The Moments That Made Sue Bird
A Conversation with Lisa Stiepock
A superstar’s superstar, Sue Bird ’02 (CLAS) is undeniable Husky royalty, beloved for her prowess on the court and her candor, charm, and cheer off it. Connecticut WNBA fans root for her even when she’s on an opposing team, and the Seattle Storm faithful, including myriad little girls in Sue Bird tees, packed arenas throughout her final of 21 seasons there last year. She has stormed her own lanes in life and basketball — we asked her to share some of the most fateful moments in both.
The moment she knew she was good at basketball
I think I always knew. But there is a moment … I was in, like, fifth grade, and I played for a travel team in my town. The coach had a connection with St. John’s University, so we got to be the little kids at halftime that come onto the court and play another intramural team. It’s a total of 10, 15 minutes max, but it felt very big to a fifth grader. And the ironic part is that St. John’s was playing the University of Connecticut, so that’s probably the first time Coach Auriemma laid his eyes on me — joking!
Girls 11-and-under national championship in 1992
As we were leaving the gym later that day, a security guard stopped us and he says to my dad, hey, can I get your daughter’s autograph? I have a feeling this is going to be worth something someday. He saw me play as this little kid and saw something. And I think what is so memorable about it is, yes, it’s the first time I was ever asked for my autograph, and I vividly remember it, but I think it speaks to the way I was playing, which was probably partly childlike joy, but I must have also shown a little skill, too. I remember shooting reverse layups, and back then you didn’t see a lot of fifth graders doing that.
The moment she knew she was really good at basketball
Um, I’m still waiting for that day. No, no, what’s the moment that I knew I was legit? I guess around the same time, I think fifth or sixth grade. I’m playing on this AAU team and we go to nationals, where teams from every state come together and play in this huge tournament. Two things happened: One, Sports Illustrated for Kids saw our team and followed us. I remember that article comes out and our team is in Sports Illustrated for Kids.
At the same time, if you can believe this, colleges start sending letters. Like — hello, we saw you play at this tournament and we think you’re pretty good. Can you fill out this questionnaire so we have your information — I remember one of my very first letters was from Duke, so that resonated. I was like, oh sh-t, Duke, this is pretty cool. I think that’s the earliest memory I have of thinking oh, I might be all right at this. I might be pretty good.
Her first of four Olympic golds
The moment she knew she was Olympics-level good at basketball
It was going into my junior year; the 2000 Olympics had just finished. Coach Auriemma was an assistant for that team. He is back from Australia and back on campus reconnecting with all of us. He just kind of sits me down and is like, listen, I was just with all these Olympians, and he looks me in the eye and says, if you want to do this, you can do this. I’ve now seen what it is, up close and personal, and you have whatever it is — you have to want it and you have to still work for it. But you have it. That was a validating moment.
The moment she knew she’d be a point guard
I got recruited by a bunch of different schools and some recruited me as a two, a shooting guard. I remember it was Tara VanDerveer [at Stanford] who said, I just coached the ’96 Olympic team and I see you as a point guard. At that point — it’s almost weird to think back to that — I was kind of this combo; I could be the one, I could be the two. And she was really the first one to say my value comes as a point guard.
The fact that I also can score, that’s what made me a different kind of point guard in that generation. I actually feel very proud — players like myself, Lindsay Whalen, Becky Hammon, you could throw Dawn Staley in there, too. We were point guards where we ran the team, but we could also score. You couldn’t ignore us. And for a long time, like way back in the day, point guards were only meant to run the team, so we were starting to bring a different vibe to it. And I very much feel like that was a big part of what made me successful. [VanDerveer] planted that seed.
And then, from there, I think it comes back to Coach Auriemma — my time at Connecticut. How I was going to show up as this point guard. What about my natural personality, what could I pull from that that would allow me to be successful? And this story’s been told a thousand times, but he basically pulled me into his office one day and was like, listen, everything out there is your fault. Yeah, everyone knows this story, but I’ll take it a step further. What he was really saying was — I know this now as an adult — I can hold multiple things, multiple thoughts, multiple on-the-court moments, multiple plays, in my head all at the same time. I have the ability to do that. So, how to use that to your advantage? Seeing everyone, thinking ahead two and three plays. I’m like, OK, I need to make sure Swin Cash is getting the ball, but I also need to make sure Diana Taurasi is getting the ball. And how can I juggle that? Having relationships with your teammates, making sure you’re tapping into them in a different way, all at the same time. And I think he was just really trying to make sure I had my fingerprints on everything.
The moment she knew it would be UConn
To be honest, when I look back on my recruitment, it was always UConn. They were always kind of number one. They were always the ones that interested me the most, that felt right. These other schools come in and they’re like the shiny new toy. There’s some bells and whistles and they’re wining and dining you.
And Coach Auriemma, on the day that I was going to decide, I called him up and he asked me, you know, what are you thinking? And I was like, oh, I’m thinking my heart says Connecticut, but my head is a little confused ’cause like I said, all these other schools are planting seeds and they’re creeping in there. And he basically was just like, oh, I hope you follow your heart. Those were his final words and obviously I did follow my heart — thank goodness.
With Coach Auriemma
The moment she knew Coach Auriemma trusted her
There are two. One, it was preseason my freshman year, my career hadn’t even started yet. And I feel like Coach Auriemma had seen something in me very early … He saw that I like to assess before I jump in. As an athlete, you have to be willing to take risks. Risk is just a part of the job.
We did a team-building weekend at the Berkshires, ropes courses and all that kind of stuff. And I think it showed him, OK, this is a kid who on the basketball court doesn’t want to make mistakes, she’s assessing risk too much. But when he saw me on the ropes courses, I was the first one to volunteer for the hard parts and be like, oh, I’ll climb it. And so he made this connection like, hey, what I see in you on this ropes course — we need to see that on the floor. And right away that showed me what I wasn’t doing basketball-wise.
And I started my freshman year. To start as a freshman point guard at the University of Connecticut is tough. So already I kind of knew, I’m starting, he must trust me. But I remember there was this one practice, definitely within my first year. And he was being really hard on the whole team, being really hard on me, like nitpicking, nitpicking, nitpicking. And he set us up in a situation destined for failure ’cause that’s kind of his M.O., to try to get you to figure it out. And I think I just got to that point, pardon my language, I just got to the point of like, eff this. And I took over the practice, and I did all the things, and we won the scrimmage or whatever it was. I figured it out.
I don’t know why he did this, but he actually emailed me and said, basically, today when you did that, I saw what we’ve been wanting to see from you. It stuck with me because he emailed me and that was unusual. That’s a moment.
With Husky teammate Shea Ralph ’02 (ED) in 2000
The moment she knew just how much she could mean to UConn
My sophomore year, I was still growing, still maturing. I was still understanding myself, who I am as a player. I was really lucky that I had Shea Ralph as a mentor figure. That year Shea and Svetlana [Abrosimova ’01 BUS] got recognized as All-Americans. Right-fully so. They were the backbones of our team. And I remember, it’s the Final Four, we’re literally about to run out to warm up, and Shea pulls me over and says, you know, even though I got selected as All-American, you were just as deserving. Like, you’re an All-American, too. Wow. That meant so much, to see that she had that confidence in me.
The moment she knew it would be Seattle
After my senior year, I was asked to go train with the national team. So I fly out to Colorado Springs, I go to the hotel, I’m in the lobby and Lin Dunn is there and she’s like, hey Sue, I just want to introduce myself. I’m Lin Dunn, head coach at the Seattle Storm. And I remember she made a joke around drafting me, like, well you might get picked number one. I remember being like, OK, this is probably happening. But I wasn’t thrilled — I did not know a lot about Seattle.
With Seattle Storm Coach Lin Dunn in 2022
Obviously, we know the end of the story. I love it here. I’ve spent my entire career here. But it was the distance — I was like Seattle, dang, that’s who had to get the number-one pick? I secretly wanted it to be New York. And then, very famously, on draft day after Lin had chosen me — and again, as it turns out, I couldn’t have been drafted by a better place —they ask Lin, was there any chance that you were going to trade this pick? And she just looks into the camera and says no. Just that. I think she was planning on drafting me and I think once she saw me in this camp with the national team hold my own as a 21-year-old college kid, I think that solidified it. I’ve actually never asked her. I should ask her!
A coming-home-to-Connecticut moment
I feel the love every time I go back to Connecticut. It’s all love all the time. And when the Connecticut Sun started and we played there in the regular season, that felt like a homecoming in some ways: I get announced as a starter and the whole place erupts. It’s amazing. But then we played them in the WNBA finals. And now I’m not getting the same love. They applauded when I got announced, but I look in the crowd and I see a sign that says something like “Go Sun, Skewer Bird.”
My initial thought was, how dare you? Right? But then my second thought was, all right, this is good. The WNBA is getting to a point where these fans love their team no matter who they’re playing against.
A moment she knew how much she meant to girls and young women
I think most of the time it comes in the form of just seeing little girls wearing my jersey, especially my final year. I do have my fair share of moments where I have adults come up to me and say, when I was 7 or when I was 10 or when I was 15, I had your poster, and that kind of hits home. But little kids are little kids. They’re not really saying much to you. I do have a funny story where a little girl came up to me so serious. And I could tell it took a lot for her to walk up to me. She’s like, I just wanna tell you, I’m your role model. And I was like, oh, you are? Thank you.
But I think where it hits for me now is meeting these people as adults and hearing the impact that I had on them growing up.
Bird’s young fans are everywhere — One handed her a flower while she was inbounding the ball during her last Storm home game, and Bird asked her to hold on to it until after the buzzer
Bird and Stewie, aka Breanna Stewart ’16 (CLAS) — an unbeatable combination
The winning moment that stands out from all the winning moments
OK, so I could sit here and talk to you about how special it is to win your first major championship, which is 2000, my sophomore year.
I can sit here and talk to you about how special it was to win my senior year, and that is one of the major ones. Why? Yes, because we were so good. Yes, because we went undefeated. But knowing what I know now? There’s one team a year, right, that wins the championship? On that team, there’s anywhere from one to two, three, four, five who may be seniors. So there’s really only a handful of people that get to finish their career smiling. And I feel really lucky, looking back, that I got to finish my college career smiling. No matter what happened my junior, sophomore, and freshman years, I get to finish smiling. And that’s rare.
I can tell you how amazing the Olympics were and what that meant, representing your country. I can talk about being the first champion in Seattle in 25 years. The Sonics won in the ’70s and we win 20-plus years later.
I can talk about all this. But the one that sticks out, for sure, is 2018. And the reason why is because, after all I had experienced and all the success I had had, this felt like I was doing something on borrowed time. It was unexpected. I had, in some ways, conceded to the fact that I probably wouldn’t ever be in the finals again. The Seattle Storm had decided to rebuild, which I signed up for, so I knew what I was getting into in 2015. All the other veterans were gone. We had back-to-back number-one picks, which definitely accelerated this process. Especially because one of them was named Breanna [Stewart].
I was really going year by year. This could be over at any point. And I was like, my role here now, my life’s work now, is to just pass on all my knowledge to Jewell [Loyd] and to Stewie, to set them up for success and let them be champions for years to come.
So the fact that two years later we’re champions? And by the way, in 2018, I want to say we were picked to finish sixth or seventh in the league — and that wasn’t even a big locker room moment. We were like, yeah, we’re a young team. Let’s see what happens. Before you know it, the season ends and we’re first. Fast forward, we sweep through the playoffs, we’re champions. And I just remember feeling like, well, this wasn’t supposed to happen. I can’t believe this happened.
And I really got to experience going through a rebuild, getting on the other side of it, knowing my role. In previous championships I was a basketball player who played the games and did what they could for the team and I had points and I had assists. I probably had a couple rebounds here and there, and that was what I did.
This was like, not only did I have points and assists and rebounds and all the things that you do within a game, I had — speaking of fingerprints — my fingerprints all over the way this team handled adversity and handled, really, the entire season. I very much had become a player-coach at that point. So there’s something different about that one.
So was that the moment she knew she’d be playing a bit longer?
Oh, it changes everything. Yeah, at that point, now that we’re good, it changes everything. Now I’m like, oh, I want to play as long as humanly possible. So now my motivation’s to stay in shape, right, to keep going for as long as I can. Sadly enough I missed the 2019 season because of a knee surgery, but I got three more seasons and one more championship out of it.
Key Mom and Dad moments
I think the way I would break down my parents is the ways in which they’ve influenced me.
Bird with her parents at Gampel Pavilion on Senior Night 2002 before a game against Providence College
My mom, she’s very positive and, generally speaking, just good vibes, you know? And as a sports parent, she just always had a perspective that there’s other things in life, life goes on. Whether I won the game or lost the game as a kid, whether I played well or I played bad, my mom was very consistent with how she showed up. She was just always there to love me regardless. Whether it was basketball, soccer, track, the minute she picked me up from the game, it was always just, where do you want to eat? She always gave me a perspective, and I think anyone would tell you basketball is very important to me, obviously. But it’s not the most important thing to me. I think I got that from her.
And my dad was always just kind of brutally honest with me, but I never felt judged by him. It never felt like he was being critical. I’d play the game and very matter-of-factly, he’d be like, you were great or very matter-of-factly, you weren’t so good today. And that was just the reality. What I took from that, and what has helped me, is I very much live in reality when it comes to basketball. I don’t like people sugarcoating me. Keep it real. Tell me how it is. If I was bad, great. I know what I can work on. If I was good, great. I know what I’m trying to replicate. I don’t like smoke being blown up my ass.
The coming-out moment
Well, I have kind of these two come-outs, if you will. By the time I was 22, I had essentially come out to all my family, all my friends, even my college coaches. I just hadn’t said it publicly. I didn’t do that until I was 37. But by 23, I was essentially out in all the ways except the public way which is obviously a big one.
The moment she knew Megan was The One
So I met Megan when I was 35, going on 36. And we just — I mean, really, the simplest way to say it is, it was just easy. Everything about it was just easy and calm. Wow. And I had never really known that — obviously I’ve had other relationships before, some better than others, like everybody else. But I had never really experienced how it just feels right. We started talking and we just haven’t stopped.
Sue Bird and Megan Rapinoe before Rapinoe’s final Team USA game this September
Team USA soccer gold medalist Megan Rapinoe kisses fiancee Bird after Bird’s fourth Team USA basketball gold and bottom left, the two before Rapinoe’s final Team USA game this September
Team USA soccer gold medalist Megan Rapinoe kisses fiancee Bird after Bird’s fourth Team USA basketball gold
A Yankee-in-Moscow moment
Bird, with Diana Taurasi ’05 (CLAS) in Moscow’s red square in 2007, played pro ball in Russia for 11 years during the WNBA’s off season
The thing I’m most thankful for when it comes to my Russian experience — just being in a different culture helped shape my worldview, it helped me be less judgmental as a person. When you’re totally immersed in another culture, you just start to see that there are other ways of doing things. This is a silly example, but you get your produce and instead of putting it in a little plastic bag and taking it to the register to be weighed, you do it yourself, and put a sticker on it. No bag. A small thing, but those things showed me just ’cause we as Americans think we’re the best, that doesn’t mean there aren’t other ways of doing things that are better. Being there really opened my mind to that idea. And what I started to do was, in my own way, challenge the status quo.
The moment she realized the magnitude of her voice, her potential platform …
That came much later. The 2020 WNBA season, with the pandemic, with all the social unrest, that bubble season. That is really when I understood the magnitude of my platform, my voice. Candace Parker and I did this interview recently and it was incredibly touching the way she described this. She said, there’s a lot of people who consider themselves leaders, there are a lot of actual leaders, and sometimes leaders are leaders just because of the title — maybe it’s coach, maybe it’s captain. But the difference with you, and what makes you the leader you are, and what makes you special, is when you talk, people listen. I think she was speaking to that bubble season.
Actually, if I rewind a little bit, we had our contract negotiations in the fall and winter of 2019. That’s when I started to really see the power that I had, especially because I was an older player negotiating. I wasn’t going to be the recipient of all these benefits. I think people really saw that I was just trying to get the best for them. They believed in me in that way and so, when I spoke, to Candace’s point, they listened. I think the combination of those negotiations and then what we all did as a league in the bubble, that’s when I started to really get a sense of it. It’s not that I’m smarter than the next person, but my expertise is in this world of women’s sports, right? I’ve lived it. There’s something unique about that perspective. There’s only 144 of us, so compared to the rest of the world, nobody’s going to know what we know. I can share those insights in that way, and it goes beyond basketball.
Sports mirror society, women’s sports mirror society. Everything that’s happening in society is happening to us, whether it’s the fight for equal pay and racial equity or having issues just because of who I love and who I want to marry, that being held against me, things like that.
… and what she might use it for
The reality is I’m no longer a basketball player. I’ve always said when people say shut up and dribble, the answer is obviously no. Because we have microphones in front of our faces all the time. We’re getting asked hard-hitting questions all the time. So you have a voice, you have a platform, but I no longer have that in that way, right? Our production company A Touch More is this vehicle I can now use as a retired player to continue to get the spotlight on marginalized groups or communities that are underserved, it’s a way to continue to tell these stories.
And it’s a vehicle that both Megan and I can use in our retirement that’s fun. I think creating this kind of content is going to be so much fun. It’s going to be exciting, but it’s also going to have a lot of meaning in our world. Through telling these stories, you’re going to create change. It’s just inevitable.
After her final WNBA game, the hometown crowd chanted “Thank you, Sue” until she left