It was one of those nights where an extra marine layer of tension hung in the air as the Seattle Storm’s season, and Sue Bird’s career, hung in the balance. But eventually, that tension gave way to the melancholy that always attaches itself to a legendary player walking away from the game.
It took 40 minutes of intensity, brilliance and absurd stress, an epic back-and-forth struggle with the highest of stakes, before the outcome was determined. And for the Storm, who had the will but not the way, the ending came with stark finality.
The Storm on Tuesday were eliminated, 97-92, by the Las Vegas Aces, who took the best-of-five series in four games. But outside the Aces locker room, perhaps, that will not be the bullet point, nor the lasting memory, when this game is recalled, as it is certain to be.
No, it will be known as the last time the great Sue Bird took the court. And it was the sight of her leaving the court for the final time that touched most poignantly at the heartstrings. Everyone knew this day was coming, but it still was jarring to think that after 21 years and a storehouse of memories, she would not play at this level again.
As a gracious Vegas coach Becky Hammon said afterward, “Sue had a career kids dream of, and she lived it. Her thumbprint on the game is forever etched. … She’s a beautiful mind. Her jumper going left is killer, too, but her mind for the game is one of a kind, so you have so much respect for her.”
Bird, still emotional an hour later, said the end felt “surreal,” but she leaves with no regrets and no notions of changing her mind.
“No, I don’t have second thoughts,” she said. “Of course my body feels good, and so that can be tricky. Or it can trick you. But there’s a reason why I felt comfortable, and I felt confident in this being my last year. Being able to say that out loud was a big hurdle. And once I kind of jumped over that, I knew I did the right thing because how I felt afterwards.
“Am I gonna miss basketball? Absolutely. There’s going to be nothing like this. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to replicate it. I’m not even going to try. But now I know I made the right decision.”
When the game ended, the Storm’s hopes of a miracle comeback having expired, Bird immediately consoled some of her teammates, then joined a Storm group huddle.
Afterward, she took a couple steps toward the tunnel before turning around and joining the handshake line with Vegas as a thunderous chant of “Thank you, Sue” rang out from the 11,328 in attendance.
As the emotion of the moment began to hit her, Bird saluted the crowd, her eyes glistening. She put her hands together in a gesture of thanks and gratitude before walking off, the tears now flowing. She stopped for an interview with ESPN’s Holly Rowe and walked off into the tunnel with a wistful expression on her face.
“I wanted to kind of have one last moment to say thank you, to soak it all in,” Bird said of her final few minutes. “Because in some ways it is a happy thing. I’m proud of everything we’ve accomplished here. And of course I’m sad, but there’s happiness, too, to be able to have a moment like that with the fans, to have them chant the way they did. I know the tears don’t look like happy tears, but there’s a lot of happiness.”
Have you ever bid someone a fond and emotional farewell at the airport, only to turn a corner and run smack dab into that person? Bird’s departure from Seattle has had that feel. Since a raucous, sellout crowd celebrated her Storm career in what could have been her final home game Aug. 14 with a touching ceremony, the Storm played four more home games.
But this one was really, truly the last one.
Said Bird with a laugh, while assessing the changes in the league over her 21-year career: “Because of this individual talent, you’re seeing more free flow. I think, honestly, I would love to be 22 now. That would be amazing. I’m not a grind-it-out defensive player. Like, I was born in the wrong era. It’d be amazing to play now as a young pup.”
Bird finished her career with four WNBA titles as the Storm were unable to get to the Finals to give her a chance for a fifth — “to ride off on a white horse with a championship,” as Storm coach Noelle Quinn wistfully put it. The Storm lost three in a row to the Aces after winning the opener — the first playoff series loss in Stewart’s career.
Storm reserve Briann January, who played seven minutes off the bench, is also retiring. But Bird’s resonance in the annals of WNBA history, and her impact on Seattle sports, made her the focal point of the game, just as she had been all season.
“It’s hard to win here on any night, not to mention under the circumstances,” Hammon said. “It feels like the girl who beat Serena [Williams] — bittersweet.”
With Bird, it is the sweetness that will live on long after the bitter disappointment has worn off.
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