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The Sky's The Limit WNBA rookie Sue Bird has the game and the charm to become the most popular female team-sport athlete ever

July 01, 2002
July 01, 2002

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July 1, 2002

The Sky's The Limit WNBA rookie Sue Bird has the game and the charm to become the most popular female team-sport athlete ever

Sue Bird stands in the wings of the gym at Fern Hill Elementary
School in Tacoma, Wash., calmly assessing the audience she is
about to address. She looks straight ahead but sees everything
around her. Everything. Before she is introduced, she turns to
her left and plucks a stray hair from a reporter's sweater.
"Sorry," she says with a smile. "That was bugging me."

This is an article from the July 1, 2002 issue Original Layout

Now she takes the microphone and starts working the crowd of
third-, fourth- and fifth-graders sitting on the floor. She is
there to promote the Seattle Storm, the team that picked her No.
1 in April's WNBA draft, and the kids have some questions for
her. "Are you better than Kobe Bryant?" "Do you have your own
limo?" "Can you do the splits?" No to all of the above. Bird has
questions for them, too. "What do you guys listen to? 'N Sync?"

No!

"Backstreet Boys?"

Nooooo!

"Britney Spears?"

Adamant noes all around. Wary of another defensive stop, Bird
adjusts. "Usher?"

Yes!

"Lil' Romeo?"

Yessss!

"Bow Wow?"

The kids practically cheer. Now she can tell them, and they'll
believe her: "See, I'm like you guys."

If there is one thing that Sue Bird can depend on, both on and
off the court, it is her ability to read a situation and make a
connection. In truth, last year's consensus college player of
the year is a lot like Fern Hill's students: She orders Shirley
Temples in restaurants, is hooked on Friends and sometimes makes
goofy faces when the TV camera is on her. Pretty, quick-witted
and not too imposing at 5'9", she fits in anywhere. "There were
probably 20 cliques in high school," says her mother, Nancy, a
high school nurse in Syosset, N.Y., "and Sue was included in
every one."

On the court, however, Bird is not like anybody else. Nearly
three months removed from the end of a storied 39-0 senior
season at Connecticut in which she won her second national
title, Bird is quickly establishing herself as the new standard
in women's point guards. She wasted no time in taking over the
Storm, a team that went a combined 16-48 in its first two years.
In Seattle's first four games this season, all played without
the team's leading scorer from 2001, 6'5" Lauren Jackson, who
was out with a sprained right ankle, Bird led the Storm to a
surprising 3-1 start by averaging 19.0 points and 6.3 assists
and displaying the full array of pull-up jumpers, three-point
shots, no-look passes and crossover dribbles that made her
famous at UConn. In the eight games since Jackson's return,
Seattle has gone 3-5, but Bird has continued to impress.

"Point guards like her don't come along very often," says
Seattle G.M. and coach Lin Dunn, who resisted a number of
tempting offers for Bird before draft day, including one from
the New York Liberty--reportedly for sharpshooting forward
Crystal Robinson and guard Becky Hammon--and another from the
Washington Mystics, who would have swapped the third and fourth
picks to take Bird. "She has great court vision and surprisingly
good speed and quickness. She can score, pass and handle the
ball, and she can lead. Her presence on the floor makes
everybody better. There are point guards in the world who can do
some of those things, but not all of those things."

"Sue plays the game one or two passes ahead of everyone else,"
adds Storm assistant coach Carrie Graf. "She is one of those
great players for whom the game, as quick as it is, seems in
slow motion."

While other coaches use the terms throwback and old school to
describe Bird, a player with her package of skills, vision and
instinct--rare enough in the NBA (think John Stockton and Jason
Kidd)--is something new in the women's game. Most WNBA point
guards are either playmakers who can run the offense but aren't
scoring threats, or converted shooting guards with limited
playmaking skills. Bird can score (her 45.9% career three-point
shooting is the best in UConn history), yet she also elevates
all the players around her. League president Val Ackerman calls
Bird "a new breed of point guard" who represents "an important
evolutionary step in the women's game." Barring injury, Bird is
the favorite to be the U.S.'s starting point guard at the 2004
Olympics.

If her representatives have their way, Bird will also establish
a watermark for women's team-sport athletes in the endorsement
world. Charismatic, personable and well-grounded--thanks to her
down-to-earth parents, Nancy and Herschel (he's a retired
cardiac rehab doctor living in Las Vegas), and four years spent
in the check-your-ego-at-the-door program of UConn coach Geno
Auriemma--Bird is a marketer's dream. "Unlike any other athlete
I've seen, Sue Bird is a natural in all different contexts, with
fans, with kids, with media, on the court," says Karen Bryant,
the Storm's vice president of operations. "People relate to
that, the athlete who seems like the girl next door."

That is one reason Bird's co-manager James Gould predicts that
the public "will fall in love with Sue." Gould has already
negotiated a three-year deal with Nike and says he has fielded
inquiries from sports-drink, automobile, cellular phone and
cosmetic companies. He expects Bird to eventually pull down
seven figures off the court, dwarfing her $57,500 WNBA salary
and placing her above the rarified air occupied by fellow
basketball stars Lisa Leslie and Sheryl Swoopes. "This girl is
unique," says Gould. "She plays to every market."

Case in point: The Seattle team store had to reorder Bird
jerseys and T-shirts after just one preseason game. "A lot of
the people ordering them are guys," says director of merchandise
Jeremy Owen. "That's unusual." There has also been an increase
in ticket interest--"much of it from guys referencing Sue," says
Bryant--leading the Storm to place ads on sports radio, where it
normally wouldn't.

If the stars align, Bird could become the most popular female
team-sport athlete ever, blowing by soccer star Mia Hamm, who
for all her visibility and marketing success is shy and has
faltered in some of her superstar duties by being uncooperative
with the press and failing to consistently deliver when the
game's on the line. The outgoing Bird, on the other hand, is as
reliable in the last minute of a game as she is in the 30
minutes afterward. Against Notre Dame in her junior year she hit
a buzzer-beater from 10 feet out to win the game. Last season,
when Bird's team was beating opponents by an average of 35.4
points, the opportunities for heroics were slim. This year they
will be abundant. "She never plays her best when her team is
dominating," says her father. "But those days are over. I think
we'll see a much more aggressive player now."

Will we? The one major hurdle to all this predicted glory for
Bird is the limited television exposure she's going to get with
the Storm, a franchise that has struggled on the court and at
the gate. Dead last a year ago in attendance (5,954 a game) and
performance (10-22 record, tied for the worst in the WNBA),
Seattle was rewarded with one game on NBC this season, and that
has already aired. The Oxygen network picked up three more Storm
games, and the six-year-old league, still looking for its first
profitable season and a way to boost its slipping TV ratings and
stagnant attendance (around 9,000 a game), is scrambling to
create other opportunities to capitalize on Bird's buzz. She's
likely to appear on ESPN at least once, at the July 15 All-Star
Game.

The pressure for Bird to produce on and off the court is
intense. She prefers it that way. "I like pressure, I thrive on
it," she says. "I like when I'm in a tough spot and have to make
a play. While I don't like to think about the kind of pressure
that's on me right now, it does motivate me. Now I have
something to prove."

She feels that the best way for her to deal with the
expectations is to just focus on helping the Storm win. "Right
now we need an outside threat," she said. "So I want to hit a
couple of shots, get the ball to whoever is open--especially
Lauren in the post--make sure everybody is in the right place at
the right time, control the game and hopefully get this team to
the playoffs. If I do that, good things will follow."

Bird's basketball goals have never been much more complicated
than that. She didn't model her game after that of anyone in
particular, didn't watch a lot of basketball on TV and, before
she got to Connecticut, didn't spend much time outside of
practice working on her shot. She was always honing her will to
win, however. Growing up in Syosset, Bird was precociously good
at every sport she tried: soccer, tennis, track, basketball.
After playing with her CYO hoops team at halftime of a St. John's
women's game, she was approached by a security guard, who asked
if he could have her autograph, saying, "You're going to be
important someday." Bird was 11.

Before leading Connecticut to those two national titles, she led
Christ the King High, a private school in Queens, to two state
titles. At both schools she had talented teammates, which had a
profound influence on how her game developed. "I can shoot, but
all my life I've been surrounded by people I'd rather pass to,"
she says. "I like to get them going. That's the mentality I've
developed."

During practice after the eighth game of her freshman year at
UConn, Bird blew out her left ACL and was forced to sit on the
bench the rest of the season. "It stunk because I lost a whole
year, but I wouldn't change it," she says. "It was probably the
best thing that happened to me. It opened my eyes to the fact
that I had taken sports for granted. I started playing with a
different kind of intensity, like every game was my last. That's
still with me a little bit."

Sitting on the bench also gave her new insight into the point
guard's role. She watched where her teammates liked to get the
ball and observed the way Auriemma read people and pushed their
buttons. From the bench Bird gained a layer of knowledge about
her teammates that she could add to what she gleaned from her
natural curiosity--or "nosiness," as more than one Connecticut
teammate has called it. "She understands better than anyone
else, here's what I have to do so all five of us can play well
together," says Auriemma. "She is in tune with what everybody on
the team is feeling and thinking at all times. She has an
uncanny sensitivity to others."

That is just one unusual aspect of Bird's high-performance mind.
"I call her an idiot savant, because she remembers everything,"
says her father. "She remembers every player she played against
even seven years ago." Bird also has a remarkable memory for
song lyrics and movie lines--any of which she is given to
blurting out unbidden in the locker room--and just about every
turnover she has ever made. In her regular-season debut on May
30, she shook off heavy pressure from Liberty veterans Robinson,
Vickie Johnson and Teresa Weatherspoon to lead all scorers with
18 points in a 78-61 loss. But the stat she noticed first was
her five turnovers, against six assists. Even though some could
be pinned on teammates who weren't ready for her
traffic-defying, no-look passes, she took the blame. "Careless
turnovers, all my fault," she said later, adding, "I don't mind
it being my fault."

This is a rare bird indeed: Takes responsibility, makes her
teammates look better, doesn't care about scoring points. As her
mother says, "What's not to like?"

Bird does appreciate a compliment now and then, however. The one
she would most like to hear, she says after the Tacoma assembly,
is that she is fun to watch. A few days later, in a corridor
inside Portland's Rose Garden after her team had won its first
game, against the Fire, she revises that, saying that the
greatest thing someone could say about her is that she helped
establish a winning tradition, something she's never had the
chance to do before. She looks straight ahead as she says this,
then smiles, seeing that day unfold a step or two ahead of
everybody else.

COLOR PHOTO: JEFF REINKING/WNBAE/GETTY IMAGES THROWBACK Sue Bird of the Seattle Storm, a playmaker who can also score, may lead the WNBA in assists--in more ways than one (page 48). [T of C]COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY ART STREIBER/MONTAGE FOCAL POINT The top pick in this year's draft, the playmaking Bird is taking Seattle by storm. COLOR PHOTO: ROBERT BECK [See caption above]COLOR PHOTO: KENT HORNER/WNBAE/GETTY IMAGES EARLY RETURNS Bird wasted no time showing off her scoring skills and was already the top vote-getter among guards in All-Star balloting.COLOR PHOTO: COURTESY NANCY BIRD FLEDGLING TALENT The lone girl on Syosset's boys' soccer team at 10, Bird is now a hit with kids of all ages.COLOR PHOTO: ROBERT BECK [See caption above]
Bird is a marketer's dream. The Seattle team store had to reorder
Bird jerseys and T-shirts after just one preseason game.
A security guard once saw her play and asked for her autograph,
saying, "You're going to be important someday." Bird was 11.