Sue Bird has no idea how many times it has happened, how many times she's been stopped by a basketball fan, handed a piece of paper and asked to sign her name. Thousands? Certainly. Tens of thousands? Probably.
When you are one of only seven basketball players to win an Olympic gold medal, a WNBA championship and an NCAA title, it's impossible to keep track of how many times you've signed an autograph. But what Bird does remember vividly is the first time she was asked for one.
She was living in Syosset and the star player on her CYO team. Bird was 11 at the time.
"I was playing at St. John's. I think my team was the halftime show," she said. "After we played, this security guard came up and asked for my autograph. He said he knew it was going to be worth something someday."
Of course, not even that prescient security guard could have imagined the career Bird is having, that at age 31 she would be at the top of her game and be headed to the London Olympics in pursuit of her third gold medal.
"Sometimes I can't believe it all myself," the 5-9 point guard said with a laugh after a recent practice with her Seattle Storm WNBA team. "It doesn't matter if you've been there before. Playing for your country is an incredible feeling and honor."
Team USA is heavily favored to win its fifth consecutive gold medal. The American women have won 33 consecutive Olympic games, and much of the current roster is in its prime. As a point guard with two gold medals under her belt, Bird plays a pivotal position.
"She's not just the best point guard in America right now,'' U.S. coach Geno Auriemma said. "Sue is the best point guard in the world right now. She's a tremendous ballhandler and passer. She just sees the game, she understands it and she understands people. She knows what she has to do to get other teammates to play their best. She's a great leader. She has a tremendous amount of credibility. And she knows what it takes to win."
Auriemma ought to know. He coached Bird to two NCAA titles at the University of Connecticut, recruiting her out of Christ the King High School in Queens. In six seasons at Christ the King and UConn, Bird played in a total of seven losing games.
Auriemma, who used to joke that he had plucked Bird off the "mean streets of Syosset" in reference to her suburban roots, remembers the exact moment he realized Bird had the potential to be a great player.
She had missed most of her freshman season after tearing an ACL. The next year, in a nationally televised game against No. 3 Tennessee in January, Bird had 25 points and four steals to lead Connecticut to a 74-67 win.
"I knew then that she had it," Auriemma said. "That was her first big moment, and she was spectacular. She knows what to do with the big moment."
That's something Bird has proven on every level. After winning NCAA titles her sophomore and senior years at UConn, she was taken by the Storm with the No. 1 overall pick in the 2002 WNBA draft. In 2004, she completed the turnaround of a struggling franchise by leading it to its first WNBA title. She helped the Storm win another one in 2010.
"Sue is one of the best players in the world," Seattle coach Brian Agler said. "She has this ability to rise up in big moments. When the team really needs big plays, she's extremely skilled. But her biggest attribute is her ability to make her team better. Every season, she just keeps amazing me with how smart she is and the decisions that she makes."
Bird's play has been particularly impressive heading into the WNBA's Olympic break. Bird, who scored a season-high 31 points against Phoenix on July 8, is averaging a team-high 13.3 points and 5.5 assists after Friday night's 83-64 victory over the Mercury. Seattle (9-10) has won eight of its last 11 games.
This will be the first trip to London for Bird, who plays for a Russian team in the WNBA offseason. She is thrilled that many of her family members, including her mother, Nancy, who still lives in Syosset, will be there to share the experience.
Bird says she wants to win this gold medal just as much as she wanted the first. Ever since she was the young girl wowing fans at the halftime show at St. John's, winning has been the one thing that really drives her.
Said Bird: "Throughout my career, I've come to realize that. No one can take winning away from you. They can talk about you all they want, but you can't take a win away. There's no better feeling than winning."