of one of the WNBA’s all-time great players began. Bird, 41, is about to start her 19th and likely final season in a career that’s been punctuated by four WNBA titles, 12 All-Star selections and five Olympic gold medals.

Bird enters the season as the league’s all-time leader in games (549) and assists (3,048). She is second all-time in 3-pointers (945) and seventh in points (6,561). She has also been part of a model franchise, a perennial playoff team and title contender.

But it all began 20 years ago this week, when an East Coast kid — Connecticut by way of Long Island — was selected by Seattle.

On Tuesday, Bird reminisced about that day and her early years in Seattle..

The draft? There was anxiety, although experiencing the process with three college teammates was memorable: Swin Cash was the No. 2 pick, Asjha Jones went fourth, and Tamika Williams sixth.

UConn was coming off the high of an NCAA title, the second of Bird’s college career. She was playing for the best program in the country, within driving distance to the place where she grew up.

Professional life would take her to the opposite coast.

“After I got selected, I just remember thinking like, ‘Dang, Seattle’s far,’ “ Bird said. “And it is. That hasn’t changed.”

Her introduction to the fan base came at the Sonics’ NBA game. The first few weeks in Seattle was about adjusting to an unfamiliar city. Veteran Michelle Marciniak took her to breakfast and showed her around town.

Other veterans helped her acclimate to the region — where’s the grocery store, for example.

“And I remember getting in my car and driving around and just essentially getting lost, just trying to get lost so I could learn my way around,” Bird said. “Obviously this was like pre-GPS.”

Bird has become a beloved figure in Seattle, among the best athletes in the history of the city and a player identified by the region.

Yet her affection for the Pacific Northwest grew slowly.

“I didn’t love Seattle when I first got here,” Bird said. “It was really far from home. Weather climate was different. The pace of the city was really different for me, coming from the East Coast….

“But I would say by year two, when I came back for my second year, I really went out of my way … I really tried to get out more. I didn’t want to just sit in my apartment. I wanted to try new things.”

By her third season, she was a homeowner. She was also a WNBA champion.

And she was part of the community.

“This place really did become a home,” Bird said. “And then, of course, the fan base of the city itself and how they embraced me, so it made it really easy to consider this place home.”

Those fans played a role in Bird’s decision to push off retirement. Bird was undecided about her future when the 2021 season ended, but the home crowd’s “One more year” chant following a playoff loss to Phoenix swayed her.

So she’s back, playing for a coach who is four years her junior — Noelle Quinn turned 37 in October.

Bird is now the player showing rookies such as Evina Westbrook around the city and pointing out the best places to buy groceries. She gathered the group together Tuesday night to watch NBA playoff games and “get to know each other off the court.”

“I just think when you’ve been in the league for as long as I have been, 20 years, I have a lot of knowledge to pass on,” Bird said. “With experience just comes so much understanding of the game, especially the game at this level. So I feel like my role, it hasn’t really changed throughout the years. You know, I’ve always been the point guard. I’ve always tried to lead, both vocally and by example. It’s just now I’m in a place where I just know everything out there. Like, I’ve literally seen and experienced everything.

“So if I can help any player, you know, whether it’s someone like Evina, where it’s her first year, or someone like (Breanna Stewart), where she’s now a vet, if I can speed up their learning process, I’m going to try to give those little tidbits and that’s a lot of where I think my leadership lifts.”

Leading, though, isn’t the primary reason for returning.

“I want to win,” Bird said. “I’m not here just to help them out. Right? Like, you play to win, so that’s where the good stuff is, right? Like, that journey with a team trying to get to the finals, trying to get to the championship trophy so you can hoist that thing up.”