They were just supposed to be thankful.
When Sue Bird played in her first Olympics in 2004 in Athens, this was the prevailing attitude in this country toward women’s professional basketball players. The WNBA was less than a decade old and players were told they were lucky there was a professional league in the United States for them to play in.
"This is a large part of what we had to battle as we put our flag in the ground," the Syosset native told Newsday. "People kept saying, ‘you need to wear tighter clothing. You need to lower the rim for it to be interesting. If your league wasn’t so gay, we would probably watch it. If you didn’t look so manly,’ which is code for so much."
So much has changed for Bird, women’s basketball and the world in the 17 years since she made her first Olympic team. As a result, in the twilight of her career, the 40-year-old Bird is finally getting her due, finally being recognized for her greatness as she leads Team USA into the Tokyo Olympics.
The WNBA’s all-time assists leader, Bird is looking to push Team USA to its seventh consecutive gold medal. If she does so, she and former UConn teammate Diana Taurasi will make history by becoming the first basketball players to win five Olympic gold medals.
Off the court, Bird has become one of the most visible women in sports. Her jersey was the league’s top selling last year after the Seattle Storm won the WNBA championship.
Bird and her fiancée, soccer icon Megan Rapinoe, are a celebrated sports power couple, having been profiled in everything from People magazine to Time magazine to ESPN segments on the Today Show. Rapinoe, a four-time Olympian, will be attempting to win her second gold medal with Team USA in Tokyo. You can bet the two, who met at the Rio de Janeiro Olympics in 2016, will be heavily featured in NBC’s coverage this year.
Bird’s relationship with the outspoken Rapinoe helped her get more comfortable with the spotlight off the court, helped her realize the importance of using her platform to affect change in causes she believes in, whether it be pay equity, LGBTQ rights, Black Lives Matter or other social justice issues.
"I think the makeup of our league, we represent a lot of the marginalized groups in our world today," Bird said. "If we are not speaking out on that on our behalf, who’s going to speak out on other’s behalf. We have the platform. As female athletes, we don’t always just get the chance to just be athletes. People don’t allow that for us. We have to speak out on these issues.
"In a lot of ways, I think sports mirrors what goes on in the world and society. And I think the way that female athletes are treated, from what I hear, it’s a lot of times how women are treated everywhere – in their homes, in the workplace. Just this lesser than version. That’s not right."
Bird recently teamed with two-time World Cup soccer champion Alex Morgan and Olympic gold medalists Chloe Kim and Simone Manuel to launch a new media and commerce company for women called Togethxr. Backed by a private equity firm, the goal is to elevate women’s voices around but not exclusively in sports.
"When you think about media sports coverage, only four percent is dedicated to female sports," Bird said. "For us, it is a way to be a part of that change."
Bird said she had no firm plans for retirement, and figures she will just know when it’s her time. Right now, she is basically the Tom Brady of her sport, a player pushing the age envelope and winning big late in her career.
Bird is both the oldest player in the WNBA and the oldest player to make the US women’s basketball team. Team USA coach Dawn Staley was a teammate on Bird’s first Olympic team in 2004. She notes that she is basically a generation older than many of her current teammates.
"When I was younger, it was a long time ago," she said. "Everything from how we spoke about these issues to how people dressed and what we talked about is a different era. So I just grew up in a different time, and that time felt very much like as a woman you should be happy for what you have and you shouldn’t ask for more. You should just be happy there is a league in America. Just take what is given."
She said she stands in awe of her younger teammates outspokenness.
"People often ask who inspires me. Usually, that’s a question where you talk about someone who came before you," she said. "To be honest, it’s the younger generation that inspires me. They come in here and question everything. Why don’t we have charter flights? Why do we have to stay at these hotels? Why don’t we have this? It’s a breath of fresh air.
"When I was entering the league, you were just supposed to be happy. The more younger players challenge things, that’s how you press the envelope. I’m just happy that they’ve been able to inspire me and through my experience and a combination of things, I can help push the envelope forward for the younger generations."
She will try to do that one more time by adding a historic fifth Olympic gold medal to her collection.