by Maggie Mertens
Not many athletes can say they’ve brought four championship titles to one city, but thanks to a dominant performance in the WNBA Finals this week, Sue Bird can. While a championship-starved city like Seattle should be bowing at her feet, instead, her name is often lost in the shuffle of less-dominant male athletes when we talk about this city’s heroes.
I know that Seattle has had its fair share of famous names in the sporting world, but Bird unequivocally tops them all when you take into consideration the length of her career here, the sheer number of national championships she’s brought home (the Storm’s four is the most of any major sports franchise in the city) and the record-breaking stats she’s put up along the way.
Consider some contenders.
When Bird was drafted by the Seattle Storm in 2002, Russell Wilson was in middle school. Props where props are due: While Wilson has certainly given Seattle sports fans something to cheer for in the last nine years, Bird has spent the past 18 in the Emerald City. And while Wilson’s Super Bowl victory in just his second season was the first in Seahawks franchise history, by then, Bird had already won two WNBA championships in Seattle — one in 2004 and another in 2010.
Ken Griffey, Jr., who put Seattle baseball on the map and never left Seattle sport fans’ hearts, played a mere 11 seasons here in Seattle compared to the 17 Bird has marked for the Storm. (She had to sit out the entirety of the 2013 and 2019 seasons due to injury.)
Ichiro Suzuki spent 14 seasons on the Mariners’ roster (or a round dozen, depending on how you count that last contract when he didn’t play much). He graced Seattle with his share of All-Star performances (10), Gold Glove Awards (10), and batting records (he holds the record for most hits in a season, at 262). Still, did he help snag a World Series Championship for Seattle? Never.
Clint Dempsey, the U.S. Men’s National Soccer Team sensation, was a three-time MLS All-Star as a Seattle Sounder, while playing five seasons here and bringing one MLS Cup to the Emerald City. Those stats just can’t hold a candle to Bird’s lengthy career, though. She made 11 WNBA All-Star appearances, and she’s played for the country, too, winning four — yes, four — Olympic Gold medals.
Gary Payton, the other legendary Seattle point guard, certainly showed his dedication to Seattle in his 13 seasons with the SuperSonics. (He also, it should be noted, retired at 39, the age Bird is now.) But the Sonics’ 1996 Western Conference Title and Finals appearance, in which the team was defeated by Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls in six games, was the closest he came to bringing the Emerald City some NBA hardware.
Plus, while Payton is a Hall-of-Famer, who deservedly won many awards during his career, Bird is maybe the best point guard the WNBA has ever seen. She’s the league’s all-time assist leader, which, one could argue, is a point guard’s main job. And yes, at age 39 (she’ll be 40 in a matter of days), she beat her own single-game record, and set a new WNBA Playoff record, with 16 assists in Game 1 of this Championship Finals series.
But you don’t really need me to tell you all of this to know Bird is the greatest Seattle athlete of all time — you just have to watch her play. Bird takes the court like an orchestral conductor. Her quiet command makes it clear she knows exactly where everyone around her is going and where they’ll be next. When she masterfully completes a no-look pass to a teammate that you didn’t even realize was open, she simply dazzles. And she’s only gotten better, especially as the Storm has built a fortress of young talent around her in recent years. When Seattle picked Breanna Stewart as its number-one draft pick in 2016, she was thrilled to join a Bird-led team.
“That’s what I thought about,” Stewart said recently. “I’m going to go play with the best point guard in the world.”
The problem, of course, is that so many people don’t see her play. It’s nearly impossible to truly compare women and men athletes and their marks on the cities where they play, because the playing field isn’t close to level. Bird has made all of these career highlights while also playing half her year abroad, largely in Russia, because female basketball players make far more money in international league play than they do here in the WNBA. Even with a recent contract renegotiation, the best players in the WNBA, like Bird, earn a base salary of just $215,000 a year. That’s a mere 3% of what an average NBA player earns. They don’t get the same media coverage, the same TV rights, or the investment in merchandise and facilities as any professional men’s teams do — not even close. But that’s even more proof, in my opinion, of what Bird has brought to this city.
After Howard Schultz sold the Sonics off in 2006, nobody knew whether there would be basketball in Seattle ever again. Both the Storm and the Sonics were meant to head to Oklahoma City under the new ownership in 2008. But thanks to the 2004 Championship title Bird and Lauren Jackson helped win, a group of Seattle businesswomen banded together to buy the franchise and keep the team here.
Sue Bird helped build a basketball dynasty — and one of the most enthusiastic fanbases — here in Seattle when attention on the team could have easily fizzled out after the Sonics left town. But thanks in part to Bird’s consistent greatness, even with less attention, less investment, and less hoopla than any male athletes in town, the Storm’s reputation has only continued to grow over the years. Without an NBA counterpart, this team could have folded — like six other WNBA teams have done since the league began.
Instead, Bird has built a multi-generational legacy here in Seattle — one that won’t end when she leaves. That’s because she not only makes her teammates play better, she also makes sure standout players like Jewell Loyd and Finals MVP Breanna Stewart get the press, the props, and the attention they deserve. “I think Stewie and Jewell were pretty much on fire; what do you think?” Bird said after Game 1, when asked about her record-breaking assist performance. “For me as a point guard, I’m just out there trying to find the open player. But like I said, and I’ve always said this, assists is a two-person thing, and tonight those two played amazing.”
Despite certain local sport journalists seemingly ignoring her contributions to this city’s sports landscape, Bird is a player so good she routinely gets props from NBA players for her flawless game. LeBron called her 16 assists in Game 1 out on Instagram: “Who said records couldn’t be broken in your 17th season?????”
And for all of you about to email me to say that women athletes don’t sell merchandise, Bird’s jersey also topped league jersey sales this season — and shortly after they won the Championship Tuesday night, many items of specialty merchandise were already sold out on the site.
As a woman athlete, Bird does all of this with an extra responsibility: to do more with less and to show up for her sport and her community on and off the court. She always does. She was the Vice President of the WNBA Players Association that negotiated the players’ new contract earlier this year and has been outspoken on issues of social justice from LGBTQ+ rights to the Black Lives Matter movement to this season’s WNBA commitment to #SayHerName. “People ask, ‘What makes women’s basketball players so good at this?’” she told the New York Times earlier this season. “We just literally had to fight for ourselves for so long. And now we’re in a moment when all of those things have come to a head. If anything, we would love to be judged as basketball players. Imagine that — where they’re just talking about your play on the court and not what you look like and not who you’re dating. Imagine? That would be amazing.”
As a childhood SuperSonics fan, a perpetually-heartbroken Mariners fan, and someone who’s lost love for the NFL’s poor treatment of players and social justice issues in recent years, Bird is a reason I still hold a flame for Seattle sports. And yeah, I can say all of that simply focusing on her on-the-court play — she’s undoubtedly one of the best to ever play basketball. But she’s given our city much more than that. She’s given us proof women athletes can be legends, too. And she’s paved the way for Seattle to see more of them to come. For that, I say: Congrats on your 4th Championship, Sue. Thanks for bringing another one home.
Maggie Mertens is a Seattle-based writer who covers the intersection of gender, sport, and culture. Her work has appeared in The Atlantic, espnW, Glamour, VICE, and other publications.
Illustration by Vlad Verano