WNBA player Sue Bird remains consistent on and off the court


photo by Cecelia Turkewitz

Sue Bird is many things: Social justice activist, gay icon, bun extraordinaire off the court, signature ponytail wearer on the court, fashion icon, sneakerhead, co-host of the world-favorite quarantine Instagram Live show: “A Touch More,” ginger beer enthusiast, four-time WNBA champion, four time Olympic gold medalist for the United States, oldest member of the US Basketball Women’s National Team, face guard model, best friend of Diana Taurasi, and fiancée of soccer superstar Megan Rapinoe. To me, she is the leader I want to be.

Sue Bird is the 40-year-old point guard for the WNBA’s Seattle Storm. She is the most successful active team captain in professional sports anywhere on Earth. She is consistent, disciplined and dedicated. She’s confident in her play, goes out and gets the job done. Not only does Bird know the game inside and out, she knows what she has to do to get her teammates to play their best. Her ability to see the game in ways others cannot came in handy as she switched to more of a coaching role when an injury caused her to miss both the 2013 and 2019 seasons. More knee issues limited her to only eleven games during the WNBA season this summer.

In her ESPN 60-minute documentary there is an old clip of her saying, “I try and lead [more] by example” and she certainly does. Early in her career she was known as timid, and she admits she spoke at youth girl’s basketball camps to overcome her shyness. “I think it’s important to show young girls that they can become strong, confident athletes,” said Bird. “When I was coming up, the WNBA was still in its infancy, but it’s important also for the boys to realize that hey, these girls can make it too.” Showing even in the early moments of her career she knew she had impact. Her University of Connecticut coach, the famous Geno Auriemma, has described her as silent but deadly. After missing much of her freshman year due to an injury, Auriemma took her aside the following year and told her that from then on, team failures would be attributed to her. She took ownership of everything because he knew that the more responsibility she had, the more she would thrive. She relies on her mental toughness, “It’s all about maximizing your strengths and hiding your weaknesses.”

What makes Bird so impressive as a player is her consistency on the court that comes from her consistency as a person. While Sue has thoroughly and thoughtfully answered countless questions, she is also incredibly private. Sue and controversy don’t really mix. However, when you ask her about hot button issues — racial inequality or sexism — she’s not afraid to speak her mind. When she’s not breaking records, she’s speaking out about issues that matter. She published a Players Tribune article in which she backed her fiancée Megan Rapinoe amid backlash from President Trump over her comments about the United States Women’s National Team (USWNT) not visiting the White House. Bird also used her platform to explain her stance on the current movement toward equal pay within women’s athletics. And most recently, she has been a staunch supporter of police reform, calling for the arrests of Breonna Taylor’s killers: Jonathan Mattingly, Brett Hankison, and Myles Cosgrove.

Sue Bird has taught me to be the best you can be for yourself first, and then use your impact to help your community once you have more influence. I admire the way she encourages people to listen, even when you don’t agree with their point of view. At the same time, she doesn’t concede and stays true to her beliefs. She teaches me that being feminine doesn’t limit you — you can be particular about your hair and still be fierce on the court — you don’t have to conform to any generalization. It’s important to put in the work behind the scenes to perform on the court. It sounds cheesy, but she reminds me to live my life, and not necessarily lead the charge. Your voice is shaped by the people you surround yourself with, the food you eat and the time you dedicate to yourself. Being a leader doesn’t have to mean being first to do something or come up with an ingenious idea, it means consistently choosing to show up and do the work.