Seattle's Sue Bird said one of the best compliments she has ever received came from one of her counterparts, Chicago's Courtney Vandersloot.
"She said, 'When you're off the court, I can tell there's a difference. It's not the same,' " Bird said. "Especially coming from a fellow point guard, that was really nice. Because when you're on the court, you want to have a presence. To make your teammates feel at ease, more than anything."
For 15 seasons in the WNBA, Bird has been doing just that for her teammates, and feeding them the ball as well. In fact, we officially can say now that no one in league history has done that better. With 13 assists Friday in an overtime loss at Washington, Bird became the WNBA's all-time leader in that category with 2,610.
She passed Ticha Penicheiro, who finished her 15-season WNBA career in 2012 with 2,599. Penicheiro was more known for the no-look, flashy assists than Bird is, but both have things in common: an instinctive understanding of the game, a great feel for the right decisions and the personality to be happy being the set-up person.
"When I'm in a game, I'm feeling it," Bird said of how well she is able to make the right reads and the right passes. "I can't even really verbalize it; you just know. Obviously, some of that is playing a long time."
Yes, but by the same token, Bird has been really good at this since she was in high school.
"Her personality is perfect for being a great point guard," said the Sparks' Brian Agler, who coached Bird for seven seasons in Seattle. "Sometimes things work out perfectly: personality, skill, mentality. That's Sue playing that position."
Bird thinks the player she is -- someone who has always been concerned with getting the most out of her team, not what her individual stats are -- was a natural evolution.
"Which is the best way for things to happen," she said. "Because it makes it genuine, and a real part of who you are.
"When I think of my basketball career and how it played out, I was never the tallest. I wasn't the quickest or the fastest, or someone who jumped the highest. I'm not going to overpower you physically. The only way I can do that is with my brain. That's how the nature of [the point guard] position got shaped."
Of course, Bird has supplemented her floor general skills by also being a very good shooter; she has averaged 12.2 points per game over her WNBA career, which began in 2002 (she sat out one season, 2013, to rest). It's part of what has made her so effective as a distributor, because, as Agler said, "With Sue, you still have to always guard her for her shot."
Bird's consistency is another hallmark. Only once has she averaged fewer than 4.8 assists in a WNBA season; that was 4.0 in 2014, a tough year for the Storm. She has topped 100 turnovers just twice, in her first two seasons. Since then, she has never had more than 88.
This season, Bird is averaging 6.6 assists per game, a career high, and has just 62 turnovers.
She always seems to understand the personnel around her, whether it was former Storm center Lauren Jackson or current young stars such as guard Jewell Loyd and forward Breanna Stewart.
"You have to connect with your teammates," Bird said. "In some cases, you're going to connect with them off the floor, and in some cases, you're not. And that's OK. But you have to connect in some capacity."
Bird shoulders the responsibility for everything that happens with her team, and she has never treated that like it's a burden. Even in the times when it probably is.
"For as seriously as she takes it, she doesn't take it too seriously. Which is hard to do when you play basketball," said Phoenix's Diana Taurasi, Bird's longtime friend. "She has a good sense of perspective. She's going to play her heart out every game. She's going to give you the same mental effort."
"I'm not going to overpower you physically. The only way I can do that is with my brain. That's how the nature of [the point guard] position got shaped."Sue Bird
This season has been up and down for Seattle. There was the high of hosting the WNBA All-Star Game in late July. And the low of a struggle to put together wins, which cost coach Jenny Boucek her job. She was fired Aug. 10.
Since Gary Kloppenburg took over as interim head coach, the Storm are 4-3. They now are 14-19 overall, but their 110-106 loss to the Mystics didn't hurt them. They got the eighth and last playoff spot because both Chicago and Atlanta lost Friday and were eliminated from the postseason.
Bird, who will be 37 in October, said earlier this year that she didn't plan on retiring soon. So she could put the assist total pretty far out there, which is also true of Taurasi, who broke the WNBA's all-time scoring record earlier this summer.
It seems appropriate that Bird and Taurasi -- teammates at UConn, with the U.S. national team and overseas -- would put such historic stamps on the WNBA in the same season.
"She finds a way to bring out the best in everyone," Taurasi said. "She lets you know what you should be doing in a way that makes you want to do it."
Sue, Congratulations on becoming the all-time assist record holder. Records are meant to be broken and if somebody is going to take your "crown", you want it to be somebody like you. You do it with class, charisma, passion, humility, efficiency, professionalism and creativity...always leading your team and your teammates!! You have done so much for the game, not just here with the WNBA, in the US, but all over the world! Continue to be an example of how to play the game the right way and continue to inspire people around the world to play basketball. I will continue to cheer every dime you throw...because I am - and will always be - a fan!!! 2️⃣1️⃣🥈➡️1️⃣0️⃣🥇👑😁 Ticha Penicheiro
Bird attributes some of her point guard communication skills to the many years she has played overseas.
"You're in these places with really different people on your team," Bird said. "Maybe you've got two Spaniards, two Latvians, a couple of Russians ... you have to come out of your shell and work to communicate."
Agler also mentions Bird's eye for detail. He laughed while recalling one time when he was wearing a microphone for a televised game, and Bird ran over to the bench to discuss strategy with him.
Agler had forgotten he had the microphone on, but Bird didn't. She discreetly put her hand over it to mute the sound because she wanted the conversation to be private.
"She's so in tune with what's going on," Agler said, "the little things and the big things."
And Bird also just expects a ton from herself. She is the first to recognize when she thinks she missed an opportunity. Mistakes always fuel her, even if nobody else sees them.
"You want to call a play, but you end up calling another play. Oh, I hate that," she said. "It does happen. Heat of the moment; brain cramp. And you're like, 'Wow, we could have scored there, and I didn't call the right play!' It drives me insane."
Suffice to say, Bird has far more often made the correct call.
"You want your teammates to see you've got the ball," Bird said, "and say, 'We're going to be all right.' "