This was no ordinary All-Star Game, at least not for Sue Bird.
Bird, who at age 36 is the oldest player in the WNBA, has been an All-Star nine times, tying Tamika Catchings for the most All-Star selections in league history. Saturday’s WNBA All-Star Game, however, was unique in a number of ways.
First, it was played in Seattle, the place where Bird has been dishing out dimes for her entire Hall-of-Fame career. And second, she played her first game since revealing this week in an espnW story that she is gay and has been dating U.S. national soccer team player Megan Rapinoe since last fall.
“I’m gay. Megan’s my girlfriend . . . These aren’t secrets to people who know me,” Bird, who grew up in Syosset, told espnW. “I don’t feel like I’ve not lived my life. I think people have this assumption that if you’re not talking about it, you must be hiding it, like it’s this secret. That was never the case for me.”
It’s been 15 years since Bird’s first All-Star Game when as a rookie and starter she helped lead the West to a victory with a game-high eight assists. She didn’t miss a beat Saturday when she had 11 assists in 21 minutes to lead the West to a 130-121 victory.
But the WNBA, the world, and to a certain extent, Bird herself, have all changed drastically in the intervening years. Perhaps, nothing underscores that more than the reaction, or lack there of, to Bird’s revelation in the espnW story.
If there was a backlash to Bird’s announcement, it was imperceptible on social media. This was not like Michael Sam’s dramatic announcement three years ago and his subsequent struggles in the NFL. Nor did it have the bombshell impact that Jason Collins’ coming-out did four years ago.
Bird’s announcement was basically treated with a blink and probably wouldn’t have even registered if Bird’s girlfriend wasn’t also a famous athlete. In the WNBA, a player’s sexuality and whom they choose to love is no longer the taboo subject it once was. And, in this way, the WNBA is light years ahead of major men’s sports. With her announcement, Bird simply joined the list of openly gay players who are accepted by the community and fans.
One of the biggest problems for the WNBA is that it is constantly being compared to the NBA, a league that has been around 50 years longer. And in terms of salary, fans and public recognition, the WNBA is bound to always come up short.
“It’s our biggest challenge in a lot of ways,” Bird told Newsday last week. “We’re constantly being compared to the NBA. In some ways, it can be flattering. But I think generally people use it as a negative. They look at our league and think it’s a lesser league because we don’t make as much. Or we don’t have the same amount of fans. The truth is if you took away that comparison and looked at it as it’s own entity, it’s a pretty successful league that is just getting started.
“Honestly, no one makes a lot of money compared to James Harden, so I don’t know why they compare us to it. You look at the life of a female basketball player, say Breanna Stewart. I don’t know what she made in China last year, but she’s doing pretty well in life.”
One area where the WNBA doesn’t come up short, however, when compared to the major men’s leagues, is social conscience. Long gone are the days when the league kept its relationship with the LGBTQ community at arms length, presumably because they were afraid of alienating mainstream sponsors and fans. The WNBA is the most socially progressive sports league in this country and as it reaches the midpoint of its 21st season, it appears that the league is starting to recognize this can be an important marketing tool.
Last season, after initially fining its players for speaking out in connection with Black Lives Matter, the league rescinded the fines. This year, teams have connected themselves with a number of socially progressive projects. The Liberty last month became the first team to have a float in New York’s Gay Pride parade. Bird’s team, the Seattle Storm, publicly partnered with Planned Parenthood this season, holding a rally before a game against the Chicago Sky and donating $5 from every ticket to that organization.
Bird told espnW she is pleased that the WNBA has reached out to its LGBTQ fans over the recent years, but she said the league faces many other challenges.
Said Bird: “Homophobia hurts our league; racism hurts it; sexism hurts it,” she says. “For [the NBA] it was a big racial issue. For us, it’s racial and gender.”
The league is still young.