The Phoenix Mercury had just beaten Seattle 85-80 OT in the WNBA playoffs late Sunday afternoon when ESPN’s Holly Rowe brought Sue Bird and Diana Taurasi together on the court for the post-game interview. These two have been teammates and rivals for more than 20 years, and Bird quipped to Rowe that Taurasi had thought she was Willis Reed today.
Bird then narrated her realization. “No one on my team understood that reference,” Bird said. “Maybe that’s a sign.”
A few facts for you. Bird is 40. She was the first pick of the WNBA draft in 2002. Sue Bird’s professional basketball career is biologically old enough to have a career of her own. She addressed the possibility in the post-game, telling reporters she didn’t want to make an emotional decision about retirement. The jersey swap with Taurasi was poignant but felt a lot like foreshadowing.
That being said, under no circumstances should Sue Bird retire.
She is still a leader on the court. She is a difference-maker from the 3-point line. She can change the tenor of a game and educate the youth on who exactly this “Willis Reed” was. She carries the history of the WNBA on her very fingertips when she dribbles. She’s so much fun to watch and women’s professional careers don’t have end dates anymore.
But of course Sue Bird should retire.
She won the first of four WNBA titles with the Storm in 2004. She’s been an All Star 12 times, an NCAA champion twice with UConn, and has five Olympic gold medals representing the United States. In fact, Bird has never gone to the Olympics without bringing home gold. There is no title or accolade left to win.
She’s getting married to fellow soccer superlative Megan Rapinoe. They have fortunes to amass, empires to conquer, presidencies to run for. Basketball is an opening salvo for moguls like Bird. And all opening acts must end.
There might have been a time when the whispered retirement of Sue Bird would be an existential crisis for the WNBA. The league, in its 25th year, has not had a steady trajectory. Franchises have come and gone. There have been conversations about whether sports fans care to watch women play team sports, whether sponsors will court the audiences that watch them and whether broadcasters will include a discussion of the WNBA in sports conversations.
But if you look at where 25 years have led this discussion, friends, I’m here to report that the WNBA is in a good place. Ratings are up, in fact the Storm’s playoff game was on ABC. ESPN has devoted more visible resources to the coverage. Yes, the Mercury have been bumped from their home arena thanks to a previously-scheduled showing of Disney on Ice, and this is the bush-league garbage that undercuts league credibility. But there is a bigger picture.
Who else was on that court with Bird? There was Taurasi, Brittney Griner, Skyler Diggins-Smith, Brianna Turner and Kia Nurse for the Mercury, who will advance to play against A’ja Wilson and Liz Cambage for the Aces. Candace Parker played last night for the Sky, against DPOY Sylvia Fowles of the Lynx.
Ratings are way up. These games are really good. These players have connected to their own audiences on social media. The mainstream media could be better, but coverage has arrived. ESPN’s Around the Horn had a cheeky debate yesterday about whether the Sun or the Sky would win in a battle of celestial bodies. The answer to that is of course Jonquel Jones, league MVP and total eclipse of a scorer.
As terrific as it would be to see Sue Bird play another year, as the crowd chanted “one more year” on Sunday afternoon, she doesn’t have to.
There’s a trajectory for the WNBA here. The league is entertaining, relevant and impactful. When these women speak, they can move mountains. Look at the United States senate, where WNBA opposition to the candidacy of then-Atlanta owner Kelly Loeffler played a large part in the emergence of Rafael Warnock, who now serves Georgia in the nation’s Capitol.
It’s OK to retire, Sue. You left the league better than you found it. But maybe don’t, because you’re still so damn good.