SEATTLE — An hour before the ball was set to tip at Climate Pledge Arena on Tuesday, dozens of fans made their way to the railing closest to the entrance of the Seattle Storm locker room. Some had Sharpies and items to sign; others carried handmade signs. Each fan had one thing in mind.
They wanted to thank Sue Bird for her years of playing for the Storm, for her advocacy and for, quite simply, just being her.
Bird wasn’t able to win a championship in her final season. Her legendary career ended at home after a 97-92 series-deciding loss to the Las Vegas Aces in the WNBA semifinals. While it wasn’t the desired result, the home crowd chanted “Thank you, Sue!” as she waved back, mouthing “Thank you” and wiping away tears.
The attachment to Bird in this city was personal for so many of these fans. She wasn’t some distant star.
Sarah Quinn was a big Seattle Sonics fan and grew up watching both the Storm and the Sonics, but the NBA team moved to Oklahoma City in 2008. Finding Bird helped her move on as a fan.
“Losing the Sonics so long ago and not having basketball here anymore, and it being such a sports city, she just kind of gave it that feel still,” Quinn said. “And I feel like it still is a basketball city even without having an NBA team, which is to me, that it's like this — look around — it's crazy.”
The Storm drafted Bird with the No. 1 overall pick in 2002 and won their first championship in 2004. The team’s attendance grew as Bird and the Storm won more WNBA titles in 2010, 2018 and 2020. This season, Seattle’s average attendance reached 10,651, the highest in the league.
Climate Pledge Arena sold out for Bird’s final regular-season game. And after she announced her retirement, teams around the league reportedly enjoyed a bump in ticket sales for Storm games as WNBA fans wanted to show their “appreciation” for the 13-time All-Star.
This was Bird’s 19th season in Seattle. The fact that she stayed and played her entire WNBA career here makes her stand out among the city’s sports legends. Mariners star Ken Griffey Jr. left town. Gary Payton couldn’t win a title with the Sonics, but he did in Miami. And now Russell Wilson is the quarterback in Denver.
It doesn’t matter how or why they’ve left. Seattle is used to seeing too many of their favorite players thrive in other cities.
“She cares about basketball. She's not out here to make money. She wants to play basketball,” Storm fan Jessi Brangard said. “She wants to play good basketball, and she wants to win.
“Who comes to a team and plays for 19 seasons? She is, I think, the greatest player in Seattle sports. She cares about Seattle. She cares about the team and not about anything else.”
“It's pretty significant that she stayed with the same team her entire career. I think that says something about her, and obviously Seattle,” said Lauren Powell, another Storm fan. “So it's pretty cool that she has basically been the general of this team for you two decades.”
Bird knew that getting to play in the same city her entire career was special.
“Just being able to share this experience with the same fan base, with a city, with a community, being a part of their lives and them being a part of mine. It's a really unique relationship,” Bird said. “With that, I feel such ownership for this franchise. I want it to continue to succeed. I want to help it do that because it gave me just all the support.
“I've been really lucky. I know a lot of people might say to you that they feel lucky that I stayed, but I feel really lucky that I got to have this.”
It’s not just about the basketball. In 2017, Bird came out as gay and comfirmed she was in a relationship with soccer superstar Megan Rapinoe. Her advocacy for LGBTQ people, and just being her authentic self, has meant so much to LGBTQ fans.
Sheryl Usman goes to Storm games with her 19-year-old daughter Serenity. They first started attending games when Serenity was just 7 years old. Sheryl identifies with the way Bird has continued to perform even as she aged. For Serenity, Bird coming out showed her that she can be comfortable doing the same thing.
“I've always been such a big Sue Bird fan since I was little and it just meant a lot,” Serenity said. “I wanted to play basketball because of Sue, and seeing her grow as a player, it just inspired me a lot. Especially when she came out and was with Megan, it meant a lot to me. As someone as part of the LGBTQIA+ community, I was like ‘Someone in basketball can do that.’”
The ending to their season wasn’t so storybook for Bird and her Storm teammates. After a memorable Game 3 — featuring Bird’s go-ahead 3-pointer in the final seconds of regulation — the Aces finished off the series in four games on Tuesday night to advance to the WNBA Finals.
Bird’s incredible career is over. But the mark she made on Seattle, and on her fans, won’t ever end.