Sue Byrd caught a glimpse of Cortia as she caught the go-ahead pass. Her Seattle Storm teammate Natasha Howard stepped forward as a wide receiver, as she did every time Bird ran the offense in transition. Howard realized there was an opening under the basket and got out. He knew the bird would find him, as he always did. He just didn’t know how.
The bird slid into the lane, drawing the defender. Then, without looking, he hit the ball over his head and into Howard’s waiting palms.
“My hands were always ready for Sue when she gave me the ball,” said Howard, now of Liberty. He added: “Right there, it’s like, ‘Wow, good, Sue.’ Your eyes are behind you.”
Bird counts the pass among his favorite assists in 19 seasons with the Storm. She has plenty of assists to choose from: Bird is the WNBA’s career leader in assists.
“I’ve got a bit of a rainman brain, so bear with me,” he said as he tried to pick his favorite assistant. A second later, he referenced Howard’s careless pass in 2018 and the 2003 All-Star pass between the legs of running back Lauren Jackson. It wasn’t finished.
“Oh, Lauren has another one,” Bird said. It was in the playoffs against Minnesota. I think it was 2012 and we lost 3. We needed 3 and it wasn’t a pretty assist by any means, but we played to perfection. I hit Lauren. He throws a punch. “
It was on these types of assistants that Byrd built his reputation. “There’s a time around the big pass where the person you’re passing doesn’t have to change anything they’re doing,” Baird said.
At 41, Bird is weeks away from the end of her WNBA career. In June, he announced that he would retire at the end of the season, although most expected it. At the end of the 2021 season, fans chanted “one more year!” on the emotional bird and continued to campaign with hashtags on social media for months in the off-season. In January, Bird gave a nod to the campaign in an Instagram post, writing “OK.”
His resume had room for one more season, but just barely. He is a 13-time All-Star and has won four championships. He broke Ticha Peniceiro’s career assist record of 2,599 five years ago and now has 3,222 regular season assists in a league-record 578 games.
After piling up the assists, Bird developed as a passer.
“Always, it can be beautiful,” Bird said. Every now and then, you have to look past the defense, but for me it’s always about trying to read the defense and be one step ahead so you can find that person.
“As I’ve gotten older, I’ve definitely used my look more, and when I do my look today, I’m not trying to look like Magic Johnson or anything like that. I’m really trying to let my guard down. I’m just trying to make them think my eyes are looking away to make a play.”
No other player is more in sync with the league’s childhood and growth, its history and its present, than Bird, the perfect floor general who was consistent in getting the ball to the right person at the right time, in the right place, year after year, decade after decade.
“She’s the WNBA,” said Crystal Langhorne, who converted Bird’s 161 assists into buckets, which is fourth among all teammates behind Jackson (624), Breanna Stewart (345) and Jewell Lloyd (217), per Elias Sports. Bureau. “It would be crazy to have a league where he’s not there anymore. Su is a prototype.”
Hearing those types of compliments was one of the nice and unexpected byproducts of announcing his resignation, Baird said.
“You always knew what to expect from me,” Bird said. “Everybody knew if they turned on a Storm game what they were going to see. So it’s hard to imagine him not being there because he’s been there for 20 years.”
Bird entered her sixth season in the WNBA as the top pick in the 2002 draft with high expectations in Seattle following Connecticut’s two NCAA women’s basketball championships.
She made her first professional assist on Adia Barnes, now the Arizona women’s basketball coach. Barnes, 45, last played professionally 12 years ago and spent several years as a broadcaster before coaching, all while Bird continued to pile up assist after assist.
“I totally forgot about that,” Barnes said with a laugh about Bird’s first assist. “I made the shot, so that was good. I don’t remember, but you can act like me. Sounds good, please.”
Barnes recalls Bird’s stability from the start. The couple often stopped on the road.
“He was just a real defender and I think what set Sue apart is he’s a connector, so you wanted to play him.”
Barnes won a championship in 2004 with Bird and Jackson, who became a dynamic pick-and-roll duo, and Bird and Jackson won another in 2010. They left the defense helpless. If the defender gets under Jackson’s screen, Bird can bury the 3. If they double Bird, Jackson could drive to the sideline or step up for an open jumper. As a rule, the ball arrived on time.
“There was really no way to help it,” Barnes said. “It was just very, very, very difficult to defend and they improved it.”
Bird said his awareness of angles and distance was always on, even when walking in malls.
“You’re always moving, seeing things like being on the field,” Bird said. “Obviously, you’re not in the game, so you don’t have to move fast or do anything urgent, but I think you always move that way when you have that type of vision. That sounds crazy. Actually it is not. “
Teammates would notice Bird carrying binders and notebooks to study the game. “You don’t really have to ask how he does it,” Howard said. “He just does it.”
Getting a pass from Bird inspired confidence, Langhorne said. Here was one of the greats of the game, entrusting him with the ball and the right play.
Even when I was working on 3s and I wasn’t that confident, if I knew Sue was back to me, I was like, Oh, yeah, shoot. He gives it to you for a reason,” Langhorne said. “Which I’ve never said out loud before.”
Injuries forced Jackson to retire from the WNBA in 2012. Byrd found his next post partner in Stewart, another Connecticut product who was taken by Seattle with the first overall pick in 2016. Both won championships in 2018 and 2020.
“He knows where everybody needs to be before we even know sometimes,” Stewart said. “He knows which block I prefer the ball to go to or which pass will go and which one won’t. Sometimes when you’re on the basketball court, a player makes a cut and then a pass comes, sometimes with Sue, a pass comes and then a player makes a cut because he sees the defense sometimes faster than us.”
Bird said Peniceiro, who retired in 2012, and the Chicago Sky’s Courtney Vandersloot are among the defensemen he’s enjoyed watching the most because “they’re really fun.” Vandersloot recently passed Lindsey Whalen for third on the WNBA’s career assists list. He’s the closest active player to matching Birdie — and he still has more than 800 assists.
Byrd broke Peniceiro’s record with 2,600 assists at Carolyn Swords in 2017.
“It was really a pretty good pass and she deserves it. And records are meant to be broken and if someone is going to break your record, you want it to be a player like Sue Bird,” Peniceiro said.
“Everybody loves Sue,” he added. “If she was an ass, it would be easier to go against her and try to pin her down, but she’s too pretty and so am I.”
Even one helping of a bird is a memorable moment. According to Elias, thirteen players received one assist from Bird. The list includes Courtney Parris, who regarded Bird as one of her favorite players growing up and spent most of her WNBA career standing guard as an opponent with the unenviable task of running the team’s defense against her.
“As you go to help, he’s going to find the tiniest bit of space to get the ball to whoever needs it,” Paris said.
Parise joined the Storm in 2018 and didn’t play much during his two seasons in Seattle as his playing career fell apart. Paris didn’t remember what type of pass he got from Bird or how he scored, but he did remember being impressed with the sequence.
“It was a full-circle moment from watching him when I was a young player,” Paris said.
Ashley Walker, another member of the Bird Club’s One Assistant who played in Seattle in 2009, was similarly appreciative.
“He’s one of the pioneers,” Walker said. “He’s someone people look up to, and he’s done it with such grace, such confidence. And it’s just amazing to know that I’m a part of that experience and actually have a chance to say, “I caught a pass from Sue Bird. What did you do?'”
Byrd also proved his assist during the postseason. He set a playoff record with 14 assists in the 2004 Western Conference Finals against Sacramento, then tied it with 16 in Game 1 of the 2020 Finals against Las Vegas. Vandersloot tied that postseason record last year with 18 assists against Connecticut.
A chapter closes on one of the WNBA’s most memorable careers. Bird said he accomplished everything he wanted to in the league, setting goals at that point.
“The simple analogy here is, who is everyone chasing in the NBA? Michael Jordan,” Bird said. “Because Michael Jordan played a full career. He won six rings. So six rings became the standard. In our league, when I came into the league, that didn’t really exist.”
He continued: “There was no real way to go because no one had had that 20-year career before. So I didn’t really know what I was dreaming of and so to be sitting here now with all the championships that I have, I just feel really satisfied.”
Now a young player named Arike Ogunbowale of the Dallas Wings, for example, can model milestones in the careers of players like Maya Moore and Diana Tauras.
Many, of course, will look to Bird’s illustrious career.
“I think there’s something that motivates you that way, but at the same time, forging your own path, I’ve enjoyed that,” Bird said. “I’m not sure. Maybe it’s better to chase something. Maybe there’s more pressure.”