WNBA Finals: Ageless Seattle star Sue Bird is the consummate champion

Seattle guard Sue Bird sat in her postgame video interview with an amused smile and a little comic side-eye directed at teammate Breanna Stewart, who threw Storm green-and-gold confetti at her. Bird was thrilled to be celebrating her fourth title after a blowout 92-59 victory against the Las Vegas Aces on Tuesday in Game 3 of the WNBA Finals.

But there was also a touch of disbelief, after a trying season in the WNBA bubble in Florida during a pandemic. Bird has been in the league since being drafted No. 1 in 2002, and she thought she had seen everything, but this season was like nothing anyone had seen before. The enormity of her accomplishment, and the knowledge that her 40th birthday comes next week on Oct. 16, had Bird feeling sentimental and philosophical while her teammates danced and champagne flowed.

"Being younger, you talk about being in the moment and you don't even know what that means. But as an older player, I fully understand," Bird said, and then tried to describe the environment. "Listen, out there, it's weird. There's no fans. Like the excitement level -- and just because of the way the game ended with the score, it was kind of this -- we didn't really know how to react.

"So I think for me right now, it's a little -- it's almost surreal, shock. I'll be honest, even today preparing for the game, thinking about it, I was getting a little emotional at the thought of potentially winning. I have a feeling it is going to hit later, and for me as an older player, I think it's coming out more emotional than excitement."

Bird became the second-oldest player to win a WNBA title behind Taj McWilliams-Franklin, who was 13 days from turning 41 when she won with the Minnesota Lynx in 2011.

This is the fourth title for the Storm, tying them for most all time with Houston (1997-2000) and Minnesota (2011, 2013, 2015, 2017). But the Storm's titles didn't all come in a close cluster of years; the previous ones were in 2004, 2010 and 2018. Bird is the one common denominator for all of them, as she finished her 17th season in the WNBA on top again.

"I think the fact that I've been able to do it in different decades, with the same franchise, not many people can say that," Bird said. "To re-create it over time and stay at a high level over time is definitely something I'm proud of, because it hasn't been easy."

Bird had left knee surgery in May 2019 and missed all of last season. Then she suffered a bone bruise to the same knee early this season and was limited to 11 of 22 regular-season games.

"This is the one time I'm not going to sugarcoat it. It's been hard," she said. "A lot of ups, a lot of downs. I think the hardest part about being an older player is when there's that down physically, you start to question whether you can do it anymore. You start to question why you're doing it. You start to question if it's worth it, because it can be hard."

Yet once the playoffs began, Bird was totally in charge again, as if she had willed the years to melt away. Bird averaged 9.5 points and 9.2 assists in those six games. Her 16 assists in Friday's Game 1 were a career high and a record for the WNBA Finals and for the postseason overall. Tuesday, she had five points and seven assists in a game decided long before the fourth quarter, which Bird spent joyfully on the bench trying to take it all in.

Bird has earned universal praise in the basketball world, including from the Los Angeles Lakers' LeBron James, who is also in his 17th season and going for his fourth title.

"To have LeBron recognize me in that way is obviously a huge compliment," Bird said. "I think we're two of the players -- you can throw Tom Brady and Diana [Taurasi] in there -- us four are kind of in this elite company of people who are closer to the end than the beginning but still able to have a huge impact on the game."

Combining college, WNBA, overseas leagues and international competitions like the Olympics, Bird has celebrated championships all over the world. In the WNBA, her first came in front of the ThunderStix-pounding sellout crowd at KeyArena in October 2004. Bird was a few days from her 24th birthday then, and admits she thought at the time that playing for titles would be a regular occurrence.

But with so much talent concentrated in a relatively small league, even making the WNBA Finals is a challenge. The Storm didn't do that again until 2010, when they swept the Atlanta Dream. As the clinching Game 3 ended in Atlanta, Bird leaped into the arms of teammate Lauren Jackson, who was the league MVP that year.

No one realized then how close Jackson, 29 at the time, was to the end of her career because of injuries. She would play only parts of two more seasons in the WNBA.

Eight more years passed before Bird returned to the Finals in 2018, and again won in a sweep, this time against the Washington Mystics.

UConn coach Geno Auriemma was at that game, and he has continued to watch with pride as his former star point guard keeps winning.

"For Sue, her incredible consistency as a player comes from her consistency as a person," Auriemma said. "She's an incredible leader on the basketball court of epic proportions. As long as she has the opportunity to direct the team, they're going to find a way to win."

Six years ago, though, Bird questioned herself. She went through a knee surgery that cost her the 2013 season. In 2014, the Storm missed the playoffs and coach Brian Agler left to take over the Los Angeles Sparks. Bird had felt physically subpar that whole season, and she knew some people thought she was nearly finished as she approached age 34.

Bird committed to getting into the best shape of her life. She also made up her mind to stay with the Storm rather than explore options as a free agent.

Her belief in the organization paid off with good fortune, as the Storm got No. 1 picks in 2015 (guard Jewell Loyd) and 2016 (forward Breanna Stewart) who became key contributors to the Storm's past two championships. Stewart was Finals MVP in 2018 and again this year, and she has averaged 25.7 points, 7.8 rebounds and 4.0 assists this postseason, while Loyd averaged 17.8, 5.2 and 3.2.

"With Stewie and Jewell, their talent is really insane," Bird said. "They are the now generation, but they are also the next generation for the next five, 10, 15, who knows how many years."

In recent years, Bird has become more outspoken about many issues, including those involving the LGBTQ community. In 2017, Bird came out publicly as gay and spoke of her relationship with U.S. soccer star Megan Rapinoe -- who was with Bird in the bubble in Bradenton, Florida -- and the two became a popular power couple in sports.

"It's her leadership on the court," Seattle coach Gary Kloppenburg said of what Bird means to the Storm, "but also how she's developed as a leader off the court in standing up for a lot of things that have to be done, and for a lot of progress that we have to make in this country."

Social justice wasn't just a trendy catchphrase for the WNBA this season; it was the bedrock of the bubble. Bird was a big part of the Vote Warnock movement, as the players urged people to vote against one of the league's owners, the Atlanta Dream's Kelly Loeffler, in her Senate race against Raphael Warnock. Loeffler's remarks questioning the league's support of the Black Lives Matter movement alienated players.

"A league of women, a league of Black women, a league of gay women," said Bird, who has admitted that in earlier times she tended to steer clear of anything controversial. "We're kind of checking off all these boxes of people that just get left behind, or don't get talked about. And so who better to stand up and speak about these issues than those who it directly affects?

"There was a lot on everybody's plate, and for a variety of reasons. What I've come to find out is when you're in this world of activism and organizing, there's this other energy that you expend. And then, oh by the way, you have to be a basketball player as well. For a lot of people, it was exhausting at times. Everybody at some point had to hit the 'Wubble' [WNBA bubble] wall and find a way to get over it."

She did that, and now has her fourth WNBA championship. Bird hopes to play at least through next year, during which she could go to her fifth Olympics.

"The way I feel right now, if I can go through my offseason and continue to build on that in a good way, I don't see why I won't be playing next summer," Bird said. "I'm not trying to be elusive, but as I've always said, things happen. That's what the last two years have taught me. Anything can happen. So I'm just like, you know, cautiously optimistic.

"Through my career, I'm lucky in a way. My position and how I play it allows for longevity. I never really just relied on my quickness or speed or size, obviously. So as long as I continue to add to my game from a mental perspective, I was always going to be able to stay on the floor, assuming the physical part stayed with me as well."

Auriemma credits Bird's resolve and willpower.

"Sue's discipline is, 'I want to win championships every single year I'm in the league. And I'm going to give up all the things that cause me to not be able to do that,'" Auriemma said. "That's unusual, but that's how you last that long."

Sure, Bird said, she bypasses the extra piece of cake or glass of wine. She has diligently kept to an exercise and sleep schedule. She has fought past the pain and monotony of rehab that comes with injuries.

For someone who never talks about her own greatness, who instead always frames it as part of a collective effort of everyone around her -- teammates, coaches, ownership, fans -- Bird has reached a peak few athletes in any professional sport do.

"There are definitely sacrifices that you make," Bird said. "There's a certain lifestyle that I feel like I've committed to. But I don't see it as giving something up, because you get in return."