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Basketball legend Sue Bird played the final game of her unprecedented 20-year career on Tuesday night, walking off the court to thunderous chants of “Thank you, Sue” despite her team’s loss in the playoffs.
The Seattle Storm – for which Bird has played his entire career – fell to the Las Vegas Aces in Game 4 of their semi-final series, in a tearful end to what Bird had previously promised would be his final season.
“I’m proud of everything we’ve accomplished here,” she said after the game, according to ESPN. “Of course I’m sad, but there’s also happiness, to be able to spend a moment like this with the fans, to make them sing like they did. I know that tears don’t look like tears of joy, but there is a lot of happiness.”
Bird’s storied career redefined basketball in Seattle and across the country. The WNBA named her one of the 25 Greatest Players in League History last year (after naming her one of its 20 Greatest Players of All Time during her birthday celebration). 20th birthday in 2016, and one of its 15 greatest players five years prior).
Among many highlights: The 2002 No. 1 draft pick became the WNBA’s all-time leader in assists (over 3,000) and career starts (549), and the only player in the league to have appeared in 500 career games. She won four WNBA championships and appeared in a record 12 all-star games, and also won five consecutive Olympic gold medals for the USA women’s basketball team.
As a point guard, Bird scored or assisted on nearly 33% of every Storm field goal during her 18 seasons with the team (she retired two due to injury) and assisted on 27.6% of every basket scored in the history of the team.
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“She’s going to be one of those Mt. Rushmore, Mt. Everest players that you turn to every time you think of player greatness,” sportswriter Howard Bryant told NPR earlier this year. “I mean, man, woman – you can’t really top what she’s done.”
Bird is also known for her contributions and activism off the court.
She is an advocate for young LGTBQs and launched the “Love Is” campaign and fashion brand with soccer star (and her fiancé) Megan Rapinoe. And as vice president of the WNBA players union, she worked with her colleagues to navigate playing through a pandemic and taking a stand against racial injustice.
She spoke to NPR in 2020 about the importance of player activism in the WNBA, adding that female athletes are used to being judged on just about everything.
“When you’re a male athlete, you’re allowed to play your sport,” she said. “But everything about us, how we play on the pitch, we’re judged. We’re judged by how we look, we’re judged by who we love. And it’s been that way for many, many years.”
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In recent years, Bird has become the first WNBA player (and third American basketball player of all time) to win four championships in three different decades, as well as the first WNBA player (and fifth American basketball player) to record at least eight assists in a game after turning 40.
His retirement is no surprise. Bird indicated at the time that the 2021 season would be her last – but fan chants of “one more year” helped change her mind and put her back in the game for one last flight, as the called the league. Now she says she is ready.
“Of course my body feels good,” Bird told ESPN on Tuesday, “so it might fool you, but there’s a reason I felt comfortable and I was confident that it was my last year. Being able to say that out loud was a big hurdle. Once I kind of jumped over that, I knew I had done the right thing because of how I felt afterwards.
Bird said she would miss basketball and suggested she might not quit the sport altogether. In recent years, she has been involved in other offseason ventures, including public speaking, analyzing women’s college basketball, and launching the media and business company TOGETHXR with fellow athletes Alex Morgan, Chloe Kim and Simon Manuel.
She talked about wanting to “do things in a way that makes the pie bigger for everyone,” as she told ESPN last month.
“I feel really passionate about it, given my background as a female athlete fighting for scraps,” she said. “I don’t want that to be the case for the next generation.”
Bryant, the sportscaster, told NPR he believes Bird’s legacy will not only be in his accolades, but also in helping to develop basketball and inspiring so many girls to take an interest in the game. .
Bird is retiring the same year several other great women are stepping back, like tennis player Serena Williams and track and field star Allyson Felix – all of whom have used their time and talent to help make their sports more accessible for the next generation.
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