June 18, 2023
A look back at Sue Bird’s jersey retirement ceremony
A record-breaking career is honored with a record-breaking celebration.
SEATTLE, Wash. —On Sunday, June 11, thousands gathered at Climate Pledge Arena for the encore of Sue Bird’s retirement tour: the jersey retirement ceremony. Ten months after walking off of the court in a Seattle Storm jersey for one last time, Bird stood on that same hardwood once again for one last hurrah. And boy, was it a long encore.
Bird’s ceremony clocked in around two hours and fifty minutes, reportedly the longest retirement celebration of any professional basketball player, which was fitting for Bird, the player with the longest career in the history of the WNBA. Over an hour and a half of the ceremony consisted of Bird’s seven-page speech she had prepared.
“I walked into the back with my family and I was like, ‘Was that too long?’ and my sister was like, ‘You played here for 21 years, they can listen to you for an hour,’” Bird joked postgame.
The ceremony was preceded by Seattle’s 71-65 loss to the Washington Mystics, which lasted about the same amount of time as Bird’s speech alone. Sandwiched between the events was a series of videos highlighting Bird’s career produced by Togethxr, the media company that she co-founded alongside three other professional female athletes.
The sentimental clips prepared the spectator’s hearts for the emotional afternoon that was in store. The celebration was co-hosted by two Seattle legends in their own right: local rapper Macklemore and soccer icon – and soon-to-be wife of Bird – Megan Rapinoe. The two charismatic hosts opened the ceremony with remarks about Bird’s historic career before giving the stage to a few guest speakers, including Storm co-owners Lisa Brummel and Ginny Gilder, Bird’s long-time agent Lindsay Kagawa Colas, and former Storm assistant-turned-head coach Jenny Boucek.
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But the other two speakers took the crown. Swin Cash, former Seattle star and WNBA legend, detailed her friendship with Bird, which began when they were assigned as roommates at UConn at just 17 years old. Cash gushed about Bird’s work ethic, caring nature, and loyalty and commitment to her friends, family, and especially the city of Seattle.
“When she had opportunities to leave Seattle, she stayed for y’all,” Cash said. “She loves this city, this city is her second home. Having that steady but ready person always for your franchise, you don’t get that all the time. That is what Sue is.”
Last but certainly not least, the only other person with a jersey hanging in the rafters of Climate Pledge Arena, or what she knows better as KeyArena, took the stage. Despite it being over ten years since she last donned a Storm jersey, Lauren Jackson received a deluge of cheers from the residents of the Rainy City, as if she had retired yesterday. Seattle’s original franchise player was drafted No. 1 overall between the Storm’s rough inaugural season and Bird’s selection at No. 1 overall, laying the groundwork for the exact same thing to happen 15 years later with Jewell Loyd and Breanna Stewart. While she prefaced her speech by saying that she wasn’t a great public speaker, Jackson’s heartfelt sentiments perfectly encapsulated what Bird has meant to the game of women’s basketball.
“I hope you don’t ever underestimate the impact that you have on people – not just here, but globally,” Jackson, the Australia native, said. “People know you and the work you’ve done. You’ve changed our game.”
“Sue’s legacy to Seattle, to USA [Basketball], to the WNBA, and to our beautiful game is one that I don’t think will ever be matched by anyone.”
After profound speeches by Bird’s loved ones, it was finally time to hear from the woman of the hour. Bird took the podium, her bright green suit illuminated by the light shining off of the four WNBA trophies surrounding her, all belonging to both the Storm and to Bird. In her hands were seven pieces of paper, full of all of the thoughts she wanted to share and people she wanted to acknowledge.
Bird began by taking fans through her Yellow Brick Road journey to the Emerald City, starting with tales from her childhood in Syosset, NY, and into high school at Christ the King. She covered all of her bases by thanking her first basketball coach and all of her AAU coaches, citing them for having a huge impact on her career.
Bird then transitioned from childhood to her college career at UConn. While her legendary head coach, Geno Auriemma, was unable to attend the ceremony, long-time associate head coach Chris Dailey sat among the rows of important people in Bird’s life on the Climate Pledge Arena court. Spectators got a glimpse into Bird’s social life at UConn through Cash’s stories during her segment of the celebration, but Bird took her time in front of the crowd to talk about the impact that being a Husky had on her growth.
“I can not thank the staff [at UConn] enough for helping me become the person I am,” Bird said. “It’s where the foundation was laid. Yes, I had a wonderful upbringing and I learned lessons there, but in those four years, that’s when I became who I am. That’s the foundation, that’s the root, that’s the core.”
After thanking her UConn teammates and other coaches, she moved on to what she called “The Storm Era,” but backpedaled a bit to college to begin that story.
“I remember where I was when the draft lottery happened,” Bird said, referring to the first-ever WNBA Draft Lottery that happened during her draft year. “We were at UConn, about to do a workout and somebody came in like, ‘Hey, guess what? The Seattle Storm got the first pick!’ and I was like, ‘Damn… Where is that? That’s so far…’”
Historic NCAA women’s basketball stats from Sports Reference
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The Seattle transplant turned Seattle legend bonded with the crowd by sharing the quirks of her now hometown that she quickly learned in her first few years with the Storm. From calling Seattle the “Citizen’s arrest capital of the world” to showing the crowd that she can pronounce some of the complicated suburb names, which is the go-to Washingtonian test to see if someone is a local, to complaining about the lack of air conditioning, Bird sounded like a true Seattleite. She touched on the “Seattle Freeze”, the idea that Pacific Northwesterners have a hard time making friends due to their lack of desire to talk to people.
“I didn’t have to worry about the Seattle Freeze,” Bird said. “Because I had the Storm. I had a built-in family, I had built-in friends, I had all of [the fans].”
Bird’s care for everyone she comes in contact with was a theme that appeared over and over again in the guest speaker’s speeches and Bird’s own speech was a testament to that. Bird thanked everyone – and I mean everyone – that ever touched her career, from head coaches to bench players to PR people to athletic trainers. The only time she teared up during the entire speech was talking about her performance coach, Susan King Borchadt of the Athlete Blueprint, who Bird credits for “saving her career.” Bird carved out space in her speech to talk in-depth about countless coaches, including current head coach Noelle Quinn and 2018 Championship head coach Dan Hughes, a collection of her former teammates, including Jewell Loyd and Breanna Stewart, and a myriad of other influential people. While it was her retirement ceremony, the focus was giving back to the people who shaped her.
As Bird reached the hour-and-a-half mark of her speech, she capped it off with a story that perfectly summarizes what Bird means to the city of Seattle. She described meeting a cashier at her local gym who asked Bird for the last name on her account. After Bird replied, the person said, “Oh, like Sue Bird!”, yet didn’t realize that it was actually Sue in front of her.
“She went on to tell me that she’s not a sports fan, she doesn’t watch any sports, but she lives in Seattle,” Bird said. “And she watches the news, she picks up the paper, so she knows my name. And I think that is so perfect. It’s such a perfect way to talk about this relationship because I did become synonymous with the city. It’s incredible.”
That was the sentiment of the entire weekend. Walking around Downtown Seattle, conversations of Bird’s retirement echoed through the streets, even if people weren’t attending the close-to-sold-out ceremony. Bird’s connection and relationship with the people of Seattle is a unique one, deeper than just a player/fan. More than 15,000 people came to celebrate what Bird described as “a wedding and a funeral in one weekend,” but could also be described as a family reunion of sorts.
“I do in some weird way feel like, yes a part of this fabric of the city, but a part of all of your lives and I just don’t want it to get lost that the way that you might feel like I impacted you, you impacted me,” Bird said of the Seattle “Storm Crazies”. “As athletes, we have impact, but you guys are impacting us, too, and we have this shared experience and we have it forever and we have the banners to show it and to prove it. But it goes so far beyond banners or rings or wins or losses.”
The dramatic hoist of the banner to the rafters of the arena was the icing on the cake. Fans watched with tears in their eyes as the jersey they had seen on the court for the past 21 years rose up to join Jackson’s, alongside the banner boasting Seattle’s four WNBA championships that Bird made happen. Confetti with Bird’s silhouette and signature rained down from the ceiling as “Forever Young” played in the background. Storm Crazies, young and old, wearing shirts and jerseys from every era of Bird’s career, from UConn to USA Basketball to almost every year of Storm jerseys, stood in awe of the player who truly embodied Seattle basketball and beyond.