Tuesday, June 25, 2024

Sue Bird plays final WNBA game: A look back at the best moments from the Storm legend’s historic career

In the middle of June, Sue Bird announced that the 2022 season would be her last in the WNBA. Late on Tuesday night, after her Seattle Storm were eliminated in the semifinals of the playoffs by the Las Vegas Aces, Bird’s legendary career officially came to a close. 

Bird finished with eight points and eight assists in Game 4, as the Storm lost yet another thriller in what was one of the best playoff series in league history. Leaving on top with a historic fifth title would have been best, but Bird and the Storm went down swinging against the best team in the league, and there’s no shame in going out like that. 

“It’s sad,” Bird said after the 97-92 loss. “Obviously so thankful for 20 years here. I’m gonna miss it so much. I’m not going anywhere, but I’m gonna miss it. I wish we could have done a little bit more to get to the finals, but I’m so proud of this team, this year. I’m so, so, so, proud to be a member of the Seattle Storm. It has been my honor to play for this franchise, to play for these fans. I don’t know what else to say.”

A serial winner and one of the best point guards to ever play the game, Bird succeeded at every level and remains one of just 11 women with an NCAA title, WNBA title, and Olympic gold medal. And that’s to say nothing of the work she’s done overseas, where she won numerous Russian and EuroLeague Women championships. 

With her career complete, let’s take a look back at some of Bird’s best moments. 

2002: No. 1 pick; All-Star and First-Team All-WNBA as a rookie

After entering the league in 2000, the Storm got off to a rough start, winning just 16 games combined in the team’s first two seasons. The early ineptitude paid off in the long run, though, as the Storm won the lottery in both 2001 and 2002. After taking Lauren Jackson No. 1 overall in ’01, the Storm made Bird the first pick in ’02. 

Bird immediately proved that the Storm had made the right decision, as she started all 32 games and averaged 14.4 points and six assists in her rookie season. She was named a starter for the All-Star Game, earned All-WNBA First Team honors and helped the Storm reach the playoffs for the first time in franchise history. 

Despite her stellar season, however, Bird did not win Rookie of the Year. That honor went to Tamika Catchings, who was drafted in 2001 but did not play until 2002 due to injury. 

2004: First title and first Olympic gold medal

It didn’t take Bird long to earn her first bit of hardware at the pro level. In just her third season, Bird helped the Storm win its first title in franchise history. While she struggled early in that playoff run, she stepped up when it mattered most. The Storm faced four elimination games along the way, and Bird averaged 10 points, 3.7 rebounds, 6.5 assists and 2.5 steals on 46.2 percent shooting in those contests. 

Most notably, in what was the most significant performance of her career to that point, she put up 10 points, 14 assists and three steals in a winner-take-all Game 3 of the Western Conference finals against the Sacramento Monarchs. 

Earlier that year, Bird had helped Team USA win the gold medal at the 2004 Olympics in Athens. When the Storm closed out the Connecticut Sun in the WNBA Finals, she completed a rare trifecta: NCAA title, WNBA title and Olympic gold medal. To this day, she is one of only 11 women to accomplish that feat. 

2005: First of three times leading league in assists per game

The 2005 campaign wasn’t quite as successful for the Storm, as they were bounced in the first round of the playoffs by Sheryl Swoopes and the Houston Comets. Bird, though, was once again one of the league’s best. 

She made All-WNBA First Team for the fourth straight season, and also led the league in assists per game (5.9) for the first time in her career. Bird would go on to accomplish the latter two more times in her career. Only Tina Penicheiro and Courtney Vandersloot have done so more often. 

2006: All-decade team 

The 2006 season marked a decade of basketball for the WNBA, and to commemorate the milestone, the league decided to name an All-Decade Team to honor the best players to that point. Despite being in just her fifth season in the league, Bird’s early accomplishments helped her make the cut. She is the only remaining active player from that team.

2008: Second Olympic gold medal

Bird was once again selected to Team USA for the 2008 Beijing Olympics, and helped the team cruise to another gold medal. Though she played sparingly, she did lead the team in steals during the tournament with 14. This was Bird’s second Olympic gold. 

2010: Hits clutch shots en route to second title

After five straight disappointing first-round exits in the WNBA playoffs, the Storm finally returned to glory in 2010. Fellow UConn alum Swin Cash had joined the team, forming a big three with Jackson and Bird. 

The Storm won 28 games during the regular season, which is still a franchise record, and didn’t lose a single game during the playoffs. They came close a few times, though, and wouldn’t have gone undefeated in the postseason without some clutch play from Bird. 

In Game 2 of the Western Conference finals, Bird and the Storm had a rough night against the Phoenix Mercury, trailing by as much as 19 before staging a furious fourth-quarter comeback. With just over 30 seconds remaining, Bird found Cash for a layup to tie the game, and then in the closing seconds, she drained a game-winning 3-pointer to send the Storm to the Finals.

A few days later, during Game 1 of the Finals, the Storm nearly blew a big lead of their own to the Atlanta Dream. But with the score tied and time winding down, Bird delivered again with a game-winning jumper from just inside the 3-point line. The Storm, of course, would go on to sweep the series. 

2011: Top 15 at 15

The Mercury got revenge on the Storm in 2011, knocking them out of the playoffs in a closely-contested first-round series. In the winner-take-all Game 3, Bird hit a game-tying jumper with 14 seconds remaining, but Candice Dupree’s buzzer-beater sent the Storm packing. 

Despite the postseason heartbreak, Bird did earn another major personal accolade. In honor of its 15th anniversary, the league announced a new team featuring the Top 15 Players of all time. Bird, of course, was a shoo-in. Along with Diana Taurasi, she is one of just two active players remaining from that team. 

2012: Third Olympic gold medal

When Team USA left for London for the 2012 Olympics, there was no question Bird would be on the plane. By this point, she was a captain and played a leading role in the Americans’ dominant run to another gold medal – the fifth straight for the country and third for Bird. She led the team in assists and shot 48.8 percent from the field during the tournament. 

2016: Return to All-WNBA First Team; fourth Olympic gold medal; Top 20 at 20

Once Swin Cash left and Lauren Jackson retired, the Storm endured some lean years. There were a number of first-round exits, and even a few lottery appearances. Bird dealt with knee problems, and ended up missing the entire 2013 season after undergoing surgery. 

By 2016, though, things were starting to turn around for both Bird and the Storm. Just as they had at the beginning of the century, the Storm won back-to-back lotteries and added Jewell Loyd in 2015 and Breanna Stewart in 2016 to form a new big three. 

Healthy and rejuvenated by a much-needed influx of young talent, Bird had a bounceback season. She averaged 12.8 points and 5.8 assists while shooting 44.4 percent from 3-point land to earn All-WNBA First Team honors for the fifth time in her career – 14 years after her first appearance. Overall, her eight All-WNBA appearances are tied for the fifth-most all-time. 

That summer, she was once again a captain for Team USA during the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. As per usual, the Americans cruised to the gold medal winning all eight games in the tournament by double-digits. Bird barely shot en route to her fourth gold medal, but led the team in assists at 4.4 per game 

If all that wasn’t enough for one year, Bird also made an appearance on the league’s Top 20 at 20 list. For the 20th anniversary season, the league announced a new list of the top 20 players, and Bird was an obvious selection. Along with Diana Taurasi and Candace Parker, she is one of just three active players on that list. 

2017: Becomes all-time assists leader

As the young Storm continued to climb the ranks in 2017, Bird was chasing a bit of personal history. Finally, against the Washington Mystics in the last game of the regular season, she got there. Coming off the pick-and-roll, she lobbed a pass inside to Carolyn Swords for assist No. 2,600. 

With that pass and score, Bird moved past Ticha Penicheiro to become the WNBA’s all-time assists leader – a title she still holds and may never lose given her still-growing lead over the rest of the field.  

2018: Third title; sets games played, All-Star records

After getting back to the playoffs in 2016 and 2017, the Storm’s new generation made the leap in 2018. With Breanna Stewart established as a full-fledged superstar, and Jewell Loyd and Bird rounding out the best big three in the league, the Storm won 26 games – second-most in franchise history – and swept the Washington Mystics in the Finals. 

While Bird was no longer the primary star, the Storm wouldn’t have won the title without her. In particular, she came up clutch in the winner-take-all Game 5 of the semifinals against the Phoenix Mercury. After leading the series 2-0, the Storm lost the next two games and were trailing in the fourth quarter of Game 5. 

That’s when Bird, wearing a mask due to a broken nose sustained via friendly fire from Stewart in Game 4, took over. She scored 14 of her 22 points in the fourth quarter to lead the Storm’s comeback, drilling clutch jumper after clutch jumper to once again send the Mercury home. 

In addition to winning her third ring, and the first with Stewart and Loyd, Bird earned a number of accolades during the 2018 season. When she suited up against the Atlanta Dream on July 22, she played in her 500th career game, moving past DeLisha Milton-Jones to become the league’s all-time leader in games played. Bird has now played 559 career games — 72 more than Taurasi, who is the closest active player. 

A few days later, on July 28, Bird started in the 2018 WNBA All-Star Game, finishing with five points and eight assists for Team Delle Donne. That was her 11th All-Star appearance, which moved her past Tamika Catchings for the most in WNBA history. She is now up to 12 appearances and could extend her record to 13 this summer. 

2020: Record-setting fourth title

After winning the title in 2018, the Storm were dealt two major blows. Stewart tore her Achilles tendon while playing overseas, and Bird needed knee surgery. Neither player suited up in 2019, as the Storm limped to a second-round playoff exit. 

Then, COVID-19 shut down the world, and it wasn’t clear when there would be WNBA basketball again. Eventually, the league put together a bubble in Florida, and Bird and Co. were ready. They went 18-4 in the shortened regular season, and didn’t lose a single game in the playoffs, sweeping the Las Vegas Aces in the Finals for a record-setting fourth title. 

In Game 1 of the Finals, Bird dished out 16 assists, setting a new career-high and what was at the time a WNBA playoff record. (Courtney Vandersloot broke the mark last season when she had 18 assists in Game 1 of the Chicago Sky’s semifinal series against the Connecticut Sun.) 

While Bird didn’t get to keep her assist record, she did make another bit of history with the 2020 title. In addition to winning her fourth as a player – tied for the second-most all-time – she became the first player in WNBA history to win titles in three different decades: 2000s, 2010s and 2020s. 

2021: Flag bearer and record-setting fifth Olympic gold; 3,000 assists; Top 25 at 25

The 2021 season didn’t go to plan for the Storm. With Stewart sidelined due to another Achilles injury, they were bounced from the playoffs in the second round. But, as has been the case so often in her career, Bird still had plenty of personal achievements to ease the pain of an early postseason exit. 

In July, during a regular season matchup with the Mercury, Bird found Mercedes Russell for career assist No. 3,000, becoming the first player in WNBA history to reach that mark. She remains the only player in the 3,000-assist club, and now has 3,114 for her career. The next closest active player is Courtney Vandersloot at 2,272. 

Shortly after making history with her assists, Bird boarded a plane for Tokyo to lead Team USA to the Olympics, which had been delayed by a year due to COVID-19. While the Americans faced a bit more competition than usual, they once again won gold without dropping a game. 

Bird once again led the team in assists and steals, and earned her fifth gold medal. Along with Diana Taurasi, she is one of only two basketball players, men or women, to have five Olympic golds. In addition, Bird added another achievement to her resume by being named a flag bearer for Team USA during the opening ceremony. 

To close out the year, the WNBA announced its 25th anniversary team, and to no one’s surprise Bird was on the list as one of the top 25 players in league history. Bird is one of nine players to be named to all four of the league’s anniversary teams. 

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