Lauren Jackson and Seattle had never gotten a chance to say goodbye to each other.
When Jackson last walked off the KeyArena court four years ago, her tying 3-pointer had just helped the Seattle Storm beat the Minnesota Lynx in overtime in Game 2 of their playoff series. At that point, Seattle fans were hoping to see Jackson the following week in the Western Conference finals. Alas, the Storm lost the deciding Game 3 in Minnesota when Jackson missed at the buzzer, and a series of injuries prevented her from returning to the WNBA -- or to Seattle.
In March, Jackson announced her retirement, concluding one of the most impressive careers in women's basketball history. And on Friday night, after beating the Washington Mystics 80-51, the Storm finally got a chance to honor Jackson for the WNBA portion of that career spent entirely in Seattle. In an emotional ceremony at turns funny and poignant, Jackson's No. 15 jersey became the first retired by the Storm.
"I think it's great for everybody to have a chance to say goodbye to Lauren," said Seattle head coach Jenny Boucek, an assistant coach for the Storm through much of Jackson's career. "I know that's something that we've all wanted to do since we knew that she wasn't going to be able to come back and play."
Jackson hadn't so much as been in Seattle since 2012, though it didn't seem that long to her.
"It's funny," she said. "It feels like I haven't been gone at all. It doesn't feel like it's been four years. It doesn't even feel like a couple days. It just feels like I've been here the whole time and I haven't. I have to keep reminding myself that it's been awhile."
She got one such reminder before the game, when a young fan Jackson remembered attending games during her playing days came up to get a photo -- and is now a teenager.
Four years also had passed since Jackson had seen Sue Bird, her teammate from her second season through the end of her career who developed into one of her closest friends. Because they figured they'd see each other soon, Bird and Jackson couldn't even specifically recall saying goodbye the last time they were together.
That was the most overwhelming, emotional, special send off/night of my life. Thank you @seattlestorm for the love... It was everything ❤️☺️— Lauren Jackson (@laurenej15) July 16, 2016
From the moment Bird greeted Jackson at Sea-Tac International Airport on Wednesday, however, the two picked up right where they left off -- recalling the memories they shared over 11 years together, on and off the court.
"She's been staying in my house, so we've been able to hang out, which has been good," Bird said before the game. "In some ways, you do start to think back, and of course we're reminiscing and thinking about nights out, games, you name it. But at the same time, it's as if we didn't miss a beat. We picked up right where we left off. Haven't gotten emotional just yet, but I kind of foresee that happening."
Bird was right. While a group of dignitaries including Boucek, former Storm president and CEO Karen Bryant and co-owner Lisa Brummel paid tribute to Jackson's greatness as a performer, her legendary competitiveness on the court and her kindness off it, it was Bird who stole the show with a lengthy speech that ran the emotional gamut.
At times, Bird roasted her friend, joking about the rite of passage that Storm teammates experienced of getting yelled at by Jackson for not passing her the ball, and noting that Jackson famously mistook Bird for teammate Adia Barnes during her first training camp. But Bird turned serious in the end, lamenting the fact that Jackson was watching from the sideline while she was putting up 12 points and seven assists Friday playing with a new generation of Storm No. 1 picks (Jewell Loyd and Breanna Stewart).
"There are definitely days," said Bird, unsuccessfully fighting back tears, "where I miss you and I wish you could still be doing this with me."
"I really do wish she was still playing with me," Bird told media afterward.
"I wish I was still playing, too," Jackson quietly rejoined.
"I just want you to know that what you did here, what you did for me, what you did for all these people ... I know it didn't end the way you wanted, but don't let that change all that you did here." Sue Bird to former Storm teammate Lauren Jackson
That fact was the bittersweet backdrop to Friday's ceremony. At 35 -- seven months younger than Bird -- Jackson should still be going strong. Her combination of size and shooting ability figured to allow her to remain effective deep into her 30s -- but Jackson's body broke down before she got the chance.
"I think the closure in itself is a sad thing," she said. "At least I got to come back."
Jackson also got the opportunity to say thank you to the organization and fans in a brief speech before her jersey was unveiled in the KeyArena rafters, joining the two championship banners from 2004 and 2010 she helped hang.
And ultimately, Friday night was more about what Jackson accomplished during her 12 years with the Storm -- the two titles, three MVP awards, seven All-WNBA First Team selections and a spot on the recent WNBA 20@20 list of the greatest players in the league's two decades of existence -- than what more her injuries prevented her from achieving.
Predictably, Bird summed it up best.
"How things had to end hurts me," she said. "I know it hurts you and it hurts me as well. I just want you to know that what you did here, what you did for me, what you did for all these people ... I know it didn't end the way you wanted, but don't let that change all that you did here."