June 17, 2022
Sights and sounds from Sue Bird’s retirement press conference
'I've played as long as I can at a very high level'
UNCASVILLE — A few hours after her stunning though expected announcement that this would be her last season in the WNBA, Sue Bird tried unsuccessfully to hold back tears as she sat in a room full of TV cameras and reporters who had rushed to Mohegan Sun to see her Thursday afternoon.
“This is probably why for like, a lot of years, I’ve been saying I’m not going to announce my retirement while I play,” Bird said. “Because I know I would get like this. I’m sentimental. I don’t like change.”
“So here we are,” Bird added with a sniffle.
Sue Bird had already cried a few times during the press conference, with a dozen or so reporters packed into a small multipurpose room, with more than 50 people on Zoom who weren’t within driving distance of Uncasville, Connecticut, a few hours after Bird shocked the basketball world with a social media post.
How could she not? It was a surreal experience, as Bird — and everyone watching — was forced to reckon with her long, illustrious career actually coming to an end after years of speculation that she could hang up her shoes.
If anyone was prepared for that, it wasn’t Bird.
“I’ve played as long as I can at a very high level,” Bird told reporters, her voice starting to get choked up.
“Stop crying,” she whispered to herself before taking a breath to hold back more tears so she could finish her statement.
“I feel like I’ve played as long as I can at a really high level, both physically and mentally,” Bird said. “And it’s just gotten harder. So you know when to say when, you know.”
For someone whose career is defined so much by longevity — and her ability to find new ways to adapt and be successful as a player despite any physical limitations that come with growing older — reaching the point where she couldn’t do that any more was clearly difficult for Bird to process.
Bird returns to where it started
But Bird had an inkling that it was time to end her playing career earlier this year, but didn’t want to make anything official until she knew for sure. As the Storm approached a section of their road trip that would bring Bird through Connecticut and New York — two places she circles every year as a sort of homecoming — she knew it was time.
Bird will return to Mohegan Sun Arena with the Storm in July, but Sunday will be her last game playing in New York, and the Sysosset, New York, native wanted the news to be out before she got to Brooklyn so she could focus on her final game playing where it all started, in front of her friends and family.
The decision to publicly announce retirement came together quickly, but she already knew who she wanted to share the news with. She told her team on Wednesday night, and staff Thursday morning.
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As she pondered her announcement, she said she made a list of people who have been influential in her life and career who she planned to give a heads up, which quickly grew longer than expected. It was meeting those people, and the experiences they had together, that made her career so special, she said.
Bird said her conversation with Karen Bryant, a Seattle Storm executive from 1999-2014, stood out. Bryant drafted Bird to Seattle, and was with her for more than a decade.
“I’m probably not gonna get through this without crying so we’re just gonna have to deal with that,” Bird said as she fought back tears. She covered her face and took another moment of pause before sipping her bottle of water. “Jeez, this is so stupid,” she said mustering a laugh.
“Karen Bryant drafted me, brought me to the Storm… She was there for 10-plus years. And just some of the some of the words she shared were just really touching. I’ll leave it at that.”
Bird said she’s proudest of the longevity of her career, and that she could argue that some of her best days were in the last five or so years of her career, winning her third and fourth WNBA titles at ages 37 and 39. She said she hopes to encourage other players that they can also have long successful careers in women’s basketball.
“I hope other players can see a career like this one, see the length of it, see the success of it, and know that they can do it too,” Bird said. “Not that it’s easy, but it’s doable, right? There’s ways in which you can play for a very, very long time.”
And Bird’s longevity meant her career covered a large part of the transition from the days before the WNBA — where the Olympic Team gave the best opportunity to see the best of the best women’s basketball players — to the present, where Bird said she’s proud of a younger generation that’s demanding even more attention and opportunity.
Bird thought back to when she was a teenager and her AAU coach drove her and her team to The Palestra in Philadelphia to watch the U.S. national team play China in an exhibition game leading up to the 1996 Olympics.
It was that game where she watched point guard Jennifer Azzi play for the first time in person. It was Bird’s “see it, be it moment” – where she saw a higher goal to strive for in basketball, playing for the Olympic team.
And then when the WNBA built on the success of Azzi and the rest of the women and staff on the 1996 gold medal team, Bird had another goal.
“My generation of player, my class specifically, is one of the first where we chose our college knowing that it was the stepping stone for the WNBA,” Bird said.
There are so many differences in women’s basketball from when Bird started playing to now, she said — and she thinks she’s leaving the game, and women’s sports, in a great place where she can feel the momentum building for the sport.
“I couldn’t be more proud of the younger generation right now. Because they’re the ones that are now entering this league and really pushing the envelope in a lot of ways that my generation, you know, we got to have the opportunity off the backs of those that started the league.”
Bird was brought to tears throughout the press conference, trying to hold back her emotions whether talking about the past, future or present. She has been one of the biggest stars in the sport for more than 20 years, but she looked uncomfortable with the kind of attention that comes with a retirement announcement — or with the lack of control she now has over that attention now that it’s out in the open.
She said she wasn’t sure if she wanted teams to recognize her when she is playing her last games in their arenas. Despite her announcement, she isn’t prepared for that, she said. She didn’t really choose retirement, “it kind of just happened the way it happened,” she said.
Bird said she didn’t personally need those ceremonies to commemorate her career. The Dallas Wings asked if they could recognize her when the Storm played in Dallas last week, and Bird said she declined — she appreciated the gesture, it just wasn’t time yet, she said.
If Bird had it her way, everyone would stop talking about her retirement so she could just focus on playing basketball. But she understood that there are fans in many cities who have followed her career and will want that moment to reflect and show their appreciation — and even try to get her to change her mind and stay.
“Even in Dallas, I came out after the game to sign some autographs and they tried the ‘one more year’ chant,” Bird said. “And I was like, ‘not this time. It’s not gonna work this time.’”