Sue Bird could have pulled a Kevin Durant.
Bird, the WNBA’s top free agent this offseason, could have easily said goodbye to the Seattle Storm this past February like Durant did to the Oklahoma City Thunder on Monday. The Syosset native could have zeroed in on another team, like the Liberty, where she had a better chance of winning another title.
And few, including her coach, would have blamed her.
“If she wanted to go some place where she could win now, I would have understood that,” Seattle coach Jenny Boucek said. “I would have supported that. Instead, she decided to stay here and be a part of the rebuilding process. She has embraced this.”
Of course, it became a lot easier to embrace when the Storm won the lottery and the right to take Breanna Stewart with the No. 1 pick in the WNBA draft. Despite their 14-year age gap, Bird and Stewart have a unique bond from both having played at Connecticut and both having been members of the U.S. national team.
The Storm team that takes on the Liberty Wednesday night at Madison Square Garden is vastly improved from the one that finished with a league-worst record of 8-26 last season. The 6-4 Stewart, or Stewie as her teammates call her, has come as advertised. Last week, she scored 38 points to lead Seattle to an 84-81 upset of Atlanta. Heading into Wednesday night’s game, Stewart was the league’s seventh-highest scorer, averaging 18.4 points a game and second-best rebounder with 9.4.
Bird, 35, is also having her best season since 2011, the year after Seattle won the second of her two championships with the team. Bird, who underwent three surgeries in two years after the 2011 season, is healthy. She entered Wednesday night’s game leading the league with an average of 5.5 assists per game while scoring 13.2 points.
Of course, the WNBA and the NBA are different worlds when it comes to free agency as league rules and economics make it virtually impossible for a bidding war to break out in the women’s league. Still, players do change teams for various reasons and Bird admits that it is something she thought about, even though she has played her entire career in Seattle.
“As you get older, it’s something you think about more and more,” Bird said when asked about winning another championship. “I would have been doing myself a disservice as a professional athlete if I didn’t think about every possibility and avenue for my career.
“A lot of it is you just circled back to the question of what do you want your final basketball years to look like. For me, what ended up winning out is that I could help build something and have a legacy here in Seattle. I wanted to help keep it going.”
Stewart said that playing with Bird has been an “unbelievable” experience.
“I’m very fortunate to play with someone like Sue,” Stewart said. “She’s been to the Olympics three times and going on four, she’s won two championships. She’s been in the positions I want to be in. I feel like I can go to her for guidance on and off the court.”
Seattle still has a ways to go before it can contend with the top teams in the league, and there is a good chance that Bird will never see that third title. Boucek said this is something she made sure that Bird understood before she re-signed with the team, and she said it is something that sets her apart from many other athletes.
“I have coached several Olympians and All-Stars and legendary players who could not do this at the end of her career,” Boucek said. “It’s easier said than done. It’s difficult on their egos. It’s very difficult for them to be grappling with the decline and the end coming near.
“Sue is used to winning. For her to soul search and choose to stay here out of loyalty, commitment and really just to take on a very selfless and bigger purposes of assisting with this rebuild and passing the torch to the next generation, it really says a lot about Sue.”