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Sue Bird on the past, present and future of the WNBA

One of the biggest questions WNBA fans have heading into what’s purported to be a wild free agency period is whether Sue Bird, the all-time assists leader and greatest point-guard ever, will be back to play another season with her Seattle Storm.

After losing an overtime thriller in a brutal single elimination playoff game to Diana Taurasi’s Phoenix Mercury this past fall, Seattle fans broke out into a forceful “One More Year” chant as the two GOATs exchanged jerseys and spoke with ESPN’s Holly Rowe at center court.

“I will take my time and make the right decision,” Bird told Rowe that day about her retirement status.

Though we have to wait a bit longer to find out her 2022 plans, Bird recently opened up to Just Women’s Sports about her basketball influences, what it’s really like to play with some of the best to ever do it, and what she sees ahead for the WNBA. 

Bird’s early influences

Born in 1980, the now 41-year-old came of age at a time when women’s sports were not readily available to consumers.

“It took until I was 15 years old to find the female athlete that I could look up to, identify with,” she recalls. “Before then, there just weren’t women on TV. I couldn’t just sit down, turn on ESPN and watch WNBA games. It didn’t even exist.”

Like for millions of other U.S. athletes in her generation, it was the 1996 Atlanta Olympic games that provided Bird her first visible glimpse of what was possible for women in sports. And the athlete she was immediately influenced by was Jennifer Azzi of the USA Women’s Basketball Team.

“When I saw her [Azzi] on the ’96 Olympic team, that was my ‘See It, Be It’ moment,” says Bird.

If the name looks familiar to current college hoops fans, it’s because UConn’s latest big-time freshman and the 2021 number one overall recruit, Azzi Fudd, was named after Jen Azzi by her basketball-playing mother.

The other player that was a big influence on young Sue Bird was Mike Bibby, the 1998 second overall NBA draft pick who took his Arizona Wildcats all the way to the NCAA title in 1997 when saucer-eyed Bird was a junior in high school. 

“My all-time favorite player, the minute I saw him when he was in Arizona, I was obsessed,” Bird admits.  

The thing about Bibby’s game that stood out to Bird was that he wasn’t content to just be a facilitating point guard.

“Point guards were always the one, they dribbled it up, they passed it. Good job, go stand in the corner. But Mike Bibby was like, ‘Nah, I’m shooting this too.’ I feel I’m one of a couple of us that, I would say, started the whole scoring point guard thing in the women’s game,” Bird says.

“I actually became friends with him shortly after that. So I have his jersey. He knows I have it and he knows I want it signed. So I have to get it signed.”

Playing with Giants

A couple years after latching onto to Bibby’s style of play, Bird arrived in Storrs for her freshman year as a UConn Huskie, where she would go on to team with Diana Taurasi, who was a year behind her in school. Looking back 23 years and five Olympic gold medals later, Bird is grateful of all the times the two legends got to reunite on Team USA.

“Both our friendship off the court and our chemistry on the court, it started in college when we were teammates. I feel anytime we can get back to being teammates versus playing against each other in the WNBA, it’s always welcome. It’s just so comfortable. It feels like you’re coming home in a way,” she says.

In terms of what sets her best friend apart from the rest, Bird says, “D is the definition of a gym rat.” During the seven years they played together in Russia, Bird recalls, “You would have to beg her not to go in on the day off. You’d have to sit her down and be like, ‘Listen, you actually need to rest your body.’ And she’s like, ‘No, no, no. I need to get some shots up. It’ll be fine. It’ll be fine. I just need to get some shots up.’ I think for her, that’s where she gets her mojo.”

Another giant Bird has played against in the W and alongside on Team USA is Taurasi’s Mercury teammate Britney Griner. The 6’9” center out of Baylor was the first overall pick in 2013 and has been a menace inside the paint for Phoenix ever since.

“She’s the most dominant player in our league. You can argue MVPs and you can argue GOATs and Best Ever and all that kind of stuff. She is by far the most dominant player,” Bird says of Griner. “When you play against Phoenix, the entire game plan has to be about what you’re doing against BG.” 

As with Taurasi, Bird has the unique perspective of playing both with and against Griner.

“I think the best part is, she doesn’t take crap from anybody on the court, but she’s such a good person and such a good teammate. When you’re competing against her, you know you can’t mess with BG. BG will let you know, she’ll let you have it. But as a teammate, she’s the sweetest, she just wants to do whatever the team needs.”

A different tall, gangly player with an insane wingspan has been a major reason Bird has continued to tally victories through her late thirties. After Bird’s tenure with the storm was more than a decade old, the team drafted Breanna Stewart with the top overall pick in 2016, and suddenly the Storm were once again contenders. 

Bird’s first two WNBA Championships came six years apart in 2004 and 2010. Since Stewart came on the scene, they’ve already added two more, winning it all in 2018 and 2020. 

Stewart, who won four NCAA National Championships in a row at UConn, and now has a EuroLeague title in addition to her WNBA Championships, is arguably the winningest athlete in the game. Bird has said elsewhere that Stewart “literally saved my career.” 

“In Stewie’s case, she only knows winning. So there’s this air about her, almost like she just doesn’t know what losing is,” Bird says about her teammate. “Whereas for myself, sadly, I’ve lost some big games, so I’m very aware of that. I know. I’m always fearful of it. For her, she’s not really scared of it. She’s just like, ‘This is what I do. I win.’… There’s a confidence there, but it’s not cocky.”

Looking ahead

Bird and Stewart may represent different generations of players, but one thing they have in common is a passionate desire to grow the game. Recognizing the benefit of continually enhancing fan engagement and connection, the two superstars have recently joined with The Collective Marketplace to offer fans access to personal and autographed items from their closets. It’s another example of something that’s been available on the men’s side for decades but is just becoming available to women’s sports fans, and Bird, Stewart, and DT are headlining the charge.

“I am a little bit of a collector, and I think, for me, it’s more that feeling of nostalgia and just things having sentimental value,” Bird says of her collection on the site. “I kept those practice jerseys, and I kept those uniforms and kept those warmups for a reason. So it’s great that I can now share that.”

Bird isn’t afraid to highlight distinctions between the fanbases of the men’s and women’s game. Even though there is a high degree of overlap, Bird points out that quality vs. quantity of fan engagement is an important distinction.

“The one thing I love about women’s sports is the engagement,” she explains. “That to me is the story of where the growth of women’s basketball is and where it’s going to go. Because the fan base, that fan base is legit. And they love us. They’ll do anything to support us. They follow our careers. So when you have a passionate fan base like that, the growth is inevitable.”

 One of the most obvious types of growth for her game is WNBA expansion, which became a trending topic as soon as the 2021 season ended. With Alana Beard headlining the charge for a team in Oakland and Drake tweeting for a team in Toronto, everyone seems to have an opinion about what the league should do. 

“I do think the league needs to expand,” says Bird. “It doesn’t need to be too fast. I think one team at a time. We can’t go too many teams too fast.”

But Bird has no doubt the incoming talent is there to support growth. With the rise of college star Paige Bueckers, who happens to be a fellow Huskie, Bird can’t help but see things coming full circle.

“I think [Paige] is more Diana than anything. What I see in her is a player that has a flare, has a swag about her, has a confidence. And that’s where I see her similar to D in a lot of ways. 

“You could maybe argue she enjoys passing more than anything. So there’s a nice balance there, where I think as she gets older, she’ll start to really tap into when to set your teammates up, when to be the aggressor and take over games. She’s already showing signs of all those things.” 

Hoping Bird will be on the court to officially hand over the reins to UConn’s newest hotshot point guard when she enters the league in a couple years is probably too much to ask of the 41-year-old legend. But until she steps away, Bird’s fans can continue to dream.

(Editor’s note: The Collective Marketplace on Athlete Direct is a sponsor of Just Women’s Sports)

Tessa Nichols is a contributing writer at Just Women’s Sports.

Esme Morgan Signs With Washington Spirit

Esme Morgan of England inspects the pitch prior to the UEFA Women's EURO 2025 qualifying match between England and France
The England national will join the Spirit in DC on July 15th. (Naomi Baker - The FA/The FA via Getty Images)

English defender Esme Morgan has signed with the Washington Spirit, the club announced Thursday. 

Morgan had been with WSL side Manchester City since 2017, with one year remaining on her contract. She’ll now make a move to the NWSL, with City receiving a fee for the move. 

"I wanted to join the Spirit because they have the ambition and tools to be the best team in the NWSL, and trying to achieve that will be a great but enjoyable challenge," Morgan said in a club statement.

"On an individual level too, the opportunity to work under Jonatan [Giráldez], one of the world's best coaches, is really exciting and I look forward to learning from him and pushing myself to become the best player I can be, hopefully helping the team to success."

According to ESPN, Morgan’s lack of playing time under City manager Gareth Taylor played a key role in her decision to leave the league championship runners-up. She’ll join the Spirit in Washington, DC on July 15th, but won’t be able to begin play until August. 

Spirit president Mark Krikorian called Morgan an "exceptional talent" and added that the club is "thrilled" to add her to the roster.

"I think she’s pretty talented," Giraldez told reporters on Friday. "A young player with a great future, but with experience already in a great league and with the national team. She’s been surrounded by great players and also great coaches, so she can give us experience."

Ledecky Goes for 4 at Olympic Swimming Trials

Swimmer katie ledecky swimming at Toyota US Open
Decorated swimmer Katie Ledecky is aiming to make her fourth-straight Olympic squad. (Jacob Kupferman/Getty Images)

The US Olympic Swimming Trials begin this weekend, running from June 15th through June 23rd in Indianapolis, with Katie Ledecky eyeing her fourth-straight Summer Games.

While traditionally held in Omaha, Indiana's Lucas Oil Stadium, home of the NFL's Indianapolis Colts, has been fitted with a 50-meter pool to host the meet that will determine the 2024 Paris Olympics roster.

All eyes will be on seven-time Olympic gold medalist Katie Ledecky, who will be competing in the 200-meter, 400-meter, 800-meter, and 1500-meter freestyle — all events in which she’s been an Olympic champion. 

Rival Ariarne Titmus had her trials last week, breaking the world record in the 200-meter freestyle. Ledecky’s 200 is intended to qualify her for the Olympic relay. Meanwhile stateside, Katie Grimes stands to be a challenger in the 1500-meter freestyle has already qualified for the Paris Olympics in the 10km open water event.

Other competitors of note include 47-year-old Gabrielle Rose, who stands to become the oldest US Swimming Olympic qualifier in the 100-meter and 200-meter breaststroke.

Additionally, Kate Douglass — an NCAA and World Champion — is a favorite to make her first Olympic team in the 200-meter IM and 200-meter breaststroke. Simone Manuel, an Olympic champion in the 100-meter freestyle, is also looking to make her third-straight Olympics.

Where to watch: The Trials will be streaming all week on Peacock, with later qualifying heats airing live on USA Network and event finals airing in primetime on NBC.

Orlando and Kansas City Shoot for 13 in NWSL Weekend Action

NWSL's T. Chawinga #6 of the Kansas City Current passes the ball during the first half of their game against the Utah Royals FC
The Kansas City Current hopes to extend its NWSL unbeaten streak to 13 with a win over Chicago. (Chris Gardner/Getty Images)

The 13th match weekend is fast approaching in the NWSL, with two season-long unbeaten streaks on the line.

League-leaders Kansas City and Orlando will attempt to survive the weekend with their unbeaten runs intact, as the Current host Chicago on Friday and the Pride travel to North Carolina for Saturday's match.

But while Kansas City and Orlando have been the gold standard this year, they're still a number of wins away from tying Washington's record for longest unbeaten streak in a single NWSL season. In 2021, the Spirit went 20 games without a loss en route to the club's first NWSL championship.

Both Gotham and Louisville are carrying momentum into their matchup on Saturday. Louisville is unbeaten in three games, and they’re looking to finally leapfrog Chicago and claim sixth place in the league standings. Gotham, on a seven-game unbeaten run, is into fifth place.

Portland and Seattle will face off in the Cascadia Clash this weekend, with Golden Boot contender Sophia Smith absent, as the decorated forward was shown a red card last weekend for time-wasting on the bench.

The Reign could use a win against their long-time rivals, as a difficult start has 13th-place Seattle registering only two wins amid nine losses so far this season.

Elsewhere in the league, 2024 expansion teams Bay FC and Utah meet for the first time this weekend, as both look to rise from the bottom half of the standings. And Washington will ride a four-game winning streak into Saturday's game against a San Diego side that's earned two hard-fought draws in recent weeks.

Watch more: "Sophia Smith is INNOCENT!" on The Late Sub with Claire Watkins

WNBA All-Star Voting Starts on June 13th

Phoenix Mercury mascot Scorch waving a 2024 WNBA All-Star flag at a 2023 home game.
Phoenix Mercury will host the 20th-annual All-Star Game on July 20th, 2024. (Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

Voting for the 2024 AT&T WNBA All-Star Game opened at 2 PM ET today and runs through June 29th.

All active WNBA players are eligible to make the All-Star Game, set for July 20th in Phoenix. Unlike previous formats that featured two voted-in All-Star squads, this year’s contest pits a single All-Star team against the already-decided Olympic-bound USA Women’s National Team.

Fans can submit a daily ballot nominating up to 10 athletes via WNBA.com or the WNBA App.

Fan-submitted ballots account for 50% of vote, with the other 50% split equally between current WNBA players and members of the media. The top 10 athletes will automatically make the All-Star Game, with league coaches then voting from a pool of the next 36 to complete Team WNBA’s 12-player roster. The final lineup will be announced on July 2nd.

This year's All-Star Game format presents an opportunity for fans to vote for players they might consider Olympic snubs. Indiana rookie Caitlin Clark and Dallas’s Arike Ogunbawole seem like shoo-ins given the discussion surrounding their Olympic omissions, while Connecticut stars Brionna Jones and DeWanna Bonner are also expected to snag All-Star nods.

And after a career-high 20-point, 10-rebound double-double in last night’s 83-75 loss to the Sun, Chicago rookie Angel Reese could also secure a spot.

Regardless, it won't necessarily be smooth sailing for Team USA, as history has tended to favor the underdog. 

The first USA vs. All-Stars matchup took place in 2021, with the league’s squad humbling the Tokyo Olympians 93-85. With 26 points, Ogunbawole was named All-Star Game MVP after barely missing the Olympic cut. Could she and Clark turn the tables on Team USA this year?

Watch more: "Were Caitlin Clark and Arike Ogunbowale snubbed?" by Expert Adjacent

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