Is Sue Bird Seattle’s Greatest Athlete of All Time?
► Jayda Evans,
The Seattle Times
► Chris Francis,
► Jen Mueller,
Portrait sketches by Jane Sherman.
We're all talking because Sue Bird is back for her 20th season with the Storm. She's been to 11 WNBA All-Star Games. She's won four Olympic gold medals. And last year, she won her fourth WNBA title. So is Sue Bird Seattle’s greatest athlete of all time?
► JM: First of all, Benjamin, can I just say that this conversation makes me a little bit nervous, because it's like having to really choose one and be afraid that I'm missing out on the contributions of somebody else. So I'm just gonna put it out there. I'm a little bit nervous wading into this conversation today.
► CF: So here's what you do, Jen, and this is what I'm gonna do. I use the whole Mount Rushmore thing.
► JM: Ah, yes.
► CF: It's always a moving target. There's supposed to be four on Mount Rushmore, but I have five because it's my Mount Rushmore, right? Ken Griffey Jr.'s on there. Steve Largent, Gary Payton. I think Russell Wilson's on there, and definitely, most definitely, Sue Bird. I mean, what she has done is...it's amazing. She's obviously one of the top 10 women's basketball players of all time, if not top five. So certainly in Seattle's pantheon of greatest athletes.
The thing is, like I mentioned, it's a moving target. Russell Wilson's on there, but if he plays for the Seahawks 10 more years—and we're not even going to talk about the trade rumors—he could be number one on this list in 10 years. And Breanna Stewart, if she plays 10 more years and stays healthy, she could be on the top of this list. So I know we're talking right now, but Ken Griffey Jr. is number one in my book, and I think a lot of people's books, just for what he did for the city of Seattle. But Sue Bird is right there. She could win another title and another gold medal. I think she's playing in the Olympics.
LISTEN TO THE WHOLE CONVERSATION:
► JE: I personally love these conversations because I love to hear how—and I guess I'm going to get aggressive—I love to hear how people explain away Sue Bird. Like, it's crazy. Outside of the fact that she is not a Seattleite. I mean, she couldn't be further from the city as far as her being born in New York, in Syosset. But when I look at evaluating greatest athletes, I always just flat out look at their sport, and what they did in their sport, and Sue Bird is dripping in gold. She's been winning titles since high school. She has global titles. She's won in Russia. She's won Olympic medals. She's won in the league. She's won across generations because at first she had Lauren Jackson, and now she has Breanna Stewart. So it's like, How? How could she not? And she's done this all in a Storm jersey? Well, the high school obviously wasn't, but all of the gold medals, everything is after she was drafted by the Storm in '02. So that's where I'm like, How?
But when you broaden the conversation…because of the fact that she had to play a part of the season overseas in Russia, I think she missed out on that real connection with the city. That's how the other ones, in my opinion, come into the conversation because you
cannot deny the way that Griffey just still surrounds the city. And then, of course, Gary Payton. There's a window that opens up if [the WNBA season was as long as the NBA season] then maybe she would have had more of a connection, and it would be as undeniable as I think.
► JM: Yeah, but Jayda, to your point, you can't hold that against Sue Bird, right. And I'm not saying that you are, but you can't hold against Sue Bird the fact that the WNBA season is shorter than those other ones. Also, Chris, I'm going to say that you left out Ichiro on your list. And…you could also say Walter Jones is the best left tackle to ever play the game.
Jayda started hitting on this, if you just look at longevity of Sue Bird's career, she's got everybody beat. And Sue Bird hasn't just affected Seattle, she has affected the globalization of the WNBA. She is one of the faces of the WNBA, and that has been a really tough league to grow. And she has helped keep it on people's radar. But she is not as boisterous as Ken Griffey Jr., who by the way didn't stay in Seattle his entire career. And for all of these other conversations, there has been zero talk of Sue Bird ever going anywhere in the WNBA outside of Seattle, which I think is so impressive.
It ultimately comes back to Seattle and, Jayda, I love what you say about you love hearing how people want to kind of put her career in some sort of corner or separate category. It does deserve to be in a separate category. And that is all on its own.
► CF: Yeah, I agree, Jen. I think to be on this list, to be considered the greatest and not just in Seattle, but nationwide and worldwide, you do have to transcend your sport. And she has certainly done that. When I was growing up, in high school and my younger college years, it was Ken Griffey with the backward hat and Nike and the whole ad [campaign]—I mean, he transcended baseball. He became an icon that way, and she is so much that.
Jayda, you mentioned playing in Russia and stuff: It's a shame that these players have to go over to Russia and make their money. And maybe the WNBA is catching up in this regard. But they play two seasons, and she's globally accepted as one of the greatest of all time, because of that off-season that she has in Russia and the stage that she has during the Olympics. But she has transcended the sport in that way. And only in the last decade has the WNBA gotten the props that they should get—especially this last season, with all they did for social justice. I think even more people are learning Sue Bird's name.
► JE: Yeah, and if she was more out there. If she had the personality of Megan Rapinoe early on in her career then—
► CF: She's coming out of her shell, right? She's starting to do that.
► JE: I'm loving that. But to your point too, though, Ichiro. Russell [Wilson], that's where the other thing comes. But we're talking future because if Russell is able to get another Super Bowl, he does have stats that are greatest-ever type of stats when you want to talk about Seattle athletes. But he doesn't have the bling. So, if he gets another Super Bowl, then I'm up there with him. The other ones...there's the soccer side, with like a Nico Lodeiro, who's got a lot of stats. And the Sounders have won and been to the finals four of the past five years.
But then I was looking up, because I do, like I said, I love these kind of conversations. I was looking up at Ron Santo, back, what, in the '60s, a baseball player. He won at Franklin [High School], and then he was an all-star and he's got the Gold Glove. And he's in the Hall of Fame, too. So I always wonder how, how the older generation—
► CF: Lenny Wilkens!
► JE: Yeah. I have to go with another: Helene Madison. Sixteen world records for swimming. So it's like, well, [where] are they? Because I'm all about medals and bling and titles and stuff like that to even enter the conversation. And then I'm like, Well, where do the classics, where do they stack up?
► JM: Well, and what do they get known for outside of sports? Because Lenny Wilkens wasn't just known for being a basketball player and a player-coach and a coach, right? He has been pretty outspoken in the social justice realm too in the last year. And I wonder, Jayda, do you think that Sue Bird will end up being known as much for her stand and her voice in social justice as she is for her play on the court? Is she being introduced to an entirely new audience not because of her amazing basketball talent?
► JE: Um, I don't think so. I think because of the fact that she's so reserved, and then she might be—and not in a bad way, because obviously her relationship with Megan [Rapinoe], and I think Sue always has said this too—is that that brought out her being vocal about the touchier subjects. When I covered her, she wasn't very comfortable being a loud voice to things outside of women's rights and definitely respect for the game. It would be interesting. Maybe she does grow that way. Because she definitely has a voice, and she's getting a little bit louder about standing up for a lot of things: for standing against racism, standing against homophobia, transphobia. So yeah, maybe that brings it out. But also, because Megan has been doing this so long, and is kind of pulling that out of her, maybe she gets a little bit overshadowed in that respect. But it's possible. I mean, there's no better time than right now. And with the whole race with [Georgia Sen. Raphael] Warnock and the help that she did there, and the position that she has within the executive branch as far as the [Women’s National Basketball] Players Association, it's possible. I mean, it's right there.
► CF: We've seen her on TNT. She has the gift of gab if she wants to have it. And frankly, TNT is doing great work with Candace Parker, and she's gonna be the next big star on that network. But Sue Bird, if she wanted to be, she could be right there. I'd love to snap her up and get her on KIRO 7. I know she wouldn't probably do that small market thing. You guys need to get her on ROOT SPORTS when we get a basketball team. She could be an analyst when the Sonics come back.
► JM: She absolutely could.
► CF: Yeah, she could, and she may in the next 10 years when she retires. Who knows what the next chapter in her life is going to be. She's only 40 years old. Which is another amazing thing, by the way. She's doing all this, and she's still at the top of her game, and she's 40 years old.
► JE: That's wild. She has always had the long game. And it's wild. It's wild to actually see that, wow, you're really right here. And you're right. I mean, she could win another gold. I don't see anybody else beating them as far as—they're Team USA. So this year,
definitely, I would think that it's possible to definitely get a WNBA championship and then that gold medal, and I mean, shut the door.