SEATTLE — They lined up hours before the game, snaking around Climate Pledge Arena, most of them in No. 10 jerseys and shirts, determined to get inside early to soak up every second they could with not just the best point guard of all time in the women’s game, but also the most influential women’s player of her era.
It was Sue Bird Sunday during the Seattle Storm’s 89-81 loss to the Las Vegas Aces, an up-tempo, high-level contest (Bird finished with nine points, six assists and four rebounds) that doubled as the four-time WNBA champion’s final regular-season home game. Granted, it wasn’t the send-off she was hoping for, which Olympic teammate A’ja Wilson (29 points, six rebounds) felt somewhat bad about.
“I wasn’t trying to crash Sue’s party, she invited me!” Wilson said, laughing. “I was just trying to have some fun. I’m just so happy for Sue. The things Sue has done within this franchise, we’ve all gotta give her respect.”
The Storm are already a lock for the playoffs and likely to play more home games — and given Bird’s excellence over her 21-year career, and the fact that the Aces spoiled her celebration, probably none of us should rule out a potential fifth WNBA ring before she heads to retirement this offseason. But to be safe, to ensure she was properly appreciated in case her career ends on the road, Seattle fans showed up en force Sunday.
Based on the roar when Bird ran onto the floor and the fact that there was nary an empty seat in the arena, most of the city showed up to send their point guard off in style. To make sure everyone in attendance understood her importance, the Storm passed out black shirts with a golden goat emblazoned on the front. Those who looked closely saw the animal was actually comprised of a list of Bird’s accolades, a nod to the GOAT (greatest of all time).
But perhaps more importantly, she’s also the most influential player in the history of the WNBA and one of, if not the most, influential athletes in the history of Seattle sports, regardless of gender.
With an assist from Storm great Lauren Jackson, who retired in 2016, and Breanna Stewart, the 2018 MVP who is a candidate to win again this season, Bird has built Seattle into a women’s sports mecca. And in a nod to Bird’s legacy, the sports world at large — but Seattle especially — will continue to benefit from the Sue Bird Effect.
Consider the following:
— The Storm debuted in the 2000 season before drafting Jackson the following year with the top overall pick. In 2002, again holding the No. 1 pick in the WNBA draft, Seattle selected Bird. The Storm’s staying power can be attributed partially to a rabid fanbase that consistently showed up for Bird. Not only does Seattle lead the league in average attendance, but on Sunday, the team set a franchise record with a sellout of 18,100.
— Without Bird, who helped Seattle fall in love with women’s sports, there’s likely no raucous crowds for Washington women’s basketball, when Kelsey Plum starred for the Huskies and led them to the 2016 Final Four.
— Without Bird, whose excellence demanded that women’s sports be taken seriously in a city long defined by its professional men’s teams, there is likely no OL Reign, Seattle’s NWSL team.
Perhaps no young WNBA player is more qualified to speak to Bird’s impact than Plum, now in her sixth professional season with Las Vegas. Plum, who finished with 16 points and four assists Sunday, was a beneficiary of Bird’s influence on the Seattle sports market. Bird was one of thousands who packed Alaska Airlines Arena to watch Plum at Washington from 2013-17, where she ultimately broke the NCAA scoring record.
“She’s been tremendous in transcending the game,” Plum told USA TODAY Sports. “She’s one of those athletes that breaks through the sex barrier — she has the ultimate respect from both sides. Seattle is amazing. It embraces sports, no matter gender … but the love this city has for women’s basketball, Sue built that.”
For her part, Bird had never thought about that — until Sunday.
Ever the point guard, she first deferred, saying that “you have to give a little bit of a nod to the Seattle Reign,” the city’s former ABL team. Then she recognized her role, too.
“What’s really coming across my mind is … you always knew what you were gonna get from me,” Bird said. “To have a player like that, in the same city, you can attach to that, you can connect with that, you can connect with the team — and the fans here have done that. They were connected to Lauren, they’re connected now to Stewie (Breanna Stewart) and others but I was the constant, and a consistent constant. So it was easy to latch on.”
She mentioned other standouts including Plum and fiancé Megan Rapinoe, an OL Reign star, saying those players are “doing their own thing” in continuing to keep Seattle sports fans engaged in women’s games. But she acknowledged that, “I kept it going. And it’s nice to know I helped create other opportunities.”
Creating for others is exactly what a great point guard is supposed to do. And for Bird, there’s no role more fitting, or more fulfilling.
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