Bird in Seattle: A perfect 10
Storm will celebrate point guard's 10 seasons in the Pacific Northwest
Hollywood has another of those body-switching comedies out again. And unless you're 14 going on 12 and can't get enough bathroom "humor," reviews suggest you should just skip it. Still, we're going to borrow from the concept of swapping bodies and instead speculate about swapping fates.
In April 2002, Seattle had the No. 1 pick in the WNBA draft. But what if that pick had belonged to, say, Detroit or Washington? Or what if the Storm had traded away the rights to No. 1?
"Funny you should bring that up," said that top pick from '02, Storm point guard Sue Bird. "My dad was just visiting, and I recently purchased a new home here [in Seattle]. I was kind of gushing about it to him, and he was saying how lucky I was that I liked the city so much and things had worked out so well. He said, 'Think about it: You could have been somewhere else.'"
Perish the thought, say Storm fans, who will celebrate Bird's decade in Seattle this Saturday. Bird bobbleheads will be given to those attending the Storm's game against Atlanta, and everyone can reflect on her pro career that thus far has included two WNBA championships.
Bird, of course, is a New York native who played collegiately at UConn. Her life was all East Coast until the whirlwind of March-April madness 2002 swept her to a new base in the Pacific Northwest. As much as she still defines herself as a New Yorker, Bird is grateful to have roots now in Seattle, too.
"She can thank me for that," joked Indiana coach Lin Dunn, who was the coach/general manager for the Storm in 2002 and refused all trade proposals for the No. 1 pick then. "Detroit offered three starters for her. New York offered practically the whole team. But the more people offered, the more determined I was to hang on to her."
That made sense then, but it seems even more prescient now that Bird's proven to have a career that will send her to the Hall of Fame. She was the perfect complement for the Storm's No. 1 pick from 2001, center Lauren Jackson. Good point guard play remains a scarcity in the WNBA, let alone championship-level play such as Bird has displayed consistently.
I'm at ease when I'm in Seattle, and I feel the same way in New York. I always joke that my perfect world would be to somehow move Seattle to the East Coast, or uproot my friends and family and move them to Seattle.” -- Storm guard Sue Bird
If Dunn had succumbed and sent Bird to her home state to play for the Liberty, would New York have given up so much that it wouldn't have made the 2002 WNBA Finals against Los Angeles? Or would the Liberty still have advanced that far but actually won? Where would the Liberty be right now?
Well, without Bird, we know where they currently are: in Newark, N.J. The Storm will visit the Liberty on Tuesday (ESPN2, 8 p.m. ET) at what is their "summer home" -- Prudential Center -- for this and two subsequent seasons as work is being done on Madison Square Garden.
It won't be quite the same as going to the famed arena in Manhattan, but for Bird it remains a big deal to come back home (or close to it).
"It's still pretty special, just because it's rare that my friends and family get to come to a game," Bird said. "My family and my closest friends visit Seattle, but not everybody can see me play live. And more than anything, I just like seeing everybody after the game.
"All my friends there that I've been talking to and texting, I've asked them to come but said, 'Before you answer, I need to tell you something: It's in Newark.'"
Bird laughed as she said that, the joke being on certain New Yorkers.
"It's only about a 20-minute train ride," Bird said. "But you know how Manhattan people are. They never want to leave that island."
Durable, dependable star
Bird, on the other hand, left where she grew up on Long Island -- Syosset -- in order to challenge herself playing for Christ the King in Queens. That was for her junior and senior years of high school. Then on to UConn, where she sustained the only injury that has kept her out a significant amount of time: an ACL tear her freshman season.
Bird went on win two NCAA titles at UConn, although it's sort of ironic that perhaps her "signature" game in college came in 2001, when UConn didn't take the national championship.
Bird hit clock-beating shots at halftime (from about half court) and at game's end for a UConn victory over Notre Dame in the 2001 Big East tournament title game. Jeff Goldberg's recent book "Bird at the Buzzer" chronicles that epic contest, which showcased some of the most popular and successful players in the women's game from the past decade.
The thing is, "Bird at the Buzzer" could also be the title of her entire basketball story. As a playmaker, Bird is at an elite level, career-wise, with a very small group of peers. Yet reflecting on her career invariably makes you think of Bird's knack for making clutch shots.
She did it twice last year in the Storm's undefeated run through the postseason. She added another buzzer-beater to the scrapbook Friday, as her 3-pointer swished with four-tenths of a second left in an 81-79 victory over Connecticut.
Seattle has needed additional scoring this season from Bird; her current 15.2 points per game is more than any previous season-ending average in Seattle. That's mostly because the Storm have been without Jackson since she suffered a hip injury on June 21.
Jackson has had many previous battles with injuries, yet still has deservedly won three league MVP awards. Bird has never garnered that honor, but she has been Seattle's rock. Of the Storm's 325 regular-season games since she arrived, Bird has played (and started) 311 of them. She has never missed a playoff game, starting all 31 the Storm have played since 2002.
This season, Bird has started each of the Storm's 21 games, and is averaging 33.1 minutes. Add in all the game time she has logged overseas and for the U.S. national team, and Bird has shown herself to be about as durable a star as the WNBA has ever had.
She'd be the first to say part of that is just good fortune in regard to injuries. But she also deserves credit for not just staying in great shape, but actually improving her fitness as she has aged.
At 30, Bird has become legendary while still being contemporary.
"As you get older in the WNBA, when younger players start coming in, they tend to remind you of your age," Bird said. "Not even intentionally. Just because they might mention an older player, and when I say, 'Yeah, she was on my team,' they're like, 'Whoa!' And all of a sudden, you realize how long you've been in the league."
Something else that reminds Bird of her longevity is seeing pictures of old WNBA uniforms from a decade ago.
"I played in those for a year," Bird said. "I look at them now and say, 'Uggghh. Those are the ugliest things I've ever seen.' It was the kind with the wider sleeves that hung over your shoulder, and I just remember having to constantly tuck it into my sports bra. The next set of uniforms wasn't all that great, either. But now they've gotten it right."
Whatever the style, though, Bird's WNBA uniform has always been exactly the same in this way: It has had the distinctive green of the Seattle Storm.
At home on both coasts
Like most highly successful people, Bird spends a very limited amount of time looking back. When she does return mentally to the spring of 2002, though, what she most remembers is that there was little opportunity to think about anything.
The Huskies won the NCAA title in San Antonio on March 31. She had a parade, celebrations, award banquets and the WNBA draft to attend in April. Next thing she knew, she was moving the length of the country away from the Northeast.
"From the day the season ended until I got drafted, I spent just a few nights in my college dorm," Bird said. "The hard part about going to Seattle and it being so far away was that it happened so fast. My senior year felt unfinished, almost. I didn't get to say the proper goodbyes.
"But everything else about [Seattle] was good. I was playing basketball, and getting paid to do it."
Adjusting from living on the Right Coast to the Left Coast wasn't really difficult for Bird. For one thing, she likes being on Pacific time for watching sports on TV earlier in the day/night.
Where she'll live after her playing career ends depends on what the next step in her life will be. As it is, she's away from Seattle for much of the winter, either visiting New York or playing professionally overseas in Russia. During the summer, she's so busy with basketball that she's not able to take much opportunity to enjoy the great outdoors of the Pacific Northwest.
Yet the region has become a part of her; she has spent more time playing for a West Coast pro team than she did on the East Coast in high school and college combined. And while no Division I women's hoops team from the Pacific time zone has won an NCAA title since Stanford in 1992, the West has had WNBA champions in Seattle, Los Angeles, Sacramento and Phoenix. So Bird has been an integral part of women's basketball's growth on both coasts.
"I actually never thought of it that way, but I guess I am proud of that," Bird said. "When people ask me where I'm from, I always say New York. And I'm proud of that. But when it comes to where I live now, and where my home is, it's Seattle. So I do represent both.
"I'm at ease when I'm in Seattle, and I feel the same way in New York. I always joke that my perfect world would be to somehow move Seattle to the East Coast, or uproot my friends and family and move them to Seattle."
To say the least, Bird never has had a problem managing her emotions in basketball. So when they celebrate her decade in Seattle, she won't get too sentimental about it. After all, it's not a retirement ceremony. There's a game to be played Saturday, and the Storm at 12-9 are jockeying for playoff position with San Antonio and Phoenix behind first-place Minnesota.
Still, Bird does want to appreciate the effort made to commemorate her time in the city that has come to define her as much as any place in terms of her overall career.
"It is special to be on the same team for 10 years," Bird said. "All these fans in Seattle, they've really watched me grow from age 21 to 30. Obviously on the court, but probably off the court a little, too. And so has everyone involved in the organization. So it is cool to celebrate that."
Mechelle Voepel, a regular contributor to ESPN.com, can be reached at email@example.com. Read her blog at mechellevoepelblog.com.
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