SEATTLE – The side-eyed glance and the wry smile said it all.
“Oh, here she comes,” Sue Bird said during a postgame interview announcing the arrival of a jubilant and quite possibly slightly inebriated Breanna Stewart, who tossed green-and-gold confetti at her.
It was a sneak peak into the relationship Bird has forged with the two-time WNBA Finals MVP, who led the Storm to a second league championship in three years following Tuesday’s 92-59 blowout victory over No. 1 seed Las Vegas.
“She’s just getting started,” Bird said like a proud mentor when asked about the 26-year-old Stewart.
Of course, Bird, the league’s oldest player who turns 40 next week, is on the opposite end of that spectrum and she knows it.
Whether she plays one, two, or five more years – who knows, anything is possible with Bird – the 17-year veteran understands her iconic career is closer to the end than the beginning.
“This is crazy to be honest,” Bird said in a televised interview with ESPN’s Holly Rowe during the on-court trophy presentation. “I can’t believe I’m here right now.”
Bird isn’t prone to emotional displays publicly, but she nearly teared up when asked how she’s been able to play at a high level for nearly two decades.
“A lot of hard work,” she said. “I’m not even going to lie. I don’t cheat. I don’t cheat the game. I do what I have to do to be able to play at a high level.
“You have to buy in. This is something that started probably five years ago. Jenny (Boucek) was our coach. We’d just drafted Jewell (Loyd). We were rebuilding. We talked about this even in 2018. It’s hard. You got to buy in. It takes a lot and they know if they don’t do it, then I’m going to yell at them. So, there’s that.”
When Bird talks about buying in, she’s referring to her decision in 2015 when she considered leaving Seattle during free agency. Ultimately, Bird recommitted to the Storm, which had shed nearly everyone from the 2010 championship team to rebuild with young players.
Fortunately for Seattle, the franchise netted Loyd and Stewart with the No. 1 draft picks in 2015 and 2016, respectively.
“With Stewie and Jewell, their talent is really insane,” Bird said. “They are the now generation, but they are also the next generation for the next five, 10, 15, who knows how many years.”
In case anyone is wondering, Bird intends to return to the Storm next season and plans to play for USA Basketball in the 2021 Tokyo Summer Olympics.
But, there’s a caveat.
“The way I feel right now, if I can go through my offseason and continue to build on that in a good way, I don’t see why I won’t be playing next summer,” Bird said. “I’m not trying to be like elusive, but as I’ve always said, things happen.
“That’s what the last two years have taught me. Anything can happen. So I’m just like, you know, cautiously optimistic I guess.”
Bird noted the arthroscopic knee surgery that forced her to miss the 2019 WNBA season and a bone bruise in her left knee, which sidelined her for half of this year’s shortened 22-game regular season played entirely at the IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla.
Despite the admitted rustiness from the layoff, Bird was nearly flawless in the postseason while directing the Storm to six straight wins.
Seattle averaged 93 points and shot 49.4% from the field during the playoffs under the direction of the 5-foot-9 point guard, who set multiple assists records.
“Sue just makes things easier for everybody,” coach Gary Kloppenburg said. “She knows you’re open before you’re open and gets you the ball at the right time. It’s a luxury to have a player like that.”
Whether it was Alysha Clark for a corner 3-pointer, Loyd on a fast-break layup, Natasha Howard curling around a screen for a jumper or Stewart in a pick-and-roll situation, Bird, the WNBA’s all-time assists leader, dealt a bevy of no-look passes that resulted in highlights and baskets.
“It takes two to make an assist,” said Bird, who set the WNBA Finals assists record with 33. “I can’t get them if my teammates aren’t making shots. So they deserve the credit.”
Bird averaged 9.5 points and 9.2 assists in the playoffs, which is incredible when compared to her postseason stat line in 2004 when the Storm won its first title and she averaged 8.5 points and 5.3 assists.
Since her high-school days growing up in Syosset, N.Y, Bird has been a consummate winner whose resume consists of four Olympic gold medals, two NCAA championships at Connecticut and now four WNBA titles.
However, Bird’s greatness can’t be measured in record-breaking statistics, awards or even titles.
Perhaps the truest testament to Bird’s legacy is her uncanny durability and longevity.
“The fact that I’ve been able to do it in different decades, with the same franchise, not many people can say that,” said Bird, who has an 11-1 record in WNBA Finals games. “There are core groups that have anywhere from a 2, 4, 6 to maybe a 10-year run. But I’ve been here for technically 19 seasons, 17 that I’ve played, and to kind of be able to recreate that magic with different groups – two (championship runs) obviously with Lauren (Jackson) and we were the core.
“And two have been with Stewie and Jewell, as the core, and you can throw (Alysha Clark) in there as well. To recreate it over time and stay at a high level over time is definitely something I’m proud of because it hasn’t been easy.”
Including the 2013 season, Bird has missed two WNBA seasons because of knee injuries. Still, the bone bruise that forced her to miss 11 regular-season games this season pushed her to ponder retirement.
“This is the one time that I’m not going to sugarcoat it. It’s been hard,” Bird said. “A lot of ups, a lot of downs. I think the hardest part about being an older player is when there’s that down physically, you start to question whether you can do it anymore.
“You start to question why you’re doing it. You start to question if it’s worth it because it can be hard. But this is when I have to give credit to my circle. … Whether it’s someone like Megan (Rapinoe), someone like (Storm trainer) Susan (Borchardt) and beyond who helped me get through those down moments. Because it’s not like – you don’t lose belief. You still believe in yourself. You know what you’re capable of doing. Just is your body going to let you do it?”
After dishing a playoff-record 16 assists in Game 1, Bird received a heaping of praise from peers, including an Instagram post from Los Angeles Lakers star LeBron James that read: “Who said records couldn’t be broken in your 17th season? Keep going @sbird10. We all we got. Lol. Congrats!!”
The Storm guard replied: “I feel seen” followed by a pair of laughing emojis and the grandma and grandpa emojis.”
Bird’s popularity has never been higher. Her No. 10 jersey is the No. 1 selling merchandise in the WNBA and this week she’s making the post-championship rounds on various TV shows.
“Being younger, you talk about being in the moment and you don’t even know what that means. But as an older player, I fully understand.
“It’s a little, it’s almost surreal/shock. … I have a feeling it is going to hit later and for me as an older player, I think it’s coming out more emotional than excitement.”
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