Sue Bird deserved first-team honor

September, 14, 2010

SEATTLE -- As you might expect, Seattle's Sue Bird shrugged good-naturedly at the news that she wasn't on the all-WNBA first team.

[+] Enlarge
Sue Bird
Barry Gossage/Getty ImagesSeattle point guard Sue Bird deserved a spot on the WNBA's all-league first team.

That, however, was not my reaction. Bird a second-team honoree? I was irritated. How do you not have the WNBA's best point guard on the first team in a season when the Storm had the best record in the league?

"Oh, I'm not mad about it at all," Bird said after Monday's practice at KeyArena. "I don't even know who made first team with the guards."

Told it was Phoenix's Diana Taurasi and New York's Cappie Pondexter, Bird added, "I'll take that. I don't see myself beating either of them. When you average 20-plus points … and for both of them, they also do other things. It's tough to compete with players like that."

Yes, but isn't it a clear sign how point guards are undervalued?

"I play with Diana and Cappie, and I see their value," Bird said. "They do a lot, and they score as well. And Cappie and Diana both can play point, so it's a tough argument."

Of course, this is vintage Bird. Who else in the league would so calmly and analytically try to deconstruct the case for her own candidacy for an honor?

Well, I remain unconvinced. It never crossed my mind to not have Bird on the first-team ballot. And this, of course, was before her two game-winning shots on consecutive Sundays in the postseason.

My ballot had three guards -- Bird, Taurasi and Pondexter -- and post players Lauren Jackson of Seattle and Tamika Catchings of Indiana. That is a perfectly legitimate team that you could put on the floor, and -- as far as I'm concerned -- within the guidelines of how one is allowed to vote. But the actual first team as voted on had just four of those players, with Chicago's Sylvia Fowles as the fifth.

Now, in a business loaded with clichés, maybe there's not much more cliché than a media person griping about voting by fellow media for player honors. I don't really like getting into any of that.

Plus, I think highly of all five players who did make the first team. And since Bird really doesn't seem to care, maybe you'd think I'd just let this pass. But I can't.

Some people might say, "Well, Bird has always gotten plenty of acclaim being from UConn and all, it's not like she's going unnoticed."

However, this has nothing to do with that.

Yes, Bird would finish very high every year in a women's basketball popularity contest, and for good reason. She's generous with her time in dealing with the media (and in Bird's case, that's a lot of time), she gives thoughtful answers, and she doesn't blow off people if she's having a bad day.

In fact, Bird does an exceptionally good job of making it appear she never has bad days. And when you're an athlete in a team sport, that's a very special leadership trait.

Because what we in the media present about a player is one of the windows that fans have into who the player is, and that does influence popularity. Plus, sure, Bird played for the college team that gets more media attention than any other. Also, Seattle is the best local market, as far as I'm concerned, for coverage of the WNBA.

Again, though, all of that is completely irrelevant to the issue of whether it's a big deal that Bird didn't make all-WNBA first team this season. Because this is an honor she earned through her play, period. Not because she's a nice person, or a terrific spokeswoman for the sport, or because so many kids want to have a No. 10 Storm jersey. Do all of those things make her very valuable to her franchise and the league? Yes, of course.

But this is about bare-bones stuff: Bird the basketball player.

It's not just displayed in her numbers, although they are very good at her position: 11.1 points and 5.8 assists per game during this regular season, with 190 assists to just 60 turnovers in those 34 games. (Her playoff numbers are even better: 12.2 ppg, 8.4 apg. But the voting was done before the postseason.)

Beyond the stats, though, Bird is one of those players where you don't look at measuring her so-called intangibles as if it's some esoteric exercise. In fact, those qualities aren't really "intangible" at all. They're quite tangible and very obvious. Just watch who pulls her team together the best, who is able to give instructions without ticking off anybody, who is universally respected.

"Sue is low-maintenance, she'll fly under the radar," teammate Swin Cash said. "But she can make the other team pay with a dagger at any point in time. She's always been the point guard who's going to get everyone involved. She knows everyone's tendencies.

"She knows when I need to get a basket and when she has to get me going. But at the same time, when it's crunch time and she needs to be the one to make a play, she knows that same thing about herself."

Seattle coach Brian Agler acknowledged he was very disappointed Bird wasn't on the first team for the same reasons why Cash praised Bird.

"Obviously, there are a lot of good players in this league, and the people that are on the first team are exceptional," Agler said. "But there's no question in my mind that Sue Bird does her job and plays her position better than anybody else. She makes people around her play to their maximum."

Again, Bird is not going to be bothered by this at all. It's just not how she's wired. But such honors are important. And from a legacy standpoint, I hope Bird ultimately will be evaluated not on how popular she is or how many fans will always love her from her UConn days or have grown to love her in Seattle.

But plain and simple, she should be judged by how thoroughly she has mastered a position that is undervalued only if you don't regularly watch basketball.

If you do, Bird was a textbook, complete "no-brainer" pick for the all-WNBA first team this season. I'd argue that point with anybody. Even Sue Bird herself.

Mechelle Voepel covers the WNBA, women's college basketball, and other college sports for espnW. Voepel began covering women's basketball in 1984, and has been with ESPN since 1996.


You must be signed in to post a comment

Already have an account?