Taking too long? Close loading screen.
Connect with us

Sports

Sue Bird turns 40: The evolution and revolution of Seattle’s point guard

Published

on

How did a girl from Syosset, New York, who once claimed soccer as her first love become one of the most successful basketball players in the world?

Sue Bird has won at every level, and the Seattle Storm point guard just added to an already overflowing trophy case 10 days ago with her fourth WNBA championship.

But today, Bird reaches another milestone: It’s her 40th birthday.

From winning state titles at Christ The King and two NCAA crowns at UConn to capturing four WNBA titles and four Olympic gold medals, Bird has celebrated championships around the globe.

And while the WNBA’s all-time assists leader got shout-outs from LeBron James as he also closed in on a fourth title in his 17th season, her legacy extends off the court. Bird helped shepherd a historic collective bargaining agreement last January and spearheaded social justice issues in the WNBA bubble this past season.

We look back at the legend of Sue Bird.


How it started

Little did Suzanne Brigit Bird from Long Island know just how far she’d go on a basketball court. Baby Bird played AAU ball — shown here at a girls 11-and-under national championship in 1992, just three years before the UConn women would win their first national championship.

Bird has always been a steady, consistent player on the court, but like Seattle teammate Breanna Stewart, tends to come up big when the game is on the line.

Just days before Bird and the Storm completed a sweep of the Las Vegas Aces in the WNBA Finals on Oct. 6, UConn coach Geno Auriemma said no one was better prepared.

“Sue’s been training for these moments every single day since her rookie year,” Auriemma said during a Zoom media call. “Some people don’t have the stamina to be able to do that. They don’t have the discipline to do that.”

Helping the Huskies return to the top

Bird’s freshman season at UConn was cut short by an ACL tear, suffered just eight games into 1998-99. But she quickly made an impact when she returned to the court. Bird averaged 10.9 points and 4.3 assists as a sophomore, helping the Huskies go 36-1 and win the NCAA title. Nowadays the Huskies are synonymous with perfect seasons and three-peats, but at this point it was only the second national championship for UConn.


Related: Ageless Seattle star Sue Bird is the consummate champion


At the time, nothing was bigger in women’s college basketball than the UConn-Tennessee rivalry, and they met three times that season. In her first game in the series, Bird scored 25 points on 8-for-10 shooting as the Huskies won a January 2000 meeting in Knoxville, Tennessee. A month later, the Lady Vols repaid the favor, ruining what had been a perfect season to that point with a one-point win in Storrs, Connecticut. But UConn got the last laugh that season, easily beating Tennessee in the final in Philadelphia, Auriemma’s hometown.

“I think the series helped establish my identity as a player,” Bird told ESPN’s Mechelle Voepel last year. “As someone who, hopefully, makes their teammates better and when needed can come up with big plays and big shots.”

The best NCAA championship team ever?

Now we’re starting to see the beginnings of the next dynasty in women’s college basketball. The 2001-02 UConn team, which had Bird and three other seniors (Swin Cash, Asjha Jones and Tamika Williams) in the starting lineup, is largely regarded as the best in women’s college basketball history. The Huskies went 39-0 and steamrolled opponents by a 35.4 average margin of victory, with just one single-digit win.

Bird, with then-sophomore Diana Taurasi beside her in the UConn backcourt, averaged 14.4 points and 5.9 assists, and was the consensus National Player of the Year, winning the Wade Trophy and Naismith Award. Bird, shown below celebrating with Auriemma during a victory parade through Hartford, Connecticut, went 114-4 at UConn.

Less than three weeks later, Bird was the No. 1 pick in the WNBA draft — and Cash, Jones and Williams also were selected within the first six picks of the first round.

Led by Taurasi, the Huskies would go on to win three consecutive titles (2002-04) for just the second three-peat in women’s college basketball history.

Prestigious pack of point guards

It didn’t take the rest of the country long to put Bird on par with point guard royalty in the professional ranks. During the 2003 NBA All-Star Weekend, Bird lined up alongside the Seattle Sonics’ Gary Payton, the New Jersey Nets’ Jason Kidd, the Phoenix Sun’s Stephon Marbury and the San Antonio Spurs’ Tony Parker before the Skills Challenge.

Bird is a lock — and likely first-ballot choice — to join The Glove and J-Kidd in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame when she retires.

The Greek squad

The 2004 WNBA regular season went on hiatus in August that year as the Athens Olympics were held. Lisa Leslie, Dawn Staley and Sheryl Swoopes headlined Team USA as youngsters like Bird, Taurasi, Cash and Tamika Catchings made their Olympic debuts. Bird was an understudy as Staley capped her USA Basketball career, coming off the bench in seven of eight games as the Americans won their third consecutive gold medal.

But it laid the foundation for the future. The torch was passed, and by 2008, Bird was a regular starter for the Olympic team, adding gold medals in the 2008 Beijing Games, 2012 London Games and 2016 Rio Games.

Bird is 142-6 all-time when competing for Team USA.

Make it a double

A month-and-a-half after winning gold, Bird and the Storm brought a title back to Seattle for the first time since the Sonics’ 1979 championship.

The Storm’s first title was a few years in the making. In 2001, Seattle drafted Australian post Lauren Jackson (holding trophy with Bird, below) with the No. 1 pick. Bird arrived in 2002. And coach Anne Donovan took the reins in 2003.

The Storm went 18-16 in Donovan’s first season. In 2004, Seattle added shooting guard Betty Lennox with the sixth pick in the dispersal draft after the Cleveland Rockers franchise disbanded, and everything slowly fell into place as the season unfolded.

Seattle actually finished second in the Western Conference behind the Los Angeles Sparks, and limped into the playoffs having lost six of its final nine games of the regular season when the league resumed after the Olympic break. The Storm swept Minnesota in the best-of-three Western Conference semifinals, but things got harder from there. Despite losing the opening game in overtime of the Western Conference finals against Sacramento, Seattle rallied to reach the WNBA Finals, where it again lost the opening game but then won two straight to beat the Connecticut Sun.

Donovan became the first female coach to win a WNBA title. Bird averaged 12.9 points and 5.4 assists.

A world away

Bird began playing overseas in Russia during the WNBA offseason in 2004. After two seasons with Dynamo Moscow, she signed with Spartak Moscow. Owned by one-time Soviet Union spy Shabtai von Kalmanovic, the players lived a life of luxury with salaries that far exceeded what they were paid to play in the WNBA. The rosters were equally lavish, even Dream Team-esque, as players such as Lauren Jackson, Taurasi, Tina Thompson and Bird (below, from left, with von Kalmanovic middle) teamed up to sweep Russian Super League and EuroLeague titles.

In 2011, Bird made the move to UMMC Ekaterinburg, where she added three more consecutive titles in the Russian League.

Sweep-stakes

Seattle lost in the Western Conference semifinals for five consecutive years following its 2004 title. But when the 2010 postseason arrived, the Storm didn’t lose a game.

First came a 2-0 sweep of the Los Angeles Sparks in the semis, followed by a 2-0 sweep of the Phoenix Mercury in the conference finals. Seattle added three more straight victories over Atlanta in the WNBA Finals to return to the top of the WNBA.

Seattle’s Lauren Jackson also swept regular-season and WNBA Finals MVP honors that season, but Bird had her big moments, too, en route to Seattle’s second championship.

In Game 2 of the Western Conference finals, Seattle overcame a 19-point deficit, and Bird had an assist, a block, a rebound and then hit a 24-foot jumper with 2.8 seconds left for the win. And in Game 1 of the WNBA Finals, Bird’s 18-footer was the game-winner with 2.6 seconds to play.

In one of the most iconic images in Storm history, Bird leaped into Jackson’s arms on Atlanta’s home court to celebrate the title.

Taking stock

Bird credits a strict diet and workout regimen for her longevity. And though she sat out the 2013 and 2019 seasons after knee surgeries, she holds several career marks.

On Sept. 1, 2017, Bird became the WNBA’s all-time assists leader, breaking Ticha Penicheiro’s mark. Through this past season, Bird has 2,888 assists.

Bird ranks eighth in the WNBA in career points (6,262), and is the WNBA leader in career starts (519; she has never come off the bench) and career minutes (16,430).

She has appeared in a WNBA-record 11 All-Star games, and ranks first in playoff appearances (14).

‘Career-defining moment’

In Game 5 of the 2018 WNBA semifinals, the top-seeded Storm were trailing the Phoenix Mercury entering the fourth quarter. Bird wasn’t shooting well, missing eight straight shots at one point and was 1-for-6 on 3-pointers through three periods.

Enter Breanna Stewart. The regular-season MVP reminded Bird, “Sue, use your legs.” Bird — who was wearing a mask to protect the broken nose she had suffered in a game just two days earlier — knew Stewie was right.

“A lot of the shots I had been taking in that third quarter, I was really short,” said Bird, who was 37 at the time. “I’m happy Stewie reminded me of that.”


Related: Sue Bird’s top five clutch moments: Masked heroics, game winners and monster quarters


Over the final six minutes of the game, Bird hit 5-of-6 shots and scored 14 of her 22 points in the fourth quarter, helping Seattle clinch a spot in the WNBA Finals. Bird later called it a “career-defining moment.”

Seattle went on to sweep the Washington Mystics in the WNBA Finals and Bird — who averaged a career-best 7.1 assists per game in the regular season — was a champion again. Stewart, the Finals MVP, wore the shirt above during the Storm’s championship parade.

The definition of a power couple

Quick, name a cooler couple in sports. Didn’t think so.

Bird revealed she was gay and dating U.S. Soccer and Seattle Reign star Megan Rapinoe in an ESPN story in 2017. Days later, Rapinoe sat courtside when the Seattle Storm hosted the WNBA All-Star Game. Since, they became the first gay couple to pose in ESPN The Magazine’s Body Issue (2018) and set the bar both for their sports dominance and commitment to social justice issues.

In 2019, Bird cheered on Rapinoe in France as she won top player honors and captained the U.S. women’s national team to the Women’s World Cup title. And this summer, Rapinoe lived with Bird in the WNBA bubble in Bradenton, Florida.

But whether they’re calling for unity against racial injustice as hosts of the 2020 ESPYs with Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson, or merely hanging courtside at the 2019 NBA All-Star Weekend (below), they are a world-class athlete power couple whose popularity has spawned “Rapinoe-Bird 2020” T-shirts.

Let Russ … pay homage to Bird

Female athletes never need male athletes to justify them. But when one of the leading NFL MVP candidates arrives to his Sunday Night Football game — and his postgame news conference — wearing Bird’s Storm jersey, it’s worth taking notice.

And listening. Because Russell Wilson not only wore Bird’s jersey backward so her name and number were easily seen, the Seattle QB likened himself to Bird, who had voiced a minute-long segment that NBC aired prior to the game calling for “Russ for MVP.”

The Seahawks trailed the Minnesota Vikings by five points when Wilson orchestrated a 94-yard drive in the final 1 minute, 57 seconds, including a 39-yard completion on fourth-and-10. Seattle won on Wilson’s 6-yard touchdown pass to DK Metcalf with 15 seconds to play.

When asked about the game-winning drive, Wilson responded: “I feel like Sue Bird in the clutch.”

How it’s going

In 2015, the Storm selected Notre Dame star Jewell Loyd with the No. 1 draft pick. The following year, fresh off of four consecutive NCAA titles, Stewart became the next No. 1 overall pick to come to Seattle.

But something else important happened around that time: Though free agency loomed, Bird decided to stay put and re-signed a multiyear deal with the Storm in February 2016.

Now Seattle has won two titles in three seasons, and likely will be the preseason favorite in 2021.

Will there be more locker room champagne celebrations in Bird’s future? Bird, who was limited to 11 regular-season games this season due to knee issues but also averaged a career-best 9.2 assists per game in the playoffs, has said she hopes to play through the 2021 calendar year, which would include her 18th WNBA season and her fifth Olympics.

“The way I feel right now, if I can go through my offseason and continue to build on that in a good way,” Bird said following Seattle’s title, “I don’t see why I won’t be playing next summer.”

Now that would be a gift for us all.

Source

Continue Reading
Advertisement
Click to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Sports

Toronto FC hoping to make MLS Cup run having spent much of 2020 far from home

Published

on

On a recent Thursday in Hartford, Conn., Toronto FC goalkeeper Quentin Westberg pondered the dichotomy of wanting to reach MLS Cup on Dec. 12, but also desiring to see his family again. Meanwhile, Jim Liston, the team’s director of sports science, was planning a trip to Lowe’s to buy 15 garbage cans so players could have an ice bath after training. As for manager Greg Vanney, he was fretting about his team’s health and the lack of practice time their schedule was affording.

Such is the life of a team as it attempts to not only navigate its way through the COVID-19 pandemic, but has been forced to do it away from home.

Due to travel restrictions between the U.S. and Canada, TFC — like the league’s other two Canadian teams, Montreal Impact and Vancouver Whitecaps — set up a “home” base in the U.S. for the remainder of the season; Toronto were stationed in Hartford. (Vancouver Whitecaps took roost in Portland, ground-sharing with Timbers, while Montreal Impact split use of New York Red Bulls’ facilities in Harrison, N.J.) This was on top of nearly every team spending nearly a month inside a bubble back in July at the MLS is Back Tournament outside Orlando, Florida.

The Reds spent about seven weeks back in Toronto as they played a series of matches against Canadian teams. In mid-September, the remainder of the regular season — and the temporary move to Hartford — beckoned. The vagabond nature of the campaign is what led Liston to joke that he was willing to discuss “whatever five seasons” the team has been through so far. But for Vanney and the players, the campaign has required a special kind of focus.

“A lot of what we’ve done here, and what we try to preach here is just control the controllables, and don’t get too drawn into the things you can’t,” Vanney told ESPN. “Roll with it, and make the best out of whatever the situation is.”

Stream FC Daily on ESPN+
– 2020 MLS Playoffs: Who’s in, schedule and more
– MLS on ESPN+: Stream LIVE games and replays (U.S. only)

Toronto has largely succeeded in spite of its odyssey. While there was disappointment at missing out on the Supporters’ Shield to the Philadelphia Union, TFC went 7-3-2 during its Hartford sojourn and finished with the second-best record in the league. But the challenges have still been immense. Simply being out of one’s home environment is difficult enough, but the time spent away from family and loved ones weighs heavy on the psyche, even as Vanney has given players the occasional trip back to Toronto — under quarantine — to reconnect with loved ones.

“It’s just very different, very challenging and emotionally exhausting,” Westberg said of his experience while based in Hartford.

Westberg has arguably had it tougher than most. The TFC goalkeeper is married with four children, including a baby girl who was born in June. For that reason, Westberg and his wife, Ania, made the decision at the end of September that it would be better for her and their kids to head back to his native France so they could be surrounded by family. Westberg called it “the least bad decision,” but there are difficulties nonetheless.

“I’m a very even person, and this year has challenged me a lot,” he said. “I’m still pretty even, but I keep a lot to myself and for sure there’s some difficult days, seeing your family [struggle] from your absence.”

The inability to be home has affected the players and staff in other ways. In Toronto, there are ways of disengaging from the game. Being with friends, loved ones or even in familiar surroundings can be the best medicine in terms of forgetting a bad game or training session. But in Hartford, at the team’s hotel, that escape is nearly impossible even as players try to distract themselves by reading or taking online classes.

“You don’t really unplug,” Westberg said. “You FaceTime family, or this or that, but it’s too short. You’re 100 percent focused on your soccer, and your whole day basically relies on being ready for whatever soccer activity that you have next, whether it’s practice or game. It’s good for your physique, it’s optimal for the way you eat and the way you [train]. But mentally, you’re not as fresh as your body.”

That isn’t to say there are only negatives to the separation. There is also an us-against-the-world mentality that Toronto has adopted, given that their players and personnel are experiencing the season in a way that is vastly different than most other teams. The team staff has done what it can to make their surroundings a home away from home, whether it’s personalizing the locker rooms at Rentschler Field or having hotel staff brand the surroundings in TFC colors. The hotel went so far as to bring in a barista who could consistently give the players their coffee fix. Supporters groups have even sent down banners in a bid to convey the fact that the players are remembered.

The care that TFC takes for players has extended to families back home, with the club supplying meals to loved ones three times a week.

On the logistical side, Liston made sure that one of the gyms used at MLS is Back was brought to TFC’s hotel in Hartford, and he remarked that the food at the hotel is “arguably the best we’ve ever had on the road.”

There have also been efforts to create new routines. Assistant coach Jason Bent, aka DJ Soops, has been in charge of the pregame music selection for the past 18 months — no easy feat for a squad that has a considerable international presence. In Hartford, Bent has set aside Thursday nights to spin music in one area of the hotel. He’ll even go live on Instagram or Twitch for those who prefer to relax in their rooms.

“[We] opened it to players and staff and basically anyone that’s part of our bubble to come relax, listen to music and just enjoy each other’s company,” Bent said. “I enjoy making people happy so if it’s helping everyone even in the slightest, I have no problem arranging the set and spinning.”

For Vanney, the pandemic and operating outside of the team’s home market has meant any number of challenges. He said the team has used three different training facilities in Hartford, with varying field conditions. He recognizes that the trips home are vital for the mental health of his players and staff, but any breaks also mean less time spent on the practice field. The compressed schedule, which at times involved games every three or four days, has had an impact as well. Even the best-laid plans in terms of squad rotation were impacted as minor injuries began popping up.

“We end up with a lot of guys in different positions because they need special kinds of treatment or care to help them get fit and back to health,” Vanney said. “So it ends up being a lot of different things kind of going on all at once, and that’s been the challenge of it.”

Recovery from matches has been complicated by the fact that TFC doesn’t have access to the same level of facilities that it does at home — hence Liston’s emergency trip to Lowe’s to fashion impromptu ice baths for the players. Then there are the different ways the players occupy themselves on the road as compared to home, especially amid the pandemic.

“There’s really no life outside of the hotel,” Liston said. “[At home], you may go walk the dog in the afternoon or go for a walk with your wife or friend or girlfriend or family and you’re out and about. The recommendation [here] is to kind of stay put. So you’ve got a really active population and pro athletes, who we’re asking them to be sedentary the rest of the time, kind of stay in the hotel from a COVID and safety standpoint. That’s not optimal for recovery either.”

There are also the creature comforts of home that are no longer available on the road, which can impact sleep.

“Sleep is the number one tool for recovery, and that’s definitely been a challenge,” Liston said. “We do well-being questionnaires and the scores on quality of sleep, and hours of sleep, just drop.”

play

2:00

Tom Barlow and Brian White seal Toronto’s fate in a 2-1 win for New York Red Bulls. Watch MLS on ESPN+.

Another change has been same-day travel, which has drawn mixed reactions from the TFC players and staff. Vanney and Westberg are generally in favor, saying it reminds them of when they each played in France. Flying back the same night also means a training day isn’t lost. Liston has a different perspective in that he prefers arriving the day before, and then leaving the same day.

“I think [same-day travel] makes for a really long day,” he said. “And there’s definitely a negative impact on performance, taking three bus rides and a plane ride before your game. You’re getting home — it can be 12:30, but it could also be 1:30 in the morning, and that’s where you know our well-being scores and sleep hours and quality just disappear. When you have so many games in succession, you can’t make up the sleep.”

With the playoffs set to begin for TFC on Nov. 24, the end is in sight, even as it makes for a complex — and even conflicting — set of emotions.

“This is the tricky part. I miss them a lot,” Westberg said of his family. “But in a way I want to see them as [late] as possible in December, because obviously, there’s this idea that we want to do well in the playoffs and we want to keep going. TFC has a history of setting high standards and high expectations. It’s a heavy load to carry but also an exciting one.”

Win or lose, it’s a season they’ll never forget.

Source

Continue Reading

Sports

Bettman: NHL is mulling temporary realignment

Published

on

The NHL is considering a temporary realignment of its teams for the 2020-21 season due to COVID-19 travel restrictions, according to commissioner Gary Bettman.

Bettman said Tuesday that restrictions on travel across the Canadian border, as well as “limitations in terms of quarantining when you go from certain states to other states” within the United States, could mean the NHL creates a more regionalized alignment for its upcoming season.

“As it relates to the travel issue, which is obviously the great unknown, we may have to temporarily realign to deal with geography, because having some of our teams travel from Florida to California may not make sense. It may be that we’re better off — particularly if we’re playing a reduced schedule, which we’re contemplating — keeping it geographically centric and more divisional-based; and realigning, again on a temporary basis, to deal with the travel issues,” Bettman said during a 2020 Paley International Council Summit panel with fellow commissioners Adam Silver of the NBA and Rob Manfred of MLB.

The NHL board of governors has a meeting scheduled for Thursday which will provide a progress report and possible recommendations for a season format, based on talks between the league and the NHL Players’ Association. The target date for starting next season remains Jan. 1.

Bettman said the league is considering a few scheduling options for the 2020-21 season. Something that’s off the table: playing the entire season in the kind of bubbles the NHL had in Toronto and Edmonton, Alberta, to complete last season. But Bettman said teams opening in their own arenas is a possibility, along with a modified bubble.

“We are exploring the possibility of playing in our own buildings without fans [or] fans where you can, which is going to be an arena-by-arena issue. But we’re also exploring the possibility of a hub. You’ll come in. You’ll play for 10 to 12 days. You’ll play a bunch of games without traveling. You’ll go back, go home for a week, be with your family. We’ll have our testing protocols and all the other things you need,” he said.

Bettman also indicated that the NHL is exploring “a hybrid, where some teams are in a bubble, some teams play at home and you move in and out.”

The NBA’s board of governors unanimously approved a deal with the players’ union that sets the stage for a season that will open on Dec. 22 and with a reduced schedule of 72 games. Silver said that the commissioners are in communication on COVID-19-related issues, especially the NBA and the NHL, since the two leagues’ teams share arenas and, in some cases, team owners.

Silver said he senses that the NBA will have fans in many of its buildings this season.

“We’re probably going to start one way, where we’re maybe a little bit more conservative than many of the jurisdictions allow,” he said. “What we’ve said to our teams is that we’ll continue to work with public health authorities. Arena issues are different than outdoor stadium issues. There will be certain standards for air filtration and air circulation. There may be a different standard for a suite than there will be for fans spaced in seats.”

Silver said there will be standardized protocols that are consistent from arena to arena, such as proximity between players and fans: “In certain cases, for seats near the floor, we’re going to be putting in testing programs, where fans will certify that they’ve been tested — some within 48 hours, some within day of game.” While Silver supported a continued expansion of the NBA postseason through its play-in tournament, Bettman said that he’s not in favor of expanded playoffs or “playing with the fundamentals of the game.” The NHL had 24 teams in its postseason last summer.

Source

Continue Reading

Sports

The Battleground States Where We’ve Seen Some Movement In The Polls

Published

on

With apologies to The Raconteurs, the presidential race continues to be “steady as she goes,” with little sign of tightening despite a plethora of new polls. FiveThirtyEight’s presidential forecast gives Joe Biden an 89 in 100 shot at winning the election, while President Trump has just an 11 in 100 chance. This makes Biden the favorite, but still leaves open a narrow path to victory for Trump, for whom a reelection win would be surprising — but not utterly shocking.

At the same time, we also have fewer polls from live-caller surveys, which have historically been more accurate and have shown slightly better numbers for Biden, than polls that use other methodologies, such as polls conducted primarily online or through automated telephone calls. Nevertheless, while the overall picture has shifted only a little in recent days, a few battleground states have seen at least some movement in their polls, which has slightly altered the odds Biden or Trump wins in each of those places.

What election stories need to get more coverage | FiveThirtyEight Politics Podcast

Source

Continue Reading

Trending