Sports editor Dan Madigan caught up with current Seattle Storm point guard and UConn great Sue Bird for day three of Women in Sports Week. Bird, a two-time NCAA and WNBA champion, was the first player in WNBA history with 5,000 points and 2,000 assists and won her fourth Olympic gold medal this past summer with the U.S. Women’s National Team. In her interview, Bird touches on her time at UConn, the future of the WNBA and more.
DM: You’re heading into yet another season in the WNBA and played in the league’s 20th season last year. What’s been the biggest difference in the WNBA from when you started to now?
SB: Just by survival of the fittest, I’ve definitely seen the league grow. Each draft class that comes in, it gets harder and harder to make a team. We only have 12 teams, 11 spots on each team, it’s definitely eat or be eaten, you have to come to play. That’s what I’ve seen over my 16 years. The league’s gotten younger in a lot of ways, a lot of talent has come in and I think it’s the best basketball in the world, to be honest. Obviously it’s a wide range of ages, so with that you have a lot of experience, you have a lot of youth, but you definitely have a lot of talent. I don’t think there’s any basketball being played right now that’s better than the WNBA.
DM: For players coming out of college or internationally, is it a bigger deal now to play in the WNBA than it was in the past?
SB: If you’re a basketball player, a good one, then you’re going to want to play in the WNBA. You’re going to want that challenge, how you stack up against the world’s best. That usually means American players, but there’s a ton of great talent from Europe and Australia that comes over that’s why it’s really safe to say it’s the best league in the world. I can’t imagine nowadays, why you wouldn’t want to experience that.
DM: You used to play overseas, but the past few years you haven’t and instead have worked out at UConn and other places. What was the biggest difference between your time overseas and your time in the WNBA?
SB: At the end of the day, it’s similar in that you get up, go to practice, you have games, get ready for those games, you’re in a season, you’re trying to build chemistry with your team as you go. But obviously being in Europe or China or wherever you are, being away from home is a big difference. And you have to adjust to a different culture, and there’s language barriers and you’re eating different food and you’re getting an entirely different experience. So those off the court things are what become your biggest challenges. At the end of the day, basketball is basketball. Whether you’re in Europe or American, WNBA or what not, the game is the same. When you have to fight language barriers, it can make things interesting.
DM: How does the environment you had at UConn compare to everywhere else?
SB: Connecticut, especially when I was there, was very unique. We filled Gampel every night. We filled the XL Center every night. Rain, snow, sleet it didn’t matter. It didn’t matter if we’re playing the No. 1 team in the country or the No. 100 team in the country. So I had a really special college experience in terms of the fan base and the amount of people that came out.
What I found in the professional world is, in the WNBA, generally speaking, people like a winner. So I’ve been here in Seattle and we’ve averaged 8,000-9,000 a game. And I know when we’ve gone to finals, we’ll sell out the building, which is like 17,000-plus. Then you go on the road, usually during the playoffs, and Phoenix I believe had 20,000-plus. So there is a fan base, it’s still growing, it’s not as consistent as what I saw in college but the fans are there
As far as Europe goes, that’s like a different model. It’s actually more similar to college. I was lucky enough to play at a place that was kind of the UConn of Europe in that it was a smaller city and we were the big show in town. We filled the arena every night. It didn’t matter if we were playing the best team or the worst team. That arena was filled. It only holds like 6,000. It’s a smaller building, but very similar to the crowds we had at Connecticut. Everyone locally loved us and was supportive of us. But then there were teams that got crowds similar to other college teams in the AAC.
DM: How much did your time at UConn prepare you to be a professional female athlete?
SB: Everything I learned at Connecticut I’ve taken with me and helped shape who I am as a person. Obviously as a basketball player even more so just as a person. I think the life lessons you learn on and off the court going through the Connecticut program never leave. It really shapes you as a young adult. You’re there from ages 17-18 to 21-22, and those are prime ages to really grow that core of who you are and what you value. And Connecticut helps you put things in the right order, if you will. I’ve 100 percent taken that with me, and at the core I’m the same person then as I am now. Obviously I’ve gotten older and have more experience, but that core is what’s gotten me through a lot of hard moments.
DM: What’s it like to see the sustained excellence of the women’s basketball program?
SB: I feel extremely proud. I know a lot of people talk about the negative effect of a team winning so many games, but I don’t feel that way at all. If anything I see the excellence and just how difficult that is to achieve and maintain. The word that comes to my mind is proud, and I feel really fortunate that I was able to play at Connecticut, and I know every player that’s gone there has learned the same lessons. It’s pretty cool to see that.