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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.