Basketball legend Sue Bird played the last game of her unparalleled 20-year career Tuesday night, stepping off the court to thunderous chants of “Thank you, Sue” despite her team’s playoff loss.
The Seattle Storm — for which Bird has played her entire career — fell to the Las Vegas Aces in Game 4 of their semifinal series, in a tearful end to what Bird had previously promised would be her last season.
“I’m proud of everything we’ve accomplished here,” she said after the game, according to ESPN. “Of course I’m sad, but there’s happiness too, to be able to have a moment like that with the fans, to have them chant the way they did. I know the tears don’t look like happy tears, but there’s a lot of happiness.”
“THANK YOU SUE!”
Sue Bird’s final sendoff ❤️ pic.twitter.com/y9HMg8jnjJ
— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) September 7, 2022
Bird’s storied career has redefined basketball in Seattle and nationwide. The WNBA designated her one of the 25 greatest players in league history last year (after naming her one of its 20 greatest-ever players at its 20th-anniversary celebration in 2016, and one of its 15 greatest players five years before that).
Among many highlights: The 2002 No. 1 overall draft pick went on to become WNBA’s all-time leader in both assists (over 3,000) and career starts (549), and the only player in the league to have appeared in 500 career games. She’s won four WNBA championships and participated in a record 12 All-Star games, and also won five consecutive Olympic gold medals for the U.S. women’s basketball team.
As point guard, Bird either scored or assisted on nearly 33% of every Storm basket in her 18 seasons with the team (she took two off due to injuries), and had a hand in 27.6% of every basket scored in the team’s history.
“She’s going to be one of those Mt. Rushmore, Mt. Everest players who you look to whenever you think about the greatness of the players,” sports journalist Howard Bryant told NPR earlier this year. “I mean, male, female — you can’t really top what she’s done.”
Bird is also known for her contributions and activism off the court.
She’s an advocate for LGTBQ youth, and launched the “Love Is” campaign and fashion brand with soccer star (and her fiance) Megan Rapinoe. And as vice president of the WNBA players union, she worked with her colleagues to navigate playing during a pandemic and taking a stand against racial injustice.
She spoke to NPR in 2020 about the importance of WNBA players’ activism, adding that female athletes are used to being judged on virtually everything.
“When you’re a male athlete you’re allowed to just play your sport,” she said. “But everything about us, regardless of our play on the court, we’re judged on. We’re judged on what we look like, we’re judged on who we love. And it’s been that way for many, many years.”
In recent years Bird became the first WNBA player (and third American basketball player ever) to win four championships in three different decades, as well as the first WNBA player (and fifth American basketball player) to record at least eight assists in a game after turning 40.
Her retirement doesn’t come as a surprise. Bird had indicated at the time that the 2021 season would be her last — but fans’ chants of “one more year” helped change her mind and get her back in the game for a final flight, as the league has called it. Now she says she’s ready.
“Of course my body feels good,” Bird told ESPN on Tuesday, “so that can trick ya, but there’s a reason why I felt comfortable and I felt confident in this being my last year. Being able to say that out loud was a big hurdle. Once I kind of jumped over that, I knew I did the right thing because of how I felt afterward.”
Bird has said she will miss basketball, and suggested she may not be leaving the sport entirely. In recent years she’s gotten involved with other ventures during the off-season, including public speaking, analyzing women’s college basketball and launching multimedia and commerce company TOGETHXR with fellow athletes Alex Morgan, Chloe Kim and Simone Manuel.
She has talked about wanting to “do things in a way that grows the pie for everybody,” as she told ESPN last month.
“I feel really passionate about that, given my experience as a female athlete fighting for scraps,” she said. “I don’t want that to be the case for the next generation.”
Bryant, the sports journalist, told NPR that he thinks Bird’s legacy will be not just in her accolades, but in helping grow basketball and inspiring so many girls to get interested in the game.
Bird is retiring in the same year that several other female greats are stepping back, like tennis’ Serena Williams and track and field star Allyson Felix — all of whom have leveraged their time and talent to help make their sports more accessible for the next generation.