Let’s just say Sue Bird overshot her goal. Asked in a 2005 interview how long she intended to play basketball, Bird said,
“Until my knees fall off. I hope to make it until I’m 30.’’
Those knees stayed intact, and Sue Bird, one of the greatest players in the history of women’s basketball, continues to play at age 40, when she and Diana Taurasi became the first basketball players, male or female, to win five Olympic gold medals, at the 2021 Tokyo Olympics. That was the capstone of an unparalleled career defined by winning at every level—two New York state high school championships and New York State player of the year at Christ the King High, a private school in Queens; a two-time national champion at the University of Connecticut where she won the Naismith Award as College Player of the Year in 2001-02, when the Huskies went undefeated; four-time champion and 12-time All-Star in the WNBA, the women’s professional league she helped grow through her extraordinary skill, dedication, charisma, marketability and passion; five-time FIBA World Cup gold medalist; five-time winner of Olympic gold.
“It’s a very prideful thing,” Bird told Dom Amore of the Hartford Courant during her 18th season with the WNBA’s Seattle Storm. “Playing to an age like 40, one part is being physically able, another part is wanting to do it. You have to want to continue to play, and for those that do, I hope players like myself and D, in the world of women’s basketball, have set a new standard. I jokingly bring up my age, but I feel like people bring up our age more than it is impacting our play, that ratio is definitely distorted. So hopefully we can change that conversation.”
Pull-up jumpers, deadly three-point shooting, no-look passes, crossover dribbles, the 5-foot-9 native of Syosset, N.Y., had it all.
“Point guards like her don’t come along very often,” said Lin Dunn, the coach and general manager of the Seattle Storm, shortly after the WNBA team made her the league’s first-overall draft pick in 2002. “She has great court vision and surprisingly good speed and quickness. She can score, pass and handle the ball, and she can lead. Her presence on the floor makes everybody better. There are point guards in the world who can do some of those things, but not all of those things.”
She also possessed a champion’s ability to blossom under pressure.
“I like pressure, I thrive on it,” she told Sports Illustrated early in her professional career. “I like when I’m in a tough spot and have to make a play. While I don’t like to think about the kind of pressure that’s on me right now, it does motivate me. Now I have something to prove.”
For all she has meant to the WNBA—her popularity is such that she starred in commercial spots with NBA superstar Steph Curry—Bird said that the pursuit of Olympic gold was her greatest inspiration.
“It’s hard for people to understand now, with the WNBA in its 25th year, but there was no professional basketball for me growing up,” she says. “That’s not what I dreamt of. I dreamt of the Olympics.”
Bird remembers her coach at UConn, Geno Auriemma, an assistant with the 2000 Olympic team, coming back from Sydney and telling her in so many words, “If this is something you want to do, like you can achieve this, you could be the point guard for the national team.”
She played for her first U.S. select team in international competition in 2000, the year she won her first national championship at UConn. She made her first national team in 2002, competing in the world championships in China, won her first gold medal in the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens, and moved into a starring role for Team USA in the 2008 Games, which she maintained through three more Olympiads. She played for USA Basketball through five U.S. presidents, and played on her first Olympic team with superstar Dawn Staley, who ended up becoming Olympic coach. In Tokyo, she became the first U.S. women’s basketball player since Staley in 2004 elected to be a flag-bearer for the Opening Ceremonies, along with baseball player Eddy Alvarez.
Bird’s signature moment, however, came not in international play but in college, a play that came to be known as “Bird at the Buzzer,” which inspired a book of the same name.It came in the Big East championship game, which Notre Dame had tied on a free throw with around five seconds left. Bird dribbled down the court at breakneck speed, floated into the lane, then pulled up for a 12-foot fallaway jumper over national player of the year Ruth Riley that hugged the rim then bounced in for a buzzer-beating win.The game featured five future Olympians and eight WNBA first-rounders. The Irish extracted their revenge in a Final Four seminfinal, rallying from a 12-point halftime deficit to beat the Huskies.
“I’ve never watched any tape from the 2001 semifinal game against Notre Dame. I never will,’’ Bird wrote years later in the Players Tribune. “I know how it ends and I don’t like it. [But] that loss to Notre Dame is 100 percent, without a doubt, the reason we went undefeated and won the national championship the next year, my senior year. I won a national championship my sophomore year as well. Would I prefer to have three in a row? Absolutely. But sometimes things play out the way they do for a reason. If we had won that semifinal against Notre Dame, maybe we don’t go undefeated that next year. Maybe we don’t win a national championship. Maybe that 2002 team doesn’t go down as one of the best ever.’’
Because her father’s ancestry is Russian Jewish, Bird has dual citizenship, becoming an Israeli citizen in 2006. Throughout her career, she served as an outspoken advocate on a number of social issues—anti-Semitism, racial equality, health, LGBTQ rights, gender equality—and as a vice president on the leadership board of the WNBA’s Players Association, she helped lead the league’s efforts to dedicate the 2020 season to Breonna Taylor, the 26-year-old Black woman who was shot and killed by police officers in March, 2020.
In 2021, the Anti-Defamation League made Bird the first recipient of its inaugural Changemaker Award.
“People who tell me to stick to sports don’t understand that becoming an activist wasn’t an option. As a female athlete it’s sadly never just been about basketball,” Bird said. “Sometimes it feels like I’m judged based on everything but the game that I play. I’m judged because I’m a woman. I’m judged because I’m Jewish. I’m judged because I’m gay. And many of my teammates, they’re judged because they’re Black.”