- Mechelle Voepel, espnW.com
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On the same day one former WNBA champion officially signed to return to the league, it was announced that another will sit out this season to recover from knee surgery.
Cheryl Ford will be 32 this June; Sue Bird turned 32 last October. Ford won three WNBA titles with Detroit; Bird has won two with Seattle.
Ford sat out the past three WNBA seasons but will be back in the league with New York this summer. But Bird will join longtime Seattle teammate Lauren Jackson on the sidelines for the 2013 WNBA season.
The need for a break is simply a health-based reality that most longtime WNBA players face at one time or another. It has been this way since the WNBA began in 1997. The U.S.-based summer league is more high-profile, especially for American players, but fall-winter leagues overseas typically pay better.
With the limited window that all pro athletes have to make money, the majority of WNBA players have competed overseas. Maybe one day the WNBA salaries will be large enough that players won't feel the need to do both. But that's not the case yet.
"When I first started doing the year-round thing, my father said, 'You don't have enough time to rest,'" Ford said of her dad, former NBA player Karl Malone. "It's a hard decision to make to not play in the WNBA. But sometimes you have to put yourself and your health first.
"Three years ago, when I had the last surgery with my knees being cleaned out, my doctor told me I would never play again. But here I am. [Taking time off] worked out for me."
Ford played for Detroit from 2003 to 2009, winning championships in '03, '06 and '08, although she missed much of that last year with a knee injury. When the Shock relocated from Detroit to Tulsa, Okla., for 2010, Ford was one of the veterans who did not make the move.
She says now that was not because she didn't want to play in Tulsa, but that she'd realized she had to take time away from the WNBA. She considered coming back in 2011, but decided not to.
"I got a little taste of having my summers off and I enjoyed it," said Ford, who continued to play overseas during that time. "I had to do something for my health, and that's what I picked."
Meanwhile, Bird, despite many injuries, has remained remarkably durable in 11 years in Seattle. She has never played fewer than 29 regular-season games each year, and she has never missed a playoff game. Bird has been on the floor for all 37 postseason contests in Seattle history; the team didn't make the playoffs in the two seasons before Bird arrived in 2002.
Now Bird, finally, is going to take a well-earned break. Just as longtime Storm teammate Lauren Jackson was in need of this kind of time to rest/recover -- it was announced in February that LJ will miss this WNBA season with a hamstring issue -- Bird deserves this period to focus on what's best for extending her career.
Bird is currently competing in Russia, and will finish out her season before having surgery to remove a cyst in her knee. With Bird and Jackson both missing this WNBA season, the Storm's streak of nine consecutive playoff appearances is in jeopardy.
But considering the success the franchise has had, one would hope the fans will stick with the Storm through what could be a lean period. After all, one of the toughest things to sustain in pro sports is a playoff run, because that typically means you don't get great draft position -- at least not without giving up something in trade.
Seattle had the No. 1 pick two years in a row in 2001-02, when the Storm took Jackson and Bird. Since then, the Storm have had just one top-five pick: Tennessee's Shekinna Stricklen at No. 2 last year.
Seattle coach Brian Agler is not going to throw in the towel this season on the playoffs. But it's likely this summer will be more about the Storm trying to develop their younger players as much as possible as Seattle looks to the future.
The Storm have the No. 6 pick in April's draft, and Agler already has said they will go with the best player available who will be a long-term investment for the team.
If all this means the Storm take some lumps this season -- and it's kind of hard to see how they won't -- then so be it.
No one can question Bird's heart or her strong commitment to the WNBA. But especially with being in her 30s and Jackson also sitting out, Bird -- who also has had the wear and tear of so much international play for Team USA -- is actually wise to make this decision to surrender the 2013 WNBA season.
Meanwhile in New York, new coach Bill Laimbeer's quest to make the Liberty somewhat a replication of his old Detroit team continued Tuesday with the official announcement of Ford's signing.
Ford, who currently is playing in Turkey, said that Laimbeer came to Europe to see both her and Liberty guard Cappie Pondexter in action.
"I've had other coaches ask me about coming back in the last three years, and I considered it," Ford said. "But after talking with Bill, it just felt right.
"He knows me, I know him. I'm definitely comfortable with him and the players he already has."
Ford said her knees feel pretty good, and she has been encouraged by the response she has already gotten from Liberty fans about her return to the WNBA.
"People have been asking me if I have something to prove, and I don't," Ford said. "I just want to go out and help the New York Liberty. When Bill was here, he told me, 'I came back to win.' And so will I."