As Sue Bird’s career draws to a close, her true influence comes into focus


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Opinion

SEATTLE – Last week, Sue Bird thought about precision after watching Serena Williams face a similar, final final. From her white hairdos as a teenager to her diamond-encrusted knickers as a 40-year-old mom, Williams is always original and comfortable. Bird is afraid of Williams. It took decades for a bird to grow into its own.

There is no learning curve for handling celebrities. However, there is only one path to a healthy reputation – your own – and finding it challenges us not to lose ourselves in the public’s expectations. When Williams said, “I’m just Serena,” at the U.S. Open, it was more of a mission statement than a microphone drop.

And after the last five years, since Bird came out as gay and started using her influence to highlight every social issue on her mind, now she can say she’s just Sue.

On Tuesday night, she and the Seattle Storm will try to extend her special basketball career. They trail the Las Vegas Aces 2-1 in a thrilling best-of-five WNBA semifinal series, bringing Bird one out of retirement. The past 2½ months have been filled with celebration and nostalgia, but today Williams feels the same urgency she felt in her tennis farewell. Although this is for a bird, the appreciation will be more than the closure.

Her enduring star power cannot be measured solely by her collection, all the trophies and statistics and awards. You should see what she sheds. Gone long ago was any fear, any mask, any submission to awareness. She is admired for her athleticism, courage and empathy. Growing up, Bird, the greatest point guard in women’s basketball history, known for cooking for others, learned how to help herself.

“There’s power in who I am,” Bird said. “It’s just for me personally. I forget everything else. I feel good about that. I go to bed at night feeling good about that.”

The arc of Bird’s life so far includes Ralph Waldo Emerson’s words, “To be yourself in a world that is constantly trying to be something else is a great achievement.” She knew she was gay during college in Connecticut, but she was already painted as the girl next door, with her trademark ponytail and natural, mesmerizing beauty. So she smiled for the cameras and maintained her privacy.

No one who knew a bird at any time in her life would consider it a fake; She is very warm and personable. But she was protected. She said something less controversial. When she did, she quickly corrected it. In the year In 2003, during the Hurricanes’ second season, Bird agreed to a bet with a male sports radio host about her assist-to-turnover ratio: If it was high enough, the host would buy season tickets. If not, she would have been beaten. It caused a stir. Bird quits the competition, apologizes and expresses her embarrassment. She remains reserved and friendly with the media, but perfects her ability to hold back while appearing open.

“It was fun to be a public figure, because of what people saw in court and who I was and who I was as a person, but I also knew that I was hiding something inside myself,” he said. “I was hiding my sexuality, I wasn’t showing that side of myself. And that’s a big part of who you are, because it’s who you love and spend your time and life with. For me, I was growing as a basketball player and in the early stages I felt like I wasn’t being my true self. Then when it was time to do that, I found that moment. “

Bird grew from her 20s to her 30s. She won and won and won. Two college titles with Connecticut. Four championships with a storm. Five Olympic gold medals. She also fell in love with her now fiancee, soccer star Megan Rapinoe. In 2017, she announced to the world that she is gay. In the year In 2020, she was helping her WNBA teammates rebel against former Atlanta Dream co-owner Kelly Loeffler by supporting the candidacy of the Rev. Raphael G. Warnock for the Georgia Senate seat. Warnock ended up winning. Loeffler, who had clashed with WNBA players over police killings, later sold the dream.

The League had found its voice and realized its power. Bird was at the vanguard of this shift, a white woman championing individualized efforts for black women. In men’s sports, the black athlete continues to wait for more white stars to give up their rights and stand with them. But the women who play these games — who constantly fight sexism and marginalization — understand the importance of equality. Bird came to her senses in good time. The guard, who has been in the WNBA for 21 of her 26 seasons, grew up in the sport.

“We’re a ‘who are we’ kind of league,” Bird said. “We finally embraced that. We were trying so hard. We were throwing things off the wall, trying to survive, see what would stick. We were trying to do it in a society where we thought, ‘Oh, we’ve got to put the women’s side forward. Oh, we’ve got to be pretty, maybe. A lot of fans might get into it.’ And then it’s like, come on, you’ve got to be yourself now. And people are either going to love you or hate you. But at least it’s true,” he said.

A few weeks ago, after her final regular season game in Seattle, Bird addressed a record crowd of 18,100 at the new Climate Promise Arena. It was the most intimate five-minute conversation one could have with the masses. During her speech, she mentioned Wildrose, a 37-year-old lesbian bar in the Capitol Hill neighborhood, among the oldest of its kind on the West Coast. Bird first visited Rose, as the regulars say, early in her career. That night a storm fan approached her and thought she was in the right place. Bird looks like a fool, but she knows where she is. She was home.

Referring to the Wildrose, Bird could hear “about 10,000” people cheering. She told the story to highlight the impact Seattle had on her. She grew up in Syosset, NY, attended Christ the King High School in Queens and stayed nearby for college at U-Conn. But she has become a Seattle sports institution. She grew up still kicking it in the league, town, and bar even though she struggled during the outbreak.

“It was a feeling of acceptance,” Bird said. “Also a sense of protection.”

Martha Manning, co-owner of Wildrose, was visiting family on the East Coast and missed the end of the bird’s regular season. In the afternoon, her phone buzzed with text messages.

“We love him,” Manning said. “I’ve never seen her turn anyone away anywhere she goes. She is vulnerable to mistakes. Sometimes, we don’t know if we should go and intervene, but she doesn’t seem bothered.

A bird notices everything. Her vision extends far beyond the basketball court. You can walk past her on the street, share a brief interaction, and she will mention it after several days. You can ask a probing question, and she listens well and can pinpoint exactly what you want to know. In the year Former Storm coach Brian Agler, who won a championship with Bird in 2010, likes to tell a story about his practice with the point guard. She tells him she doesn’t feel right.

“I think I’m a pound or two heavier,” Bird told Agler.

The coach was surprised. “You know when you’re a pound or two heavier?” he laughed. he asked.

With this kind of self-awareness, imagine how she felt knowing she had more of herself to share. It took her 36 years to fully believe not only the people but also herself. She’s 41 now, and while that makes her an old athlete, the rest of her life is full of possibilities: basketball coach, general manager, television personality, entrepreneur, activist, motivational speaker, life coach. But what she does doesn’t matter as much as who she is.

“I wish I had done it sooner,” Bird said of being herself. “The timing was not right. And that’s okay too. I feel like, maybe if you are someone in a similar situation, the time must be right for you. But the sooner the lesson is learned, the better. The sooner you are your authentic self, the better things will feel.

A bird adapted to fame, then made fame adapt to her. She’s collected over two decades worth of hardware, but when she tries to win and play, she doesn’t have to worry about how she’ll be remembered. She’s just Sue. That title, priceless and strong, is enough.

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