Whenever Seattle guard Sue Bird has done something great in her WNBA career – a not infrequent occurrence, of course – I’m reminded of a certain image of her. And the weird thing is, it’s an image I didn’t actually even see.
Sunday afternoon, on what was not a very good shooting day for her, Bird still made the big shot. How big was her 3-pointer with 2.8 seconds left? I’d say it went a long way toward Seattle securing the franchise’s second WNBA title. It was very, very big.
By giving the Storm a 91-88 victory over Phoenix and ending the Western Conference finals series at 2-0, Bird did herself and her teammates a huge favor. No overtime to further drain them. No loss to force a Game 3. No anxious trip back to Seattle. No listening to the Mercury keep insisting – probably successfully – that all the pressure was on the Storm.
No more days preparing to face Phoenix for what would have been the eighth (eighth!) time this season. No nerves while wondering if at last the home-court advantage wouldn’t hold up this season, and at the worst possible time. No having to battle through another 40 minutes (or more) just to make it into the WNBA Finals.
Bird prevented all of that, meaning the Storm can now get some rest. They can work on specific things in practices. They can watch to see if the Atlanta Dream and New York Liberty will wear themselves out in a three-game Eastern Conference series that, if it goes that far, won’t conclude until Thursday night in New York. After which the winner must to fly across the country to Seattle.
The Storm now has a week for Brian Agler, the league’s coach of the year, and his staff of former head coaches, Nancy Darsch and Jenny Boucek, to meticulously game-plan for either the Dream or the Liberty. The marketing department has a week to work on what should be an easy sell: filling Key Arena for games there Sunday and the following Tuesday. The community has something all but the most sexist grumps will celebrate, and there’s time for everyone who still wants to jump on the bandwagon to do so. It’s not too late to get an abbreviated but still powerful case of Storm fever.
Seattle had to do a whole lot right in the last 15 or so minutes of Sunday’s game to get this win. The Storm had to keep their heads when it seemed like they’d finally dug too deep a hole even for this rally-experienced group to climb out of. They had to chip away with patience but persistence. They had to tell themselves to defend the way they’ve been doing most of the season. They had to execute the plays Agler was asking for, and not get panicked as the time begin to dwindle.
Finally, they had to make a big, clutch shot at the end by running a play with a couple of viable options, meaning Phoenix really couldn’t prevent a good look. Who’s better at all those things than Bird?
The Storm might have been able to win in overtime Sunday; after all, they’d done that twice against the Mercury this season. But it was so much preferable to Seattle to close up shop in regulation.
Bird did that with her eighth 3-pointer of the playoffs and 67th of this season. There were still a couple of seconds of defense to be played, and considering some of the shots Phoenix’s Diana Taurasi made Sunday, the Storm wasn’t just running out the clock. They had to focus and make one more stop, and they did. Bird finished with 16 points, eight assists and five rebounds.
It’s hard _ very hard _ for a point guard to earn season MVP honors. No true point guard has done it in the WNBA. So maybe that’s a trophy Bird won’t ever get. But ultimately, it won’t matter that much. Fans will still think of her in MVP terms.
Oh, and that image I’m reminded of with Bird? The one I didn’t actually see? Of course, it was from 2002 San Antonio. Where else?
This was back when the semifinals were still Friday night and the championship game was Sunday. UConn had so dominated Tennessee in the semis that the final against championship-game first-timer Oklahoma was considered by many a formality. But the Huskies never thought like that during that season (or any season). That’s not how you attain a perfect record.
You must prepare thoroughly for every foe, and UConn did. That sense of preparation – knowing it had been there all season long and would be there until the end _ had to give the Huskies peace of mind.
And so Saturday night at the Final Four media hotel in 2002, with the final game of Bird’s college career less than 24 hours away, I ran into my friend Vic Dorr, reporter for the Richmond Times-Dispatch. Vic is a very gracious gentleman but also quite a funny guy, with a particularly droll delivery.
“You know what I just saw?” Vic said with a wry smile of admiration. “Sue Bird strolling along the Riverwalk, eating an enormous ice cream cone, looking like she didn’t have a care in the world.”
“UConn wins by 30 tomorrow.”
I think part of the reason Vic was impressed by this sight was that he and I had covered a few teams that generally had not approached big NCAA tournament games with much confidence. To the contrary, some had been so plagued by nerves that we would have more expected to see them throwing up their dessert – if they’d been able to eat it in the first place.
As it turned out, the Huskies won by “only” 12, and it was more of a battle than most predicted. Credit Oklahoma. But UConn finished perfect, and then later Bird was picked No. 1 in the WNBA draft.
And so the image of serenity that Vic presented of Bird has just stayed stuck in my mind all these years. In fact, I could probably convince myself I did see it. And I bet you can just picture it, too: Bird with her ice cream on the Riverwalk, never melting, always the cool customer.