SEATTLE -- Sue Bird walked off the court Tuesday for the last time, her WNBA career concluding where it started two decades earlier. Despite a season-ending loss, the Seattle Storm point guard received a fitting tribute from the crowd at Climate Pledge Arena. The fans roared their appreciation for her 19 seasons as Bird unsuccessfully fought back tears, repeatedly acknowledging the crowd by raising her hands before disappearing into the tunnel.
Bird's path from No. 1 overall pick of the WNBA draft to future Hall of Famer seemed direct. She walks away from the WNBA as the most decorated player in league history, with a record 13 All-Star appearances and four championships during a career spent entirely in Seattle.
Over two decades here, Bird was a paragon of consistency, averaging double-figure scoring each of her first 16 seasons and at least 4.8 assists in all but one of her campaigns. Yet the steady play required Bird to navigate a series of career-threatening surgeries on her troublesome left knee, an ever-changing group of teammates and her own aging.
It all came to an end Tuesday, when the Las Vegas Aces eliminated the Storm 3-1 in the WNBA semifinals. As Bird has reflected on her career over the last several weeks, she was perhaps proudest of winning four WNBA championships across three different stages -- and decades -- of her career. Bird first won as part of a duo with fellow 23-year-old Lauren Jackson, then again with the two stars in their prime six years later. She added the final two championships as a veteran presence on a roster anchored by younger stars Jewell Loyd and Breanna Stewart.
"It wasn't just like lightning in a bottle where you had a great roster for a couple of years," Bird said. "I was part of teams where each time we won we had to figure it out. It was a totally different equation and we did it. I'm really proud of that."
On the way there, Bird considered leaving to finish her career elsewhere before recommitting to the Storm, ultimately outlasting six head coaches, six teammates who have already beat her to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame and even a building. (Longtime home KeyArena, now renovated as Climate Pledge Arena.)
As the curtain comes down one final time, we revisit the four stages of one of the greatest professional careers in women's sports history, including the moment Bird knew she would finish her career in Seattle.
Act I: 'Big Kids'
Scene: October 2004. Confetti is falling at KeyArena. A sellout crowd has seen the Storm beat the Connecticut Sun to win Seattle's first major pro sports championship since the Sonics 25 years earlier. Bird and Jackson, in their third season together, celebrate the first of what looks to be many titles together.
"We had no idea what we were doing, we were totally new to it," Bird recalled. "It felt amazing. It was the first time. It was the city's first in [25 years] so that excitement was real. We were 23. We felt like we were going to be in the Finals every year -- and then we weren't."
When Bird was drafted No. 1 by the Storm in 2002, the franchise was young in every sense. The WNBA had expanded to Seattle just two years earlier, and unlike other expansion teams that built up quickly, the Storm operated patiently. That resulted in back-to-back top picks yielding Bird and Jackson, precocious basketball talents whose games meshed perfectly.
"She and Lauren both, big kids," said Jenny Boucek, who joined the Storm as an assistant under Anne Donovan ahead of Bird's second season. "They played for the love of the game. There was a joy about them that was indescribable and that was their edge. Sue and Lauren's joy gave them a fearlessness and almost a naiveté that trumped a lot of things that hold teams and players back. They were just having so much fun.
"That was actually a little bit of a challenge for Anne because it was so contrary to her personality. I'd often have conversations with Anne like, 'We've got to maximize this. This is our edge. Even though it's not how you operate, our star players, they thrive in a fun, playful environment.'"
It's hard to believe now, but one of the questions for Bird early in her career was how to be a leader in a locker room full of older players. In the wake of a 2003 season that ended with Seattle just outside the playoff picture despite Jackson winning MVP for the first time, the Storm focused on adding more experience. Seattle added a pair of veteran starters, picking Betty Lennox in a dispersal draft after the Cleveland Rockers folded, and acquiring Sheri Sam and key reserve Janell Burse via trade.
"I think the whole idea then was 'Sue and Lauren are the cornerstones in this moment, they're this duo that we need to build around,'" Bird said. "'How can we make their lives easier as young players? How can we make it so they just have to go out there and play?'"
The moves worked as envisioned. The Storm won 20 games for the first time and enjoyed home-court advantage throughout the playoffs thanks to upsets elsewhere. Despite Bird breaking her nose during the team's first-round win over the Minnesota Lynx and undergoing surgery the day before the deciding Game 3 of the conference finals, she handed out 14 assists as Seattle advanced to the WNBA Finals.
After losing Game 1 in Connecticut, the Storm came home to a full KeyArena and won the next two games. Lennox won Finals MVP honors as Seattle celebrated a championship at home.
Free agency, new to the WNBA as part of a collective bargaining agreement signed after Bird's rookie season, took a toll on the Storm's championship roster. Sam and fellow starter Kamila Vodichkova departed, as did Bird's backup, Tully Bevilaqua. Seattle still won 20 games the following season, but was upset in the opening round by the Houston Comets. By 2007, when Jackson won MVP a second time, the Storm had dropped to .500 and were swept out of the playoffs in the first round.
"We had a championship roster and we never got to build on it," Bird said. "We never got to see what was going to happen with it because free agency came in. Now you fast-forward to 2006, 2007, I'll be honest: Those rosters weren't good enough to win. Could we have overachieved and gotten further? Definitely, but those rosters weren't necessarily championship rosters."
Act II: Peaking
Scene: September 2010. Philips Arena, Atlanta. Coco Miller misses a 3-pointer that could have tied the score and the Storm complete a perfect postseason in the wake of a 28-6 regular season. For the first time since 2004, Bird is a WNBA champion. She leaps into Jackson's arms to celebrate.
"We were very mission-oriented in a way," Bird recalled of the 2010 season. "There was a mission. It was to win."
Boucek, who returned to Seattle's coaching staff in 2010 under coach Brian Agler, saw the difference five consecutive first-round exits made.
"I think we all took it for granted how 'easily' that came and that we were just going to win a lot of them," Boucek said. "It had been a long time in our world that it didn't happen. So there was a seriousness that wasn't there the first time, a focus, an appreciation for how difficult this was."
This was also a different version of Bird. After winning the first title, she didn't elevate her game as expected in her mid-20s. She made the All-WNBA First Team each of her first four seasons, but was left off both teams at ages 25 and 26. In 2007, when Bird dealt with midseason arthroscopic knee surgery, her scoring average dropped to 10.4 PPG -- the lowest it would be for a decade.
Playing without Jackson, injured during first-round exits in 2008 and 2009, forced Bird to become more aggressive offensively. In 2008, her scoring average bounced back to 14.1 PPG. In 2011, Bird averaged a career-high 14.7 points, earning All-WNBA honors both years.
"I always joke I'm a Robin, I'm not a Batman," Bird said. "But I'm also like a chameleon in some ways. I have to fit into what the team needs. We had this player that everything was based around. Now it was like, 'Alright, we've got to pick up the slack.'"
During this stretch, Bird earned an unforgettable but profane nickname on a popular WNBA message board for her tendency to make big shots late in games to help the Storm put opponents away: Sue Die B----es Bird. Teammate Tanisha Wright delighted in joking with her about it.
"I don't know the first time I heard it," Bird said, "but it's a hell of a f'ing nickname. It's a compliment."
In the 2010 playoffs alone, Bird made a pair of game-winning shots to help keep the Storm unbeaten. In Game 2 at Phoenix, Bird moved off the ball while Wright ran a pick-and-roll, then delivered a catch-and-shoot 3 to cap a comeback from down 12 with 3:21 left and complete the sweep.
A week later, it was Bird running pick-and-roll with Jackson, whose moving screen freed Bird to make a pull-up jumper in the final seconds to win Game 1 of the WNBA Finals against the Dream.
"I've never been around a more clutch shooter than Sue Bird," Agler said. "Her ability to hit key free throws, hit key shots in the guts of the game, there were multiple times she did that in the years I was there. There's no way I could have more confidence in anybody else than her."
The 2010 postseason marked another turning point for Bird: With Boucek unable to travel for playoff games due to a rule briefly limiting teams to one full-time assistant coach, they began watching film together to study opposing defenses and figure out how Bird could best counter them, something Agler said "took her game to another level."
"I've never been around a more clutch shooter than Sue Bird." Former Storm coach Brian Agler
"Sue's brain is very much like a computer," Boucek explained. "If you put the files in the file cabinets and you load up that database, she is better than anybody I've ever seen at being able to pull from large amounts of information at the right time. By the time she got to the game, she would use her genius to pull from it, but she was prepared."
To Bird, the extra study was all about finding any edge necessary during a playoff run where the team's final four wins came by three points or fewer.
"If you can steal a possession in that way, just by outsmarting them," Bird said. "I've kind of figured out that's where a lot of my strength lies -- being able to use my IQ to kind of manipulate. Jenny helped me establish that."
Act III: Rebuilding and recommitting
Scene: September 2015. Night of the WNBA draft lottery. UConn star Breanna Stewart, who has already won three consecutive NCAA titles, is the prized No. 1 pick next spring. Seattle has the best odds. Watching at a sports bar near Seattle, Bird sees WNBA president Laurel Richie open an envelope with the Storm's logo and knows it means she'll finish her career the same place it started.
"Stewie doesn't know it," Bird said, "but she kind of saved my career here in a lot of ways. If we don't get the No. 1 pick that year, I don't know. I really don't know. At the same time, if I go to New York, who knows if I last as long as I've lasted now. Things happen for a reason and I'm glad they happened the way they did."
To get in position to land Stewart required Seattle to rebuild for the first time in Bird's career. The roster had aged and atrophied, with Jackson last playing in the WNBA in 2012 due to injury. The Storm were coming off a 12-22 record in 2014, when Agler departed for the Los Angeles Sparks. Bird's future in Seattle was also becoming a question mark.
"The question I had to ask myself," Bird said, "Well, somebody else, I think it was [UConn] coach (Geno) Auriemma, posed it to me this way, which was: 'Do you ever want to play in a meaningful WNBA game again?' I was like, 'Oh man, when you put it that way.'"
Playing for her hometown New York Liberty loomed as an option. Not only were they a contender led by a pair of native New Yorkers -- Tina Charles and Epiphanny Prince, both of whom played with Bird during her final season -- the Liberty also had added former Seattle teammates Wright and Swin Cash, two of Bird's closest friends in the league.
"Stewie doesn't know it, but she kind of saved my career here in a lot of ways. If we don't get the No. 1 pick that year, I don't know." Sue Bird, who considered leaving Seattle prior to Seattle winning the 2016 WNBA draft lottery and the right to select Breanna Stewart at No. 1
Inevitably, they tried to recruit Bird to New York. And Bird could easily envision playing at iconic Madison Square Garden with friends and family in attendance.
"I definitely fell in love with the fantasy of that," Bird said. "It became very attractive."
Especially as losses mounted during the 2015 season.
"We're losing a lot of games," Bird recalled. "That's what we signed up for. That's what I signed up for. Obviously Stewie was coming out of college the next year, so that was very much the motivating factor, but it got hard. Losing is hard.
"You just want to feel good out there. It doesn't always have to be about losing and winning, but you want to feel good out there. It was tough."
At the same time Bird was deciding where she would finish her career, she was also taking steps to ensure she kept playing at a high level deep into her 30s. Bird began working closely with performance coach Susan King Borchardt, who had been part of the Seattle organization seasonally, on a year-round basis. The difference was evident.
"She did a phenomenal job of making the decision that she was going to invest in her body and take care of her body in these latter years," Wright said. "I know that's a frustrating part because you've had these knee issues ... but I think Sue did a phenomenal job of making the decision to say, 'I'm committing to this,' and obviously it's helped her tremendously these last five years.
"Once you saw her in action, it's like, 'Oh, s---.' That's real-deal stuff. For her to make that commitment at that age? Kudos to her."
"Sue's brain is very much like a computer. If you put the files in the file cabinets and you load up that database, she is better than anybody ... at being able to pull from large amounts of information at the right time." Former Storm coach Jenny Boucek, on watching game film and helping Bird prepare for opposing defenses
Meanwhile, Boucek -- who replaced Agler as head coach in 2015 -- was installing an offense that could highlight Bird's decision-making prowess as well as feature Stewart, should the Storm be able to draft her.
"I'm so thankful for that," Bird said, "because I was at a place in my career where I felt like I was plateauing and needed to change my diet. That style really breathed new life for me. It wasn't like catered toward me but it really was designed for a player like myself."
With Seattle locked into a battle against the San Antonio Silver Stars for pole position in the draft lottery, Bird sat out four of the last five games in 2015, including a loss to San Antonio in the regular-season finale that assured the Storm the best odds. When the winning combination came up for Seattle, Bird's choice in free agency was clear. She took meetings to go through the free agency process but never seriously considered leaving.
"I knew deep down," Bird said, "if we got the No. 1 pick I was not going anywhere."
Act IV: Back on top
Scene: September 2018. Bird is celebrating a championship again, this time against the Washington Mystics. She's now the veteran on a group of players largely experiencing winning a title for the first time, as is coach Dan Hughes.
"For me personally," Bird said, "what was different from 2004 and 2010 is I legitimately never thought I would be on the No. 1 team going into the playoffs and having a chance to go to the Finals. That was off the table for me. I just didn't even allow myself to think of it that way. I don't have like a favorite [title] per se, but I think when it's all said and done, 2018 will always stand out."
Seattle's success with Stewart wasn't immediate. After reaching the playoffs during Stewart's rookie season, when Bird was voted All-WNBA First Team at age 35 after shooting what was then a career-best 44% from 3-point range, the Storm backslid in 2017, costing Boucek her job. Hughes, one of the league's winningest coaches, took over but retained much of the offense Boucek had installed.
Despite Stewart's potential, Bird noted Seattle was still picked seventh going into the 2018 season, when Hughes, a longtime WNBA head coach, took over. Bird and newcomer Natasha Howard, a reserve on championship teams in Indiana and Minnesota, were the lone core players with significant postseason experience.
"Nobody realized the impact Natasha was going to have on our team," Bird said. "I don't think we realized it. In reality, if you look at it, she didn't even start [the first game]. It wasn't until [Crystal Langhorne] got hurt and then she had to start. We had all the perfect pieces in a lot of ways and Natasha Howard entering that lineup unlocked all of it."
In Bird, who had seen it all by that point, a young team also had the perfect veteran leader. Always capable of leading by example -- Boucek called her a great "influencer" of her teammates -- Bird had become more comfortable as a vocal presence in the locker room over time.
"Sue had the wisdom to understand that a lot of things got to happen to put yourself in position to be champion again," Hughes said, "especially after a rebuild situation. I think the same things she appreciated, I appreciated.
"I think that appreciation is something that wasn't lost to the teammates that hadn't lived that life to know that this is rare air. You want everything you can at that moment to be invested in the right way. As a leader of our team, that was a great message she carried."
Two years later, after both Bird (due to yet another knee surgery) and Stewart (Achilles rupture) missed the opportunity to defend the title in 2019, the Storm won a fourth championship under unique circumstances. The 2020 season was played in a bubble on the IMG campus in Bradenton, Florida, with players utilizing their platform to highlight social justice, specifically the "Say Her Name" campaign.
To Bird, the 2020 Seattle team -- also undefeated in the playoffs -- deserves to be considered among the WNBA's greatest teams ever.
"We had the same talent from 2018, only we got better and deeper," she said. "Now we had these vets -- obviously I'm an older vet, but Stewie and Jewell are now vets. Then you add Jordin [Canada] and Cedes [Mercedes Russell], they're not vets, but they're WNBA players. It's not their rookie year anymore."
For all the young talent around Bird, she remained an indispensable part of the Storm's last two championship teams. In 2020, they went 16-1 in the 17 games Bird played, suffering three of their four losses with her sidelined during the regular season.
As Bird became older, she found ways to compensate for losing the speed Agler said made her a "much, much better athlete than people gave her credit for" in her prime. Along the way, Bird's production remained remarkably consistent into her 40s.
"I've literally been a different player in each five-year segment," Bird said. "I've been a little bit different physically and I've just been able to find ways.
"I never in my life have relied on my size, on my strength. I think there have been times earlier in my career where I relied on quickness a little bit -- not relied on but I needed it. It's how I got places. With each change physically that has come, I've been able to adapt because I never truly relied on it in these other ways. My experience and my smarts, as long as I had that, you can overcome some of the physical changes."
Now Bird is walking away from the WNBA after playing more games than any other player in league history (579; only Diana Taurasi has also played in at least 500 games) and doing so on her terms, having decided to return for a final season after fans chanted "One more year!" following Seattle's 2021 playoff loss to Phoenix.
After initially leaving the door open to extending her career, Bird announced her retirement midway through the Storm's schedule, giving fans an opportunity to show their appreciation during her final campaign. A sellout crowd of 18,000-plus, the largest in franchise history, turned out for her final regular-season game in Seattle.
Bird is aware health could have prevented that ending, as it did for Jackson's WNBA career -- especially considering Bird's left knee issues dating to an ACL tear during her freshman year in 1998 but accelerated by microfracture surgery to treat a meniscus injury in 2003. No other professional basketball player is known to have played so long after microfracture, which has become increasingly rare as a conventional treatment.
"The story that nobody talks about is my knee," Bird said. "This is the knee of a 70-year-old. In the bubble I had a bone bruise. I got an MRI and the doctor who was on site opened it up and was like, 'WTF?' My knee usually gets that reaction from doctors. People constantly tell me, 'I don't know how you're doing it.' I don't know how I'm doing it either! Some of it is luck, some of it is good genetics."
As the mental and physical toll of playing grew and Bird prepared for her next act as an investor in NJ/NY Gotham FC of the National Women's Soccer League, co-owner of the women's sports media brand TOGETHXR and a broadcaster, the time to retire was right "for so many reasons," she said.
Sure, there's a game here or there Bird wishes had gone differently, a pass she hadn't made or a shot she had taken. Still, she's retiring pleased with a career that will be difficult for future generations of WNBA stars to match.
"There's like these tiny little regrets in terms of that," Bird said. "But I think that's just natural as an athlete to be like, 'Dang, I wish we would have won that one.' But generally speaking, I feel very much at peace and at ease with my career. I don't have heavy regret. I don't have pretty much any shoulda coulda wouldas.
"I know that I did everything I could to win championships and we were successful in that regard, so it feels really good. I know I had a positive impact on my community, on my teams. I don't feel like any stones were unturned in that way."
Before joining ESPN, Kevin Pelton spent 10 years working for the Seattle Storm as the team's website reporter.