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Sue Bird: WNBA's growth mirroring NBA's

SEATTLE -- Sue Bird recently watched a documentary on the early years of the NBA, and it reminded her of the challenges faced currently by the WNBA.

"Homophobia hurts our league. Racism hurts it. Sexism hurts it," the Seattle Storm guard told espnW. "For [the NBA], it was a big racial issue. For us, it's racial and gender."

Bird has lived through much of that during her professional career, which began in 2002 and continues into her record-tying 10th WNBA All-Star Game appearance on Saturday. She spoke openly with espnW for the first time about being gay and said she is in a relationship with soccer player Megan Rapinoe. She talked about her time playing overseas and how the WNBA has grown more slowly at times than some players and fans would like. She said the league -- and its players -- continue to evolve.

"You can be a little disappointed with how things are, and in other ways, you can see how we're still on the rise," Bird told espnW. "I think we're just waiting for that one moment."

She referred to Larry Bird and Magic Johnson's rivalry in the 1980s, which was featured in an ESPN 30 for 30 documentary in June.

"And we're going to have a moment," she said. "It's coming. Just that breakthrough that's going to give us a cool factor, and more people will want to be a part of it. Because that to me is the only thing we're lacking -- that social thing, 'It's cool to go to a WNBA game.'"

Bird, at 36 the league's oldest player this season, has lived a fairly private personal life. She has been out to family, friends, teammates and coaches virtually her entire WNBA career. But for most of that time, she did not feel any need to address her sexuality publicly.

"My side of it was, 'I'm living my life. I'm not hiding anything. I'm just not necessarily leading the charge or something,'" Bird said. "But I never felt that made me any less real."

In recent years, though, she had considered talking about it.

"I think it's time," Bird said. "I get that, as an athlete with a platform, there's a larger meaning to it. But for me personally, it was such a non-issue.

"It's become more a casual topic. Early in my WNBA career, I felt there were reporters who would never point-blank ask the question, but they were fishing. So it puts you on the defensive, I think. Now because it's more casual and part of the norm, it's easier to talk about."

Bird and Rapinoe, who plays for the Seattle Reign and the U.S. national team, really didn't get to know each other until the 2016 Olympics. They began dating in the fall.

Rapinoe has been very public about her LGBTQ activism, but Bird said that was not the reason she decided to speak openly. As she said, it just felt like the right time.

"I think your initial thought of someone who is 36 and a public figure but not out is that there was some kind of angst about it, but there really wasn't with Sue," Rapinoe said. "Just in general, she never wants to bring attention to herself for anything. That's just not her personality.

"But we're not at that point where people don't have to say it or where it's not still very important. Until we get there, people have to take that on."

Both Bird and Rapinoe spoke of the importance of women cheering on female athletes.

"There's a general conversation that we have: Why women our age don't support women's sports the way that men our age support men's sports," Rapinoe said. "Then we had this moment of realizing we hadn't gone to each other's games much before we started dating. So we're both now season-ticket holders of the other's team. You have to invest in it and put the time in it, and you become a fan."

Said Bird: "People continue to put our league down. It's because we're women; that's the fight. And it's a majority of black women; that's the other fight. But we represent America to the fullest. And it's weird to me that people wouldn't want to support that. I don't get it."