Seattle Storm fans wanted one more year. Sue Bird gave it to them.
She slicked back her signature ponytail, laced up her custom Nike sneakers and added to her legend with a farewell tour.
When the Storm set a W.N.B.A. single-game assists record for the regular season with 37, eight of them were hers. She stretched her formidable margin as the league’s career leader in assists and inched higher on the steals and 3-point lists. She helped the Storm make the playoffs for the 16th time in the 19 seasons she played.
And then she was done.
The Las Vegas Aces beat the Storm, 97-92, in Game 4 of their semifinal series on Tuesday to advance to the W.N.B.A. finals. For Bird, 41, who had said in June that she would retire after the season, the loss on her home court marked the end of an incredible career. As fans cheered and chanted “Thank you, Sue,” Bird stood on the court and cried.
At a postgame news conference, Bird said that she hadn’t wanted to leave the court so that she could “soak it all in.” She started to cry again. “I know the tears don’t look like happy tears, but there’s a lot of happiness,” she said.
Aces Coach Becky Hammon said it was “bittersweet” to have defeated Bird to end her “fairy-tale” career. Bird had 8 points and 8 assists in the loss.
“You kind of feel like the girl that beat Serena,” Hammon said, referring to Ajla Tomljanovic, who beat Serena Williams in her final match at the U.S. Open last week. Williams had said she planned to retire after the tournament.
Bird said it was a “huge compliment” to be compared to Williams.
Storm Coach Noelle Quinn, who also played with Bird in Seattle, called Bird “the best point guard to ever play this game.”
Bird won four championships with Seattle, the last in 2020. That season showcased the traits that have come to define her: resilience and keen court vision. She missed half of the regular season with injuries. But she proved invaluable during Seattle’s six postseason games. Seattle never lost during that playoff run. Bird set a then-W.N.B.A. record for assists in a playoff game with 16 in Game 1 of the finals against the Aces. Then she had a double-double — 16 points and 10 assists — in Game 2. In the series-clinching Game 3, Bird spent the end of the fourth quarter on the bench laughing with forward Breanna Stewart. The Storm won by 33.
“The fact that I’m sitting here, I think I’m having this, like, in-shock moment, because it doesn’t really feel real that we just won and that I was able to contribute in the way that I did,” she said afterward.
Much of Bird’s 21-year career has come as a surprise, if only because there wasn’t enough time for someone to accomplish such feats before her. “I really didn’t know what to dream,” Bird told The New York Times last month, “and so to sit here now with all the championships I have, I just feel really satisfied.”
The Storm drafted her No. 1 overall in 2002 out of UConn before the W.N.B.A.’s sixth season. She immediately became Seattle’s franchise leader in assists, with 191 that year. She came in second for the Rookie of the Year Award, but she and the player who beat her — Indiana’s Tamika Catchings — became the first rookies ever named to the All-W.N.B.A. first team.
Over the next 20 years, Bird would pile up honors, including a record 13 W.N.B.A. All-Star selections and five Olympic gold medals with the United States. Last year, she was voted to the W25, the W.N.B.A.’s list of the top 25 players ever as the league celebrated its 25th anniversary.
“These athletes have played the game at the highest level on the court — they are scorers and rebounders, assist makers and defensive stoppers, leaders and mentors,” W.N.B.A. Commissioner Cathy Engelbert said in announcing the W25. She added, “Together, they have transformed the way the game is played, changed the way athletes are viewed, become incredible role models and inspired generations of young, diverse athletes.”
Bird, who is engaged to the women’s soccer star Megan Rapinoe, is one of the most visible gay professional athletes. For most of the W.N.B.A.’s history, its most prominent stars were not openly gay, and players have said that they felt pressured to conform to heterosexual standards of femininity. But Bird is among a wave of stars — including Brittney Griner, Seimone Augustus, Elena Delle Donne and Diana Taurasi — who have been open about their sexuality and spoken about L.G.B.T.Q. rights and acceptance.
Bird has also used her platform as one of the league’s biggest stars to support social justice causes, especially regarding Black women. And as the W.N.B.A. continues to push for the release of Griner, who has been detained in Russia on drug charges since February, Bird has been vocal.
Bird’s off-the-court influence has gone beyond politics to style. She is known for her love of sneakers, and her custom Nikes — from the signature line of the N.B.A. star Kyrie Irving — have “Keep Sue Fresh” printed on them each night.
But the core of Bird’s legacy is on the court.
“That’s a legendary player right there,” said Aces guard Chelsea Gray, who scored 31 points and fueled Las Vegas’s victory in Bird’s final game.
Stewart, who had 42 points in Game 4 for Seattle, said that knowing it would be her last game with Bird was more “devastating” than losing.
“That’s what hurts the most,” she said, adding that Bird had been a mentor and friend.
Storm guard Jewell Loyd said the Game 4 loss was “obviously not how we wanted to finish for her.”
Loyd added, “We’ve been very fortunate to play with a generational player like Sue.”
But Bird wasn’t too hung up on losing on her way out, even though she wanted to win a championship. “It’s not the story,” she said. “It’s not the story of a career.”
Bird said though her body felt good, she was not having second thoughts about retiring. But she will miss basketball.
“There’s going to be nothing like this,” she said.
Bird gave fans someone to believe in until the end. Her final points in the W.N.B.A. came on a layup with 21.8 seconds to go on Tuesday and Seattle down by 6. It was reminiscent of a play on Sunday, in Game 3. The Storm turned to her when they were down by 1 point with less than two seconds to go. She sank a 3-pointer and held her follow-through, as her teammates went wild around her. Seattle would lose to the Aces in overtime, but that play was what this final season was for.
One more chance to celebrate. One last moment with Bird.