Late Wednesday night, when the WNBA Finals were all but over and elation emanated from the Storm's every move, Sue Bird finally let loose. She'd only taken a couple of shots all night, after all, opting instead to find her teammates on the perimeter, in the corner, in the paint—anywhere that might lead to a bucket. But with the Storm up double figures in Game 3 and the clock fading away, Bird indulged. She fired a spot-up three and nailed it and then converted a fast-break layup. Finally, with under a minute to go, she hoisted another three just for fun, this one off the dribble. Good. Storm by 19.
All postseason long, Bird has flashed this flair for the dramatic, an awesome twist for an old-school point guard long devoted to steadiness and patience. In Game 4 of the conference finals, she broke her nose taking an elbow to the face from her teammate, season and finals MVP Breanna Stewart. Didn't matter. Bird strapped on a protective mask and played through it, and she donned it again for the series-deciding Game 5. There, Bird caught fire to an obscene degree, dropping 14 in the fourth to save Seattle's season.
The Storm then took Game 1 of the Finals easily. In Game 2, with that mask still on, Bird provided two more signature moments: a comically deep, off-balance three, banked in to extend a small fourth-quarter lead; and a game-clinching steal in the waning seconds.
Still, despite all the clutch highlights, nothing seemed more impossible this summer than Bird's age: 37.
"Birdie has given hope to those over 30 that you can indeed age like fine wine," says Candace Parker, the 32-year-old two-time MVP.
LeBron James might be scorching Father Time, but Bird has LeBron beat by four years and a season, and she is still reaching new heights. This year, in her 16th season, Bird established career bests in field-goal percentage (46.6), three-point percentage (44.8) and assists (7.1). And then she did what she did in the postseason.
Bird was drafted by Seattle in 2002 and led the Storm to titles in 2004 and 2010. Her career spans roughly three-quarters of the WNBA's existence. Much has changed over that time. When Bird arrived, teams were still folding; today, TV ratings are improving and showing promise. Bird credits that development to the league's rising stars, who have been resolute in demanding respect for the WNBA, addressing salary issues, among other things.
"What you have is players who have grown up with the WNBA, so it's a part of their norm and everyday life, where it wasn't a part of mine," Bird says, speaking with B/R on the eve of Game 3. "They have social media, and they're used to using it as a voice. So what you're getting is outspoken players. I think it's a great thing."
Meanwhile, the league is welcoming a new wave of dynamic athletes who are pushing the game toward positionless basketball, much like the NBA. But Bird, the old sage, the retro point guard, is not done yet. In fact, with the help of a unique training regimen, she just might keep doing this awhile.
Between 2011 and 2013, Bird underwent three major surgeries: one on each hip and one on her left knee, which sidelined her for the entire '13 season. Bird returned in 2014, but something didn't feel right. That's when she sought help from Susan King Borchardt, a performance coach with the Storm who once played point guard at Stanford University.
Borchardt encouraged Bird to change her training routine. She began wearing a Whoop, which monitors sleep and physical strain, aiding in recovery. Last offseason, Bird began exercising with blood-flow restriction bands on her legs, designed to provide the benefits of heavy weight training without the heavy weight itself.
Meanwhile, Bird's playing style lends itself to longevity. She is not overly reliant on speed or athleticism. She knows when to defer and when to attack. It's no coincidence that as her scoring average dipped to a career-low 10.1 this year, her assists spiked. And besides, scoring was never what made Bird great.
"If she scores zero points, she'll have 10 or 15 assists," says Tamika Catchings, the soon-to-be Hall of Famer. "Even if she might not be scoring, she's always a threat on the floor. She's that silent killer."
Adds Alana Beard, the Defensive Player of the Year: "It's the control. You can't get her to do anything she doesn't want to do. You can't speed her up or slow her down. One thing I notice with her, you gotta pressure her, make her feel you the entire game. Hopefully at the end she's too tired to do anything, but that's never the case."
Parker, who's won two Olympic gold medals with Bird, feels that Bird has gained a mastery of on-court action that few possess. "As she has continued to age, she has done so while making the game slow down and be played at the pace and speed she wants," she says. "She's two possessions ahead of everyone. Bird is a mentor in the way she thinks the game, but most of all the way she dictates it."
Over the years, Bird has also made her mark as a mentor off the floor.
"She's one of the most down-to-earth people," says Cappie Pondexter, who has also won gold with Bird and credits Bird with helping guide her as a rookie. "She's funny, super witty, so intelligent, and I just love to converse with her. She's super smart—she pays attention to everything."
Bird was a natural role model for Tina Charles, who, like Bird, grew up in New York, and, like Bird, attended Christ the King Regional High School, and then, like Bird, attended the University of Connecticut.
Beginning in 2010, Charles and Bird won four straight gold medals together with Team USA. In 2014, when Charles signed with the New York Liberty, arriving with high expectations after four years with the Connecticut Sun, she sought Bird's advice regarding leadership.
"I admire how selfless she is," Charles says. "She always puts herself last on and off the court. She holds you accountable, and that's one reason I am where I am right now. What I've taken from her shows in my actions with the Liberty."
Now, as Charles approaches 30, Bird is teaching her one more lesson: that "age is nothing but a number," as Charles says. "It's all about the heart you have, the willingness to win and play, and that's what Sue has exemplified."
It wasn't always clear that Bird's career would resolve so neatly. First, there were the surgeries and rehab stints. Then, in 2015, there was free agency and the prospect of leaving Seattle.
At the time, Bird was 34, and the Storm had won 22 games over the previous two years. She thought about how she wanted her career to end. There were options: Bird could join a superteam, for instance. She'd played alongside her best friend Diana Taurasi at UConn and in Russia, and the two had passively discussed reuniting on a WNBA team. An even stronger lure called from New York, where the Liberty were winning in Bird's hometown.
Then, in September 2015, the Storm won the lottery, ticketing UConn star Breanna Stewart for Seattle. That settled that. Bird re-signed, and she and Stewart formed a natural bond.
Something took shape in Seattle over the next two years; if the Storm weren't the WNBA's winningest team, they were solid, hungry and excited. Bird figured this season would bring more of the same.
"Every time we took the court the past few years, we were competitive," Bird says. "But was making the Finals and winning a championship in the back of my mind as the ultimate goal? Not really. We were just in the moment, understanding that we were rebuilding with young talent and it'd take some time. I had no idea that that time was in my own time."
This year, though, the Storm broke through, tallying a league-high 26 wins before marching into the playoffs.
That's where she found some higher level of Sue Bird basketball, maintaining her old reliable approach while sprinkling in a handful of new extraordinary moments.
"This year is a product of my teammates more than anything," she says, in classically generous form. "I am, in many ways, a role player, trying to facilitate.
"But every now and then, you have to be more aggressive, and luckily I still have some of that in me."