SEATTLE — Seattle Storm’s Sue Bird is one of the best athletes in the world, a point guard who is a 12-time all-star, with five Olympic gold medals and four WNBA championships.
This year, Bird brings her magic, that trademark “no-look pass," to the brand-new Climate Pledge Arena, the Storm’s new home. And while she has said all signs point to this being her final season, is it really?
Bird remembers winning her first WNBA Championship like it was yesterday.
"There's nothing like the first one and I think what makes this one really unique is that we won it on our home court," said Bird.
Bird was 23 years old when she and the Storm brought home Seattle's first basketball championship trophy in 25 years. That was in 2004. The Storm would do it again in 2010, 2018 and 2020.
"I think what I'm most proud of is I've been on four different winning teams in the WNBA over the course of the 20 years I've played," Bird said. "That more than anything speaks to my longevity."
At 41, Bird is the oldest player in the league. She signed on for another year, agreeing to play for the veteran minimum, just $72,000.
With the salary cap, taking a massive pay cut allowed the Storm to re-sign her All-Star teammates Jewel Loyd and Breanna Stewart and make some trades.
“I was able to do that because I played overseas all these years,” Bird said.
It’s what a lot of WNBA players do, based on the math. The league’s super-max salary for 2022 is $228,000, a fraction of what they can earn abroad.
“Depending on the player, depending on the team, depending on the country, it can easily be 10 times what you make over here, and more with bonuses, easily," said Bird.
Bird said playing overseas in Russia in the off-season has made her a millionaire.
“They take care of you. The way we traveled, where I played, first-class charter flights, you had a driver,” Bird said. “It was all because they wanted us to win. And that's really what the sport is about."
Until the WNBA catches up in pay and prestige, Bird said players will continue to earn extra income overseas in the offseason.
The fix, Bird said, is simple: long-term corporate sponsorship, fan support and media coverage.
“Through time we have seen companies come and go, and it has felt like a box check,” said Bird. “That is not how businesses grow. They grow because people want to invest."
There is one place Bird acknowledges female athletes are making gains: endorsements.
Bird has made commercials for CarMax, Capital One, Corona, Tonal, Symetra, Nike and more.
“All these commercials had this humorous bent to them, and it's allowed me to be a little deadpan over here, a little sarcastic over there and it's played well to my personality," said Bird.
Finally, female athletes are front and center.
“That's how you know things are changing," Bird said. "All the commercials have had a point in time where the female athlete gets to be the one propped up."
Change has been slow to come. Bird said as the league has evolved, so has she.
“Early in my time in the WNBA, I mean it was a different time. It was 2002. There was definitely an unspoken vibe around being gay and like what they could do to you," said Bird. "I never really had anybody say directly to my face if you're gay and if you come out this will hurt you, but I understood that.”
Bird said there is something liberating about being her authentic self.
“I feel way more feminine in a jean jacket some pants and sneakers than I ever did in a dress. Also, now, when I do wear dresses or I do put a pair of heels on, I'm choosing that. It feels more like me because I'm choosing it. I’m not trying to play a part," said Bird.
Bird said she has grown up in Seattle.
"This is where I finally found my true self and I'm finally living in that, and I know all the wonderful things that come with that have happened to me and it’s really been a wonderful experience in that way," said Bird.
That includes her long-time partner and fiancé Megan Rapinoe, who she credits with giving her the nudge to be open about being gay. The two have been together for five years and plan to get married soon.
Bird also understands what being a role model means to her fans.
“What's an amazing by-product of being able to be myself is that people can see that, learn from it,” said Bird. “They tell me they share these stories and it's incredibly meaningful."
Bird is also focused on telling other athletes' stories. She's the co-founder of TogethXR, a media company focusing solely on women, aimed at correcting the dismal statistic showing women’s sports get just 4% of all sports media coverage.
Partnering with gold medalists Chloe Kim, Alex Morgan and Simone Manuel, TogethXR is a mix of culture, lifestyle and sport.
"For me, what makes it so meaningful, and this is definitely a theme within my own journey, I never had women to look up to as basketball players. I just didn't,” Bird said. “That's the best part is being able to tell other people's stories, knowing it's going to have an impact on the next generation."
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And about that next generation? Bird said when it comes to family, she is keeping her options open. At 39, she decided to freeze her eggs.
"I just didn't know if I wanted a family or not, but I didn't want to, didn't want that opportunity to be taken, you know. Five years, you fast forward and you wish you could have kids and then there's no chance to," Bird said.
Bird is not alone. Family planning was a top priority in their recent collective bargain agreement. WNBA players came away with a landmark deal, guaranteeing 100% maternity leave, family planning and childcare benefits.
And about this being her final season?
“I don't know. It's kind of, arrows are pointing toward retirement. I'm not gonna lie. But at the same time, there might be a little crack open. I don't want to toy with people. This is a tough decision," said Bird.
Bird said she's grateful the decision hasn't been made for her, like so many other athletes where injuries have forced them into retirement. Bird said, for now, she’s operating as if it’s her last year and trying to soak it all in.
“We'll just see what happens," said Bird.
In the meantime, you can look for Bird and Stewart featured in the Sports Illustrated 2022 Swimsuit edition, another first for the women of WNBA.