WNBA Legend Bird Reflects on Journey of Becoming All-Time Assist Leader

By Matthew Roberson

Sue Bird is bopping around the Seattle Storm’s practice gym on the campus of Seattle Pacific University, another Seattle summer afternoon set to the soundtrack of balls bouncing on hardwood. The 16-year WNBA veteran has graced this SPU court hundreds of times in the seven years the Storm have used it to hone its skills. While the location and the objectives of the practices have largely remained the same, Bird’s approach to them has evolved as the point guard grows older. When not involved in a drill or a scrimmage, Bird can be found launching jump shots on one of the side hoops, or riding the stationary bike on the baseline while dissecting her team’s training habits.

To an outsider, it would be easy to mistake Bird for a member of the training staff, or a middling player trying to use every second of every day to get better in hopes of solidifying her spot on the roster. Of course, Bird is neither of those things. In reality, she is the unquestioned face of the Storm franchise, a record-breaking titan of the WNBA, and one of the most accomplished American basketball players of the 21st century. That does not mean she is immune to adjusting her habits, as the longtime floor general had to switch things up after enduring a stretch of physical hardships.

“There was a period of time in a year-and-a-half stretch where I had three major surgeries. I had my right hip, my left hip, and then my left knee,” Bird recalls. “It was probably after that where I started to change my diet, started to change my workout regimen, and with that came changing my practice. It’s actually Jenny Boucek who said this, ‘tread on a tire.’ I’ve only got so much tread left. That’s the reality. I’m 36 and I’ve played year-round for many, many years. You just want to conserve your tread. You don’t want to waste it on a little drill here, small drill there. You want to make sure you have it when you need it.”

Bird conserved enough tread over her career to break Ticha Penicheiro’s WNBA record for career assists. According to the legend herself, the record was more than an afterthought, it wasn’t even a thought at all.

“I didn’t really necessarily know about the record until maybe a month or so ago, someone brought it up. A reporter had asked me ‘Oh did you realize that you’re only x amount away? And if you averaged this, blah, blah, blah.’ I was like, ‘Nah, I didn’t know that,’” Bird admitted. “I didn’t know it could happen this season until about a month ago. Since then, it’s just been business as usual. I think the more you think about stuff like that, the less likely you’re focused on what you need to be focused on. I didn’t come into this league thinking about records like that. So, I’m not going to think about it at the end either.”

On ­­­Sept. 1, playing against the Washington Mystics at Capital One Arena, Bird used a high ball screen and drove with her right hand. She picked up her dribble, patiently waiting for the play to develop, then dished to Carolyn Swords, whose layup made the record breaker official. After the game, a reflective Bird explained what it all meant to her.

BIRD’S RECORD-BREAKING ASSIST AT WASHINGTON

“I think it is special,” Bird offered. “You have to be pretty good to play in this league, so if you are at the top of any statistical category, it says something about you as a player. For me, it really speaks to longevity. Today, my sister, her husband, my two little nieces were able to come down from New York and see this, it’s kind of nice that it worked out that way and that I had family here to witness it.”

Storm fans from coast-to-coast will surely claim that they’ve seen most of, if not all of Bird’s assists over the years. Bryan Thorn, the Storm’s head statistician since 2001, has not only seen his fair share of Bird’s helpers, he’s credited all of the dimes to happen at home. Joining the KeyArena stat crew before Bird was even drafted allowed Thorn to witness the journey from the very beginning. He says he knew early on that the Storm had something special brewing in its backcourt.

“Yes, it was clear right away,” Thorn divulged. “Seeing her in person, we would talk about just how quickly she was in charge, even as a rookie coming in. There was no question that she had that pace. She knew what her game was and she imprinted it on that team.”

Thorn is only tasked with keeping the statistics for home games. He says when he watches the team play on the road, he still monitors the way things are recorded.

“I’ll tell you, rebounds are easy to count, points are easy to count, but assists are a little bit different. We’re trying to take something that’s subjective and make it objective so it’s consistent,” Thorn expresses. “They’ve done a number of tests over the years to compare home and road, and it’s all pretty consistent. I’ll check just to make sure I’m not losing my mind. I never see monkey business or anything weird. Her assists are lower on the road, only because the offense tends to struggle more on the road. That’s just the way basketball works.”

On the court, Bird has left nearly no stone unturned. In 1998, her senior year of high school, she helped her team at Christ the King Regional High School in Queens, NY go undefeated and capture both the state and national title. From there, Bird enrolled at the University of Connecticut, helping lead the program’s dynastic rise to the top of the college basketball world. The Huskies rolled to national championships in Bird’s sophomore and senior seasons. While the decision to attend UConn can seem like a no-brainer for current high school hoopers, things weren’t always so cut and dry for the nation’s best female players.

“I was one of the first classes and first generations that was getting recruited by colleges knowing that I can play professional sports in the U.S. That factors into the decision a little bit,” Bird said, speaking about the WNBA’s creation while she was a high schooler in 1997. “You want someone who will prepare you for that next level. There was always talks about overseas, but when you’re in high school [you’re like] Europe? I don’t want to play in Europe. It was a different feeling knowing that you could play professional basketball in the U.S.”

When the Storm chose Bird with the No. 1 overall pick in the 2002 WNBA Draft, it did not take long for her to ascend to stardom. She helped Seattle qualify for its first playoff appearance in the franchise’s third year of existence, igniting a run of 12 postseasons in 13 years. Averaging 14 points and six assists per game while swishing over 90 percent of her free throws resulted in a spot on the 2002 All-WNBA First Team, making her one of two rookies named to the squad. In 2004, Bird posted the highest player efficiency rating and offensive rating of her career, combining with Lauren Jackson and Betty Lennox to deliver a WNBA championship to the Pacific Northwest. That summer, the Syosset, NY native donned the red, white, and blue in the Athens Olympics, leaving with a gold medal.

Another WNBA championship came in 2010, as did gold medals in 2008, 2012, and 2016. Bird is tied with Tamika Catchings for most All-Star nods (10), and now holds the record for career assists. She was honored as one of the WNBA’s Top 15 Players of All Time at the league’s 15th anniversary in 2011, and again as one of the 20 best in 2016. The prototypical, American girl next door even has five Russian National League championships, won during WNBA offseasons when she takes her talents overseas for extra skills sharpening.

So, is there anything left for Bird to do on the basketball court?

“I mean, yes and no,” Bird said. “I think in some ways, I know if I retired right now, I could look back on my career and feel satisfied in the fact that I’ve won on every level. Hopefully I did that in a way that left some sort of legacy. But I think the competitor inside of you – as you go – you don’t think about the past. You’re just focused on the present. I would love to bring another championship to this franchise. To be honest, there’s no better feeling than winning. I always say this, you can argue up and down ‘Who’s a better point guard? Who’s the better shooting guard? Who’s the better center?’ But you can’t argue championships. They speak for themselves.”

Throughout her storied 16-year career, Bird has largely let her play speak for itself. She is equal parts engaging and reserved, as charming as she is introverted. This summer, as WNBA All-Star Weekend came to Seattle for the first time, the city’s de facto ambassador made a rare step into the spotlight. Bird announced that she is gay, acknowledging that she is dating soccer star Megan Rapinoe. Now that her largest personal secret is out, and she’s checked off most of the items on her basketball bucket list, is there anything else she needs to get off her chest?

Sitting on a KeyArena staircase, minutes after defeating the San Antonio Stars 79-78, Bird thought about the question. This was four games before breaking the assist record, and Rapinoe was a matter of yards away, interacting with fans while waiting for her girlfriend to finish up. Wearing a t-shirt emblazoned “Femme Forever”, sporting ripped jeans and her trademark wavy ponytail, Bird responded.

“I think I’ve come out with a lot of secrets this year. I think I’m good on the secrets,” she said with a laugh. “I’m a big hip-hop fan, I don’t think that’s a secret though. I’m from New York, so I definitely have a bend toward Biggie and Jay-Z, Tribe Called Quest for sure. Those are albums that you just hit play, and you don’t have to worry. I’m a 90s hip-hop fan. That’s when I grew up. I grew up with that.”

While Bird was jamming out to her favorite East Coast MC’s, a generation of basketball fans were being born that would never experience life without the WNBA. Several of Bird’s teammates, including standouts Breanna Stewart and Jewell Loyd, were born in the early to mid-90s, their development happening right alongside the development of the WNBA. Bird lights up when thinking about this, speaking in a tone that mixes awestruck nostalgia with accomplished pride.

“It’s great to hear people in the younger generation who have grown up with the WNBA and don’t know life without it. That’s pretty special,” Bird said. “I know once I got into the league, it was also special for me to know that there were little boys, and of course little girls, who are able to look up to us. That’s not an experience that I had. There’s a ton of players in this league who are a part of mainstream conversation in their cities. You grew up with myself and Lauren Jackson. You know the names, you know a little bit of the history. I think that’s cool that it’s part of the normal, everyday conversation, when you’re talking about sports and women’s basketball comes up. I know that’s happening in a lot of WNBA cities. I’m proud of that.”

It is not hyperbole to say that the WNBA would be markedly different if not for Bird, especially in Seattle. Teamed with Lauren Jackson, the duo became one of the best in league history while carrying the Storm to the 2004 and 2010 titles. In addition to the assist record, Bird ranks in the top five in career three pointers made and games played, while sliding into the top ten in points and steals. Along the way, she says she’s picked up things here and there from watching the men’s game. Bird famously made friends with Kyrie Irving at the 2016 Olympics. Irving attended the Storm’s June 23 game with the Phoenix Mercury, but Bird says it’s another NBA point guard that has helped provide the blueprint for her style of play.

“I watch the NBA a lot. Steve Nash, I mean he’s obviously one of the best. When I watch Steve Nash, the thing I notice – and I don’t necessarily do this but it’s in the back of my head – he never picks his dribble up. He’s constantly just probing, probing, probing, under the hoop and back around. That’s harder than you think. It takes a certain focus. I’ve done some drills to try to be more like that. It can be hard.”

These drills have ostensibly paid off. In his age-36 season, Nash led the NBA in assists. In her age-36 season, Bird broke her league’s all-time record for dimes. Of course, whenever a record is broken, it is done at the expense of another. In this case, that is Penicheiro, a 15-year veteran of the WNBA who retired with 2,599 assists. As Bird noted, the two pass-first players stacked up their assists in different ways, with the retired Portuguese point guard often opting for the razzle dazzle approach.

“She’s just way more creative with what she does on the floor. She’s known for her flashy passes,” Bird shared. “But not in the way that was showboating, it was a way that still got the ball where it needed to go. What makes some of her assists even more impressive were the fact that she wasn’t necessarily a scorer. Still, she was able to break defenses down and find the open player at all times.”

Thorn also pointed out that Bird went about attacking defenses differently than many of her contemporaries.

“It’s different than, say, a Diana Taurasi or a Lindsay Whalen, both of them are large enough and still fast enough that they can do more of a drive-and-kick, or kind of impose their will on the defense and then find the open person because so much attention is on them,” Thorn said. “Sue doesn’t have that. She’s like spinning five plates at once. She’s got to keep all those plates spinning just right to keep the offense going. When the defense falters even a little bit, boom, she finds the person who’s got space to shoot. She sees everything always.”

The open player for most of Bird’s career was her 11-year co-pilot, Lauren Jackson. Seattle’s all-time leading point scorer, who retired in 2012, is atop the list of players who received the most assists from Bird. The two will forever be linked together. One of the first clips on any Sue Bird highlight reel is her through-the-legs pass to Jackson on a fast break at the 2003 All-Star Game. However, Bird says out of all the assists in her life, a different pass to LJ is one that she will remember the fondest.

“I don’t know if I have a favorite one. There’s one, we were down three against Minnesota in Game 2 of the playoffs. This was not a flashy pass. It was a designed play, but I was able to get an assist off a Lauren three to tie the game to go to overtime. Those kinds of passes, the ones that have meaning to them, I definitely remember those.”

Thorn has a different image spring to mind when asked about his most vivid Bird memory.

“The first thing I think of is watching her get her nose broken,” he said. “I see everything but sometimes I see nothing, if that makes sense – as far as things that I’m not watching for. But I remember just plain as day seeing an elbow go right to her nose and just seeing her sprint off the court. I still remember, she didn’t collapse, she didn’t crumble, she just left to go get it attended to.”

Of course, after watching more than a decade of Storm games, Thorn has non-injury related memories as well.

“I can picture her in transition, not necessarily a fast break, but before the defense can set up. There’s a moment where she gets the ball about chest high and you know she’s going to do something,” Thorn describes. “Sometimes as an observer, you can see what that pass is, and sometimes you can’t. But she’s always ready. Sometimes it becomes a bounce pass from the left to right side. Sometimes it’s a chest pass down the same side she’s on. But there’s that moment when she gathers, that you just know she’s in control.”

Droves of Seattle basketball fans, both old and young, will remember Bird as much for her assists as for her palpable love of the game and her beaming smile. She has the personality and the passion to pursue basketball-related careers once she hangs up her sneakers for good. But, as Bird reminds, there is much more to being a professional basketball player than many fans may realize.

“This is a full-time job. A lot of people think our game day is just the two hours, starting at 7 p.m. and you’re done at 9,” Bird begins. “Everything you do, every decision you make, how much sleep you get, what you’re eating. ‘Oh, should I go to the movies tonight? Or should I just lay and rest? Do I have time to do these things? Oh, we have a game tomorrow and then we have a game in two days.’ It’s just constantly on your mind, and it’s all about being ready for when the ball gets tipped.”

It’s natural for Bird, fans, and media members alike to entertain thoughts about her retirement. Bird has said on the record that she plainly understands that her career is in its fourth quarter. In typical Bird fashion, when asked if this year will be her last, she was funny and endearing but also coy, being careful not to reveal too much.

“We’ll see, I’m just kind of taking it as it comes. I joke that I’m on the one-year plan, but I really am just taking it one year at a time.”

Is she ready for a non-playing life that still revolves around basketball, perhaps in a coaching or front office role?

“We’ll see what happens,” Bird says, before skipping away to be with Rapinoe. Bird has certainly earned the right to take her time with her decision, even if it means keeping her fans in the dark one last time.