There is no classic way to deal with fame. However, there is only one path to healthy fame – your own – and discovering it challenges people not to get lost in the expectations of the crowd. When Williams made her “I’m just Serena” statement at the US Open, it was more of a mission statement than a mic drop.
And after the past five years, since Bird came out as gay and started using his influence to amplify every social issue in her mind, she can now say she’s just Sue.
On Tuesday night, she and the Seattle Storm will look to extend her stellar basketball career. They trail the Las Vegas Aces 2-1 in a thrilling best-of-five WNBA semifinal series, bringing Bird one loss since retiring. The past two and a half months have been full of celebration and nostalgia, but today she feels the same urgency that Williams felt in what was likely her tennis farewell. Even if that’s it for Bird, the appreciation will survive the shutdown.
His enduring star power cannot be measured by the buildup, all the trophies, stats and accolades alone. You also have to look at what she lost. Long gone are all fear, all masks, all submission to perception. She is celebrated for her athleticism, daring and empathy. As Bird grew older, the greatest point guard in women’s basketball history, known for hitting others, figured out how to give herself an assist.
“There’s power in who I am,” Bird said. “It’s just for me personally. I forget everyone. I feel good about it. I go to bed at night feeling good about it.
Bird’s life arc so far embodies the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson: “To be yourself in a world that is constantly trying to make you something else is the greatest achievement.” She knew she was gay while studying in Connecticut, but she had already been portrayed as the girl next door, with the signature ponytail and a natural, bewitching charm. So she smiled for the cameras and maintained privacy.
No one who knew Bird, at any time in his life, would consider her false; she is too warm and kind. But she was guarded. She rarely said anything controversial. When she did, she quickly made amends. In 2003, during his second season with the Storm, Bird took a bet with a male sports radio host about his attendance-to-revenue ratio: if it was high enough, the host would buy subscriptions . If not, she would get spanked. This caused an uproar. Bird canceled the bet, apologized and expressed annoyance. She remained perceptive and accommodating with the media, but honed the ability to hold back while appearing open.
“It was interesting to have a public persona in terms of what people were seeing on the pitch and who I was as a player and maybe a glimpse of who I am as a person, but know that I was also hiding something inside of me,” Bird said. “I was hiding my sexuality, I wasn’t really showing that side of myself. And that’s a big part of who you are, because that’s who you love and that’s who you’re going to spend your time with and your life. So for me, I was growing up as a basketball player and I felt at first that I wasn’t really myself. Then I had this moment when it was time to do it.
Bird went from her twenties to her thirties. She won and won and won. Two college titles with Connecticut. Four championships with the Storm. Five Olympic gold medals. She also fell in love with soccer superstar Megan Rapinoe, now her fiancée. In 2017, she let the world know she was gay. In 2020, she was helping her WNBA colleagues revolt against former Atlanta Dream co-owner Kelly Loeffler by supporting Reverend Raphael G. Warnock’s candidacy for a US Senate seat in Georgia. Warnock ended up winning. Loeffler, who disagreed with WNBA players over their decision to protest police lethality, later sold the Dream.
The league had found its voice and realized its power. Bird was a vanguard in this change, a white woman supporting a more personal effort for black women. In men’s sports, the black athlete continues to wait for more white stars to give up their privilege and stand by their side. But the women who play these games — who fight ongoing sexism and marginalization — understand the need for synergy. Bird imposed herself at the right time. The point guard, who has played for 21 of the WNBA’s 26 seasons, grew up with the sport.
“We’re a league that’s like, ‘This is who we are,'” Bird said. “We finally adopted that. We were just trying so hard. We were throwing things against the wall, trying to survive, to see what would stick. We were trying to do that in a society where we were like, ‘Oh, you have to put the feminine side forward. Oh, we need to be cuter, maybe more fans will get into it. And then it became, nah, you just have to be yourself. And people will really love you or hate you. But at least it’s real.
A few weeks ago, after his last regular season game in Seattle, Bird addressed a record crowd of 18,100 at the new Climate Pledge Arena. It was the most intimate five-minute conversation a person could have with the masses. During her talk, she mentioned Wildrose, a 37-year-old lesbian bar in the Capitol Hill neighborhood, among the oldest of its kind on the West Coast. Bird first visited the Rose, as the regulars call it, early in his career. A Storm fan approached her that night and wondered if she was in the right place. Bird feigned naivety, but she knew where she was. She was at home.
Referring to Wildrose, Bird could feel “about 10,000” people cheering. She told the story to highlight the impact Seattle had on her. She grew up in Syosset, NY, went to Christ the King High School in Queens and stayed nearby for college at U-Conn. But it has become a Seattle sporting institution. She grew up with a league, a city and a bar still in operation despite the struggles during the pandemic.
“There was a feeling of acceptance,” Bird said. “Also, a sense of protection.”
Wildrose co-owner Martha Manning was visiting family on the East Coast and missed Bird’s regular season finale. His phone rang with text messages all afternoon.
“We love Sue,” Manning said. “Every time she comes, I’ve never seen her refuse anyone. It is accessible almost to a defect. Sometimes we don’t know if we should go interfere, but she never seems bothered.
Bird notices everything. His vision extends far beyond the basketball court. You can walk past her on the street, share the briefest interaction, and she’ll mention it days later. You can ask a winding question, and she listens so well she can pinpoint exactly what you want to know. Former Storm trainer Brian Agler, who won a championship with Bird in 2010, likes to tell the story of a coaching interaction with the point guard. She told him she didn’t feel well.
“I think I weigh a pound or two,” Bird told Agler.
The coach was amazed. He laughed and asked, “You know when you weigh a pound or two?”
With that kind of self-awareness, imagine how she felt knowing she had more of herself to share. It took her nearly 36 years to fully trust not only the public, but also herself. She’s 41 now, and while that makes her an old athlete, the rest of her life is full of possibilities: basketball coach, CEO, TV personality, entrepreneur, activist, motivational speaker, coach. of life. But what she does won’t matter as much as who she is.
“I wish I had done it sooner,” Bird said of herself. “The timing was wrong. And that’s good too. I feel like if you’re someone who might be in a similar situation, now must be a good time for you. But the lesson to be learned is that the sooner the better. The sooner you are your authentic self, things feel better.
Bird adapted to fame, and then she made fame adapt to her. She’s accumulated more than two decades of material, but as she tries to keep winning and playing, she doesn’t have to worry about how she’ll be remembered. It’s just Sue. This title, priceless and robust, is the greatest achievement.