WNBA All-Star Sue Bird is ready to let you in

Michael Hanson for ESPN

IT'S A GORGEOUS summer day in Seattle, with the afternoon sun shining on Sue Bird as she sips organic coffee outside a shop in her Queen Anne neighborhood. She wears a "Femme Forever" T-shirt, jeans and white Chucks. Dressed up or dressed down -- even in her practice togs -- her look is effortless.

Bird might be in the fourth quarter of her basketball career -- at 36, she is the oldest player in the WNBA and is in her 15th season with the Seattle Storm -- but she is expertly managing the clock. She has never been in better shape and isn't talking about retirement anytime soon.

Her accolades are already legendary: two NCAA titles at UConn when the Huskies were establishing their dynasty in the early 2000s; two WNBA championships with the Storm; four Olympic gold medals with Team USA; three world championship golds; and four EuroLeague titles while competing in Russia.

Now an All-Star for a record-tying 10th time, she'll start for the West squad before an adoring KeyArena crowd on Saturday in Seattle. She is a revered teammate, the center of every huddle, a fan favorite from coast to coast; the ponytailed point guard always has looked the part of the girl next door as much as the face of a franchise. Yeah, everybody loves Bird.

But few outside her family and friends truly know her. She has thoroughly and thoughtfully answered countless questions from reporters since she was a teenager, but Bird usually demonstrated a default mode: cautious.

As former teammate Swin Cash says, "Sue and 'controversy' never mixed. She wasn't going to say certain things in the media. ... Now, when you talk about diversity or inclusion or racial inequality or sexism or other hot-button topics, she's going to give it to you how she sees it. I love and respect that about her."

Indeed, now Bird is more fully voicing her heart, her experience, her views, her truth. The Long Island girl has grown into a woman who has traveled the globe and has elevated her consciousness.

"She just has this way of expressing her opinion: She doesn't shut anybody off when she speaks. I could probably work on that a little," says Seattle Reign and U.S. national team soccer player Megan Rapinoe, who has been dating Bird since last fall.

And Bird is OK with this being known. She has been out to her family and friends for many years -- telling them soon after her pro career began in Seattle after she was the WNBA's No. 1 pick in 2002 out of UConn -- but she hadn't publicly confirmed it before.

"I'm gay. Megan's my girlfriend. ... These aren't secrets to people who know me," Bird says. "I don't feel like I've not lived my life. I think people have this assumption that if you're not talking about it, you must be hiding it, like it's this secret. That was never the case for me."

So why talk about it now? "It's happening when it's happening because that's what feels right," Bird says. "So even though I understand there are people who think I should have done it sooner, it wasn't right for me at the time. I have to be true to that. It's my journey."

Bird leans back in a wooden Adirondack chair and settles in to detail the essential parts of her story -- with help from those who know her best.

BIRD REALIZED SHE was gay while she was at UConn, but "nobody ever talked about it when I was in high school or college." She and Phoenix guard Diana Taurasi -- Bird's close friend and former UConn teammate, who in May married recently retired WNBA player Penny Taylor in a wedding that Bird attended -- never discussed the topic until they were playing together in Russia in the mid-2000s.

Once Bird figured it out, she says it was a "nonissue" for her and those closest to her. And if someone had castigated her, "I would have been like, 'Fine, goodbye.' I never was tormented within myself.

"Of course, I have a whole journey -- everybody does in life. I think the hard part is being public about it. I don't like to be, not necessarily 'gossiped' about but the topic of conversations."

Bird knows people might assume that her relationship with Rapinoe, who has long been involved in LGBTQ activism, is what prompted her to speak out now. But that's not the case.

"This actually has nothing to do with Megan, in terms of how free I feel to talk about it," Bird says. "This has been something I've been on the verge of doing for a long time."

Last summer, before she really knew Rapinoe, Bird filled out a questionnaire that was to run in a magazine before the 2016 Rio Games: "25 things you don't know about Olympians."

"I literally had at No. 25: 'I'm gay,' " she says. "And then I just didn't do it. I chickened out."

She later overheard a reporter talking to one of her Olympic teammates, Elena Delle Donne, about having recently come out. The casualness of their conversation struck Bird because it sounded so ordinary, in a comforting way.

"I almost said, 'Yeah, it's no big deal. I'm gay, who cares?'" Bird says. "There's another moment it was right there, but I didn't say anything."

Yet she knew she would eventually. And Bird is pleased that the WNBA has in recent years embraced LGBTQ pride as an initiative and reached out to LGBTQ fans -- something the league didn't do in Bird's early years as a pro.

"The players have influenced that a ton, especially the younger ones," Bird says. "Where the league is now is appropriate, I think, in terms of support."

But the WNBA, Bird says, faces many other challenges.

"Homophobia hurts our league; racism hurts it; sexism hurts it," she says. "For [the NBA], it was a big racial issue. For us, it's racial and gender."

Rapinoe is five years younger than Bird, and despite playing professional soccer in Seattle since about 2012, she had met Bird only briefly before last year. With the U.S. women's soccer team's earlier-than-expected exit at the 2016 Olympics, Rapinoe had time to see other events, including women's basketball. At some point, she and Bird began a conversation -- about pretty much everything -- that is still going on.

"We have a lot in common and just sort of clicked," Rapinoe says. "I joke she is my No. 1 go-to-for-advice person. She's just so level-headed."

Rapinoe drew attention last year for kneeling during the national anthem in support of then-49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick's protest of racial inequality. And Rapinoe has been very vocal in her belief that being out is important because it can help young people with their self-esteem.

"Megan feels really passionately about things," Bird says. "I just never felt that calling, if that's the right word. I was living my life, just not necessarily leading the charge. But I never felt that made me any less real."

Rapinoe says, "Sue has the same convictions about her life and the things she believes in as I do but, I think, does it in a different way.

"It's important to create space for athletes -- and people in general who are in the spotlight and don't want all the attention on them -- to be who they are in a way that's comfortable for them."

But give Bird time. How she describes herself in social settings might hint at how she eventually expands her comfort zone.

"I can be quiet and a little shy," she says. "I'm usually just dipping my toe in the water until the extrovert part of me can come out."

BRAD BARNETT HAS seen all sides of Sue. The renowned Bird historian, aka Sue's lifelong best friend, grew up around the corner from her in Syosset, some 30 miles east of midtown Manhattan. Brad and Sue were born 13 days apart in October 1980, and their older sisters were sports teammates.

The "adventures of Brad and Sue" soon commenced -- except for a brief hurdle when they were 4 or 5 years old: Barnett was so startled to see his usually jeans-clad, short-haired buddy wearing a dress for the first time that he burst into tears.

"I said, 'I'm not playing with her anymore! She's a girl!'" Barnett says, laughing.

They've been there for each other through everything, including Sue's parents' divorce when she was in high school, her injuries and the doubts she might not have shared with anyone else.

You won't find a bigger Bird fan than Barnett.

Of course, they are also relentless competitors, even trying to outdo each other with birthday presents. (Barnett concedes that Bird won when she sent a singing telegram to his house.) As teens, they once had a game of one-on-one that got so heated that it came to a 20-minute standstill when both refused to get the basketball after it rolled to the other end of the gym. Bird finally retrieved it with a flourish of profanity on her way out the door.

Barnett cracks up recounting the time that Bird, around age 7 and the youngest on a local track team coached by Barnett's father, finagled her way into a race against much older girls. She finished second and was furious.

"My dad always tells the story: 'She was staring down the girl who won like she wanted to go over and bite her,'" Barnett says. "And Sue always says, 'Oh, come on. I wasn't going to bite her!' And he says, 'Suzy, you looked like you were going to bite her.'

"He said then she was going to be something special. That's how competitive she was even that young."

But Herschel Bird, Sue's father, says her ability to enjoy life without everything revolving around athletic success has helped prolong her career. He recalls getting a call from the UConn coaching staff after the knee injury that ended Sue's freshman season in 1998-99 after just eight games.

"They said that she didn't look devastated, she was interacting with her teammates, living her life about the same as if she hadn't been injured," Herschel Bird remembers. "They were worried about that. They thought she was taking it too well."

Herschel says it's as if Sue has expertly calibrated herself to keep a safe distance from mental or physical burnout. That said, he also points out her resilience.

"She's broken her nose four or five times. She's had 10 surgeries," Herschel says. "I keep waiting for her to get 'old,' but I don't see it."

Bird thinks she gets a lot of her "balance" from her mom, Nancy. But there's also the fact that Bird typically shows people only what she thinks they need to see.

Something she once heard Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski say has stuck with her: The psyche of the best players sometimes is taken for granted because they seem to be fine, even when they're not.

"And I thought, Yeah, those people can get pushed to the side and not worried about," Bird says. "But, actually, I enjoy that people don't have to worry about me. I can take care of myself.

"You're probably never going to know if something bad is happening in my life. I think I was just made that way."

BIRD'S UNFLAPPABLE FAÇADE is legendary: cool, calm, composed -- no matter the situation. Except, as she admits now, "everybody cracks. Some just hide it better."

She thinks back to 2012, when her mom's longtime partner died right before the Olympics. "He didn't raise me. They didn't start dating until I was in college," she says. "But he was in my life. And very important in my mom's life."

Bird went to the funeral and then motored through the London Games and returned for the WNBA season. "I was sad, but I was juggling everything OK," Bird says. "Nobody was any the wiser."

Until halftime of her first game back with the Storm, when she broke down.

"The team told everyone I was sick. But the truth was, I had to go home," she says. "It was as if all the emotion -- everything that I had put to the side for that month -- just hit me in one moment. My battery was on empty."

A few months later, she decided to sit out the 2013 WNBA season to have surgery, rehab and rest.

Susan Borchardt, a former Stanford point guard who became a strength and conditioning expert, helped Bird during her rehab, but also gently nagged her about improving her diet, workout and sleep regimens.

Bird was noncommittal. "I took for granted what being in great shape meant," she says. But she also heard the chatter that she was past her prime and fading away.

She slogged through a 2014 season in which she says she "felt like crap" much of the time. That's when she told Borchardt: "My life is in your hands." Together, they built a daily diet/exercise/rest plan that Bird has followed without fail. She has also fully embraced technology; she now uses the WHOOP fitness tracking device that monitors the entirety of an athlete's day and provides specific data to implement.

"Once she knows something works," Borchardt says, "she buys in all the way."

But there had been another big question to face after the 2014 season: Should she stay in Seattle? The Storm were in rebuilding mode. Bird and teammate Lauren Jackson, a guard-post pairing that former Seattle coach Brian Agler called "like John Stockton and Karl Malone, with championships," won titles for the franchise in 2004 and 2010. Although Jackson didn't officially retire until last year, injuries effectively ended her WNBA career in 2012. The Storm went 12-22 in 2014 and missed the playoffs for the first time in 11 years. Then Agler left to coach rival Los Angeles.

Free agency loomed for Bird after the 2015 season. She began to consider finishing her basketball career elsewhere. Perhaps back east near her family, where she could play for the New York Liberty. She already had an apartment in Greenwich, Connecticut, near both her sister's home and the Liberty's training facility.

Can your heart belong to two places on opposite coasts, about 2,900 miles apart? It can. For Bird, they're both "home." Long Island will always be where she grew up. Seattle will always be where she actually became a grown-up.

Yet if there were ever a time when the love story between her and Seattle might have ended with a respectful, wistful breakup, this was it.

But that didn't happen. Two quintessential Bird qualities kept her in Seattle: loyalty and optimism. She sought advice from those she trusted. If they suggested that her best chance at another title might come elsewhere, "I always found myself defending the Storm," Bird says. "I helped build something here. Kids grow up with a white picket fence idea, right? My white picket fence in basketball was to stay with the same franchise."

By the end of 2014, Bird's mind was made up: She was sticking with Seattle. She signed a contract extension in February 2016. The Storm also had gotten their second consecutive No. 1 pick and added Breanna Stewart to the roster after Jewell Loyd. Both won the WNBA rookie of the year award and are tent-poles for the Storm's future, with the chance to learn from the best in Bird.

"Now it seems like an easy decision to stay, with Jewell and Stewie here," Bird says. "But when I made the choice, we didn't have those players yet. It was not easy.

"Of course I want to win another ring, but it wasn't about ring-chasing. It was about playing meaningful games for a contending team. I believed I could do that here."

And Jackson would have laughed at anyone who disagreed with Bird on that -- or anything else.

"She is diplomatic, empathetic and incredibly intelligent," Jackson says. "Oh, and did I mention she is always right? You can't argue with the woman."

Last year, despite the extra demands of the Olympics, the fitter-than-ever Bird had one of her best seasons. "That's when I could go to sleep at night and think, 'I'm back,'" she says.

It has continued into this season, but Bird knows it won't last forever. At some point she will move on to broadcasting, or coaching, or both, or something else entirely -- "She has so many options," Storm coach Jenny Boucek says -- and when she does, it will be with the knowledge that she checked every single box to maximize her playing career.

"She walks the walk of what it is to be a franchise player and put a team on your back," Storm general manager Alisha Valavanis says. "People say she's the face of this franchise. But what it really means is she's a huge part of its soul."

AS A POINT guard and a leader, Bird tries to keep everyone on her team happy, an instinct instilled in her at UConn. Coach Geno Auriemma took her aside as a sophomore and said that from then on, whatever went wrong with the team was her fault. This was after she'd missed most of her first season with the knee injury.

Such is Auriemma's genius at reading people. He made Bird feel ownership for everything because he knew that the more responsibility she had, the more she would thrive.

"Coach Auriemma always says, 'Basketball is not a game of how-to, it's a game of when-to,' " Bird says. "Because you're going to get to some point, like the WNBA, where everybody can do things. But it's the people who know when to do them -- the right time -- that's where great players can separate themselves."

Sometimes keeping the peace tested Bird's diplomacy.

"It's like anything in life: You pick your battles," she says. "I have not always done this right. I could tell you stories of times when I should have been more confrontational, but instead, I kind of bobbed and weaved and avoided what could have been potential conflict on a team.

"There are times you just have to swallow something and move on. That's learned. There are subtleties you pick up with experience. I don't think I would have been telling you this at 22."

Still, players have always responded to her. As Taurasi puts it, "I can tell you to go set a screen, but if you don't like me, you're going to tell me to F off. When Sue says it, you want to do it for her."

This season, Bird is averaging 10.8 points and 6.9 assists for the Storm, and she is on her way to breaking Ticha Penicheiro's WNBA career assist record (64 short). She also has a knack for hitting clutch shots -- the daggers -- which gained her the nickname Sue "Die, b----es!" Bird, or "DB" for short, from admiring fans on internet message boards.

"I witnessed it for seven years," Agler says. "Multiple times that she hit the shot or the free throws to win a game or were at the biggest moments."

As competitive as she is, Bird would never actually use that language with opponents. But she can be hilariously blunt when it comes to the "bandwagon that hates on women's basketball" and the random guys who are obsessed with the idea that they could beat her one-on-one.

"You know what? If you're say, 6-2 or bigger, and you played basketball on a decent level, and you're still in shape, maybe you might beat me one-on-one," Bird says. "I actually don't give a s---. I am a better basketball player than you, and that's the bottom line."

Cavaliers point guard Kyrie Irving, who befriended Bird at the Olympics last year, would agree.

"She plays with a fluidity you don't often see," Irving said after attending a recent Storm game. "She's the consummate professional, as well as understanding the game of basketball in its totality.

"I finally get the chance now to know her as a person. But you can call me one of those people who's been a Sue Bird fan in the background for a long time."