Even more so than last year’s celebration of Lauren Jackson, this year’s tribute to 10 seasons of Sue Bird has a personal meaning for me. You see, it’s also my 10th season. Not working for the Storm – that will be next year, and I’m counting on a bobblehead night. During 2002, however, I got my introduction to the Storm and the WNBA working to track defensive statistics for a project run by basketball analyst Dean Oliver, now of ESPN fame. I was credentialed for every game.
When I arrived for opening night, it was both the first time I’d ever been a member of the press (sort of) and my first WNBA game. I had never even seen Sue play on television, though obviously she needed no introduction by that point. Watching her in person figured to be one of the highlights of the season.
It took two games for Sue in particular and the WNBA in general to win me over. After a lackluster opening loss to the New York Liberty, the Storm went on the road to beat Portland before returning home to host the Minnesota Lynx. In many ways, the game was a preview of things to come. The Storm trailed by eight with eight minutes left before Bird lifted the team on her back and led the comeback.
The Storm would force overtime on two Kamila Vodichkova free throws in the closing seconds, and the extra session belonged to the home team, which outscored the Lynx by 10 points in OT. Bird scored eight of her 27 points in overtime and 21 in the second half. When the Storm won again two nights later, knocking off the defending Eastern Conference champs (the Charlotte Sting) behind 17 points and seven assists from Bird, I was hooked.
We all know how great Bird is now, but what might be hard to remember was how revolutionary she was in 2002. Back then, WNBA point guards were expected to pass first and shoot only when necessary. Dawn Staley (8.7 ppg), Jennifer Azzi (9.6 ppg) and Ticha Penicheiro (8.5 ppg) were the archetypes for the position. What Bird showed, and players like Lindsay Whalen have reinforced, is that it’s possible for a WNBA point guard to be a dangerous scoring threat without shirking playmaking responsibilities in the slightest.
I love watching Bird play now, when she’s seen it all and is in complete command of the game, but there was also a lot to be said for her more attacking style as a rookie. On a team lacking in offensive options, Bird carried a heavy load. She and Lauren Jackson quickly mastered their pick-and-roll pairing, and Bird has always had a knack for big shots in crucial situations. Her 33-point game against the Portland Fire to help the Storm to the first playoff berth in franchise history was maybe my favorite performance.
The other thing that stands out for me, looking back at 2002, was the way Sue and the Storm captured the city’s attention. Early in the season, the team played in front of sparse crowds that did not provide the home court advantage we’ve come to associate with KeyArena. By about midseason, things started to click attendance-wise. For the last two home games – the showdown with Portland and the win over the Utah Starzz that clinched the playoffs – enough fans turned out to open the upper bowl. They liked what they saw and stuck around.
And so did I.