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 wide receiver, as she usually did whenever 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 always. She just didn’t know how.

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 always 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 got eyes behind your head.’”

Bird counts the pass among her favorite assists in her 19 seasons with the Storm. She has plenty of passes to choose from: Bird is the W.N.B.A.’s career leader in assists.

“I have a little bit of a Rain Man brain so hold on a second,” she had said as she tried to pick 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 in the 2003 All-Star Game. She wasn’t finished.

“Oh, there’s also another one to Lauren,” Bird said. “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 kinds of assists that Bird built her reputation 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 said.

At 41 years old, Bird is within weeks of the end of her W.N.B.A. career. In June, she announced that she would retire at the end of the season, though most people had expected as much. At the end of the 2021 season, fans chanted “one more year!” 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 one more season, but just barely. She is a 13-time All-Star and has won four championships. She toppled Ticha Penicheiro’s career assist record of 2,599 five years ago and now has 3,222 regular-season assists in a league-record 578 games.

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

“Every now and then, it can be fancy,” Bird said. “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.

Bird broke the career assists record against the Washington Mystics in 2017.Credit… Ned Dishman/NBAE via Getty Images

“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 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 right person at the right time in the right spot, year after year, 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), according to 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 types of compliments has been one of the pleasant and unexpected byproducts of announcing her retirement, Bird said.

“You just always knew what to expect from me,” Bird said. “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 top overall pick in 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 women’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 another.

“I totally forgot that,” Barnes said of Bird’s first assist, 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.”

From the left: Bird, Lauren Jackson, Adia Barnes and Betty Lennox in 2004 at a game against the Charlotte Sting. Bird made her first pro assist to Barnes.Credit…Jeff Reinking/NBAE via Getty Images

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

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

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

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

“You’re always moving in a way, seeing things in way that is similar to being on the court,” Bird said. “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 study the game. “You don’t really 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 of the game’s greats, entrusting her with the ball and to make the right 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 said. “Which I never even really said out loud before.”

Injuries forced Jackson to leave the W.N.B.A. in 2012. Bird found her next post partner in Stewart, another Connecticut product who Seattle took with the first overall pick in 2016. The two won championships in 2018 and 2020.

Bird won her fourth championship alongside Breanna Stewart, left, in 2020.Credit…Octavio Jones for The New York Times

“She knows where everyone is supposed to be before sometimes we even do,” Stewart said. “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 said Penicheiro, who retired in 2012, and the Chicago Sky’s Courtney Vandersloot are among the point guards she has most enjoyed watching because “they’re really fun.” Vandersloot recently passed Lindsay Whalen to become third on the W.N.B.A.’s career assists list. She’s the active player closest to tying Bird — and she’s still more than 800 assists away.

Bird broke Penicheiro’s record with her 2,600th assist to a cutting 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 said.

“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 assist from Bird is a moment to remember. Thirteen players received one assist from Bird, according to Elias. The list includes Courtney Paris, who regarded Bird as one of her favorite players growing up and spent most of her W.N.B.A. career on alert as an opponent who had the unenviable task of trying to play team defense against 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 said.

Bird said she accomplished everything she wanted to in the league.Credit…A.J. Olmscheid/Associated Press

Paris joined the Storm in 2018 and did not play often in her two seasons in Seattle as her playing career wound down. Paris did not remember the type 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 when I was a younger player,” Paris said.

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

“She’s one of the pioneers,” Walker said. “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 also made her mark during the postseason 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 year, with 18 assists against Connecticut.

The chapter is closing on one of the W.N.B.A.’s most memorable careers. Bird said she accomplished everything she wanted to in the league, establishing goals in the moment.

“The easy analogy here is, who does everybody chase in the N.B.A.? Michael Jordan,” Bird said. “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 young player — Bird named Arike Ogunbowale of the Dallas Wings as an example — can model the milestones in the careers of players such as Maya Moore and Diana Taurasi.

Many, of course, will 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 said. “I’m not sure. Maybe having something to chase is better. Maybe there’s more pressure.”

Credit…Lindsey Wasson for The New York Times
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