You’ve stood on a lot of podiums and been presented with a lot of medals and trophies. Which has made you feel the most emotional? When you’re at the Olympics and they start playing the anthem, it’s such a tearjerker. You’ve seen it since you were a kid and now you’re there, it’s a defining moment.
But visibly crying, people seeing the emotion? I think it was my senior year, hugging Coach Auriemma after that last game. I was young. I’d been through a lot. I tore my ACL freshman year — and then to have everything finish the way it did, essentially perfect.
How does that ’02 Huskies Geno compare to Team USA Geno? UConn Geno is always gonna be UConn Geno. He’s dealing with kids — I was one of those kids. He’s trying to groom you, to set a foundation not just for those four years, but for life. So he’s hard on you and he’s nitpicky and sometimes it comes across as harsh but he’s setting that foundation.
You feel much more equal when he’s in his national team role. He treats us as adults because we are. He’s as open to learning from us as we are to learning from him. We were just talking about that.
According to him, he sees that at our level there are a lot of tough teams, tough games. We’re constantly playing against good players and we know you need to stay on an even keel — you can’t get too high when it’s going good or too low when it’s going bad. He sees that and says he’s more calm because of it. Of course I see him on the sidelines at UConn games and he’s still very verbal! So you don’t think he’s more calm? I do, but every generation says that. Rebecca Lobo and Jen Rizzotti say, ‘Oh he’s so much more mellow with you guys,’ to me. And then we all say that to Breanna [Stewart, current UConn hoops star] now. In five years, Breanna will be saying it to the new players.
You’ve recently become an ESPN commentator. In that role, if you could ask Geno one question he had to answer absolutely honestly what would it be? I’ve been in this position and I’m not going to ask the one I did ask [which was the best UConn team] because he made fun of me. After the 2012 Olympics he came out and was adamant about not ever coaching the Olympic team again. I want to know what made him say that in the first place and what made him change his tune. I know what he says in the media but he has to answer this honestly, right?
Give us a highest/lowest/weirdest when it comes to Geno? Highest: We played at St. John’s my senior year. I’m from New York and my family really wanted to have the team over for dinner. Coach moved everything around to make it happen. Lowest: That would be like every other day. Laughs. Cause he was so hard on me. But, no, a low would be: I’m at practice at Gampel and you know how people are always walking through that concourse? Well some football player or something is walking through and I’m throwing a no-look pass that goes out of bounds, and Coach is yelling at me: ‘What’s the matter with you? What are you looking at? Are you looking at him?’ Then he yells at this guy: ‘Hey! Hey you! You can’t come through here anymore — Sue Bird can’t stop looking at you. She must like you.’ Everybody was laughing, except me. I was embarrassed. Weirdest: Every time he tries to dance.
Best/worst advice he ever gave you? Best and worst are the same.
My freshman year I got hurt and so I hadn’t played much going into sophomore year. Coach brought me into his office and said, ‘Everything that happens on court, it’s your fault. I don’t care if Asjha Jones makes a bad pass to Swin Cash, it’s your fault.’ When I walked out of the office I thought that’s the worst advice I ever heard.
Of course it turns out it was the best, too. He was trying to get me to take on a personality where I had control over everything on the court, whether I had the ball or not.
As a player you have to be able to pass, shoot, score, dribble — of course the fundamentals are important. But when you get older, at pro level, everyone can do those things. As a point guard, you stand out by having an impact without taking a shot, without making a pass. It’s a spectrum of things. Being a calming force, for one. You want your teammates to look at you when you have the ball and be confident calling the plays, making sure everyone is in the right place at the right time. It’s a brain game. One of the best compliments someone can give you is that they notice when you’re not on the court; that the game’s not as smooth as when you’re out there.
You are known as an extraordinary mentor. An assists-are-as-important-as-points kind of player. What advice do you give the newbies? Younger players when they come in, each one is different, facing different obstacles. It’s a tough transition to the WNBA. Now all of a sudden every player can play, pass, shoot as well as you can, so it’s the same thing we were talking about before. Never get too high or too low — it will be too stressful.
Find out what separates you and bring that to the table every single time.
The older you get, all of us who are considered veterans know it’s how you conduct yourself every day, being a good teammate, being a professional. All the clichés, they’re all true. You don’t want to be the jerk in the locker room, you don’t want to be that guy — I tell them that. When you’re young and something doesn’t go your way, it’s easy to respond negatively. Remember, you don’t want to have a bad reputation. That stuff can impact your next job.
What do you think when people call you, as they often do, “the best point guard in history.” I chuckle like I just did there — that’s the shy me coming out — but it’s a definite compliment. I’ve been so lucky along the way. I’ve played with the best players in the world: Diana [Taurasi], Lauren Jackson, Lisa [Leslie], Katie [Smith], Tina [Charles] and I’ll be naming Maya [Moore] and Candace [Parker], as well as so many others. And with great players, well, they make my job easy. Hopefully I make their job easy, too, but definitely they make mine easy.
Will there be a sixth consecutive gold medal for Team USA in Rio? You know, that’s the plan. We go into every Olympics with that plan. But people look at the record and the game scores and think it’s easy. It’s not easy. We don’t have a lot of training time and we’re going against teams that have been together for years.
Who are the biggest threats? Australia is always one of toughest teams and when they’re healthy they’re really tough. Then there’s a team out of Serbia that just won an international championship. They are a young team with a style that’s tough to play against; it’s uptempo, they like to score.
What’s next for Sue Bird? As far as basketball goes I really don’t have an answer as to when I’m going to stop. I’m on the one-year plan — I re-evaluate every year. I’ll play the 2015-2016 season and hopefully the 2016 Olympics and then reevaluate.
Have you been enjoying the role of commentator? I have enjoyed ESPN. It’s basketball, but it’s also new and challenging. I’m learning the ins and outs. Whether it’s going to be a career, I don’t know. That’s what I’m doing with a couple things, like basketball camp — it’s all within basketball. Coaching? When you’re a basketball player that’s always on the table.
Has your communications major from UConn been helpful at ESPN? I didn’t take many broadcasting classes. Looking back I wish I’d thought to do that. When you go to UConn and play basketball it’s like one big communications class. I learned by being a player what to say and not to say and now being on the other side I think it helps me be a good interviewer.
As the newest member of the UConn Foundation Board of Directors what change would you like to effect? I’ve been doing this for literally five seconds! But I’m excited to learn, to be a part of that. I see what other schools are doing in this way. I play with so many girls, so just name a school and I will know someone who went there. I see what they all do with their alums. I see how they are getting their alums involved and as one of the younger members, I’d like to bring some of those ideas back to UConn.
Do you have any pre-game rituals/superstitions? Nothing crazy like turning lights off and on every ten minutes. But I do have some superstition, for instance if a song is playing when we win, then I’ll keep listening to it until we lose. And I have a [pre-game] routine I stick to. I don’t deviate much; I try to eat at a certain time, go to sleep at a certain time, wear my hair a certain way. The ponytail? Oooooh, yeah, the ponytail. Is the pontyail different on game day than practice day? Oh gosh yes. It may not appear so, but in practice it’s messy and for a game I spend a lot of time making it straight and smooth. I’m just kidding — sort of —it’s amazing what a little water and hairspray can do!
Give us a Highest/Lowest/Weirdest for your time at UConn: Highest: I have a lot of highs to choose from, but I’ll pick meeting the president. It was George Bush in my senior year. Lowest: We were supposed to meet Bill Clinton my sophomore year and there was a crisis or something so it never happened. Weirdest: Freshman year, I had just to torn my ACL and it was a month or two post op, it was like January or February and I was walking to a class that I had a test in. I took a shortcut down a hill and it was icy and I slipped and I really hurt myself and from that day on, on my surgically repaired knee, I can’t straighten it all the way — my left knee is always at a 1 or 2. The doctors won’t say [the fall did it], but I could straighten it all the way before and I haven’t been able to since so that’s kind of weird. Did you make it to the test? I made it to the test but my knee was throbbing the whole time.
How about in Russia [where she played pro ball]. Highest: Winning four Euroleague championships in a row. Lowest: In that entire country they do not have ginger ale. That’s a huge low for me. Weirdest: They garnish everything with dill. Everything! Soup, salad, chicken, fish, everything is covered in dill. So now I’m over dill!
by Lisa Stiepock