KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Sue Bird delivered the news via social media in January that she would return for her 19th -- and likely final -- WNBA season with Seattle. But she said Thursday the seeds for that decision go back to a moment of spontaneous affection from fans in September just after the Storm's season ended. Without that, Bird said, she might not be playing in 2022.
Bird told ESPN on Thursday she had tried to keep thoughts of it possibly being her last game out of her mind, although she knew she would be facing a decision about whether to return at age 41.
"It really didn't hit me in that moment until the fans chanted," Bird said. "And then I was like, 'Oh, they know it, too? They're sensing this also?' It's weird because it immediately changed my perspective. Had the buzzer gone off and I just went home, I probably would have retired.
"But having that moment, it kind of changed some things for me. During the drive home, there was a wide range of emotions, as you can imagine."
The Storm played last season at Angel of the Winds Arena in Everett, Washington, around 30 miles from Bird's home near downtown Seattle. Her fiancée, soccer star Megan Rapinoe, had driven her own car to the game, so Bird was alone with her thoughts. Did she shed some tears?
"Absolutely," Bird said. "I was definitely boo-hooing."
After spending time with her teammates that evening and then doing media interviews the following day, Bird was still vacillating. The past several years, the point guard has been on a season-to-season plan about continuing her career. As long as she was healthy enough, she expected to come back. But after last season, having won four WNBA titles and five Olympic gold medals, she really wasn't sure.
But the fans stayed in her mind. After another day or so, she texted her longtime trainer Susan Borchardt.
"I said, 'Hey, I think I should keep working out, just in case,'" Bird said. "And once I said that out loud, I was like, 'All right, I'm probably going to do it.'"
Bird was in Kansas City on Thursday to deliver the keynote address for a luncheon sponsored by WIN for KC, an organization that focuses on expanding opportunities for girls and women in sports in the region. The luncheon, which is typically the same week as National Girls and Women in Sports Day, dates back to the mid-1990s, when Bird was in high school in New York. Her speech was filled with anecdotes, advice and encouragement for the audience, which included many high school girls who were on area state championship teams. Bird said she saw herself in all of them.
"Even after 20 years in professional sports, championships under my belt, I still feel like an imposter sometimes, I still doubt myself," Bird told the crowd. "Somewhere in the back of my mind, I wonder if I belong. But it's actually not weird, especially for women. From our first days here on Earth, we get the message early and often that boys are better at most things. That there are limits to what we can do. That we should be questioning ourselves every step of the way.
"This all gets pounded into our psyche long before we can stand up for ourselves. Long before we can even stand up."
Bird advised the girls to look inward for their own value, to look around at those who support them for camaraderie and to look forward to what they can accomplish even beyond sports.
In Bird's case, she's done it all. Ending with a fifth WNBA championship would be perfect, of course. In this week that WNBA free-agency signings started, the Storm have announced players such as Breanna Stewart, Jewell Loyd and Mercedes Russell -- all of whom were on Seattle's 2018 and 2020 title teams -- will be back. WNBA veteran guard Briann January, who spent last season in Connecticut, is among those who will be joining the team.
Bird is very pleased with Seattle's moves. But she thinks there are multiple great teams with a lot of motivation this coming season, which for the Storm will be back home at Climate Pledge Arena, the renovated facility where Bird has made so many memories.
Bird has not signed a contract yet, but she will. Her philosophy since the most recent collective bargaining agreement in 2020 changed the salary structure is that she will wait until the other pieces of the team are in place to see what money is left for her. The past two years, that's still been enough for the max salary, but Bird was willing then -- and is willing now -- to take less.
"My thought about it is at this point in my career is I want to be on a good team. I want to win," Bird said. "Money is great, but I'm fortunate to be doing things off the basketball court that allows me the freedom to say I'll take less money."
Bird said it is highly probable this is her last season. She hesitates a bit to fully commit to that largely because she doesn't want that as a season-long narrative that takes away from what the Storm hope to accomplish. She also wants a lot of attention to go other players who are or might be in their last WNBA seasons, including her Olympic teammate Sylvia Fowles of the Minnesota Lynx, another team Bird sees as championship contender.
Still, Bird knows how much the fans' love meant to her last fall, and not just in Seattle. While she was doing broadcast analysis during the WNBA Finals, even Phoenix fans called out to her with "One more year!" -- despite the fact that Bird and the Storm have broken the Mercury's hearts in past playoffs.
Bird, the WNBA's all-time assists leader, said she is grateful to have the opportunity to make the decision for herself to stay or retire from the WNBA, something her friend and former Storm teammate Lauren Jackson didn't have. The end of Jackson's WNBA career was forced after the 2012 season by chronic injuries and pain.
But this week, it was announced that Jackson, who turns 41 in May, wants to play again in her home country of Australia after the use of medicinal cannabis has helped her pain.
"I'm so happy for Lauren. What an incredible journey," Bird said. "She has a chance to finish now in a peaceful place. That was kind of taken from her by injuries. She's a legend. She's an icon. But the ending wasn't what you'd want for someone like that.
"I've seen some recent video of her; she looks pretty good. I think she's pretty realistic. She could go out there and score 50 points or zero; it doesn't matter. Because now she gets to have a little bit more control over how it ends."
As Bird herself is getting, with an assist from the WNBA's fans.
"It all just made me think, 'All right, I still have some gas left in the tank,'" Bird said. "As you get older, your motivations kind of change. And that was starting to creep in for me, in a natural progression way. What that moment with the fans did is reignite something in me. I feel motivated. I feel like I want to be out there."