Saluting Sue Bird, Sylvia Fowles ahead of WNBA jersey retirements
More than nine months have passed since Sue Bird and Sylvia Fowles played their final WNBA games. The legends retired after the 2022 season, Bird on Sept. 6 when her Seattle Storm were eliminated at home in the WNBA semifinals, and Fowles on Aug. 14 when her Minnesota Lynx lost their regular-season finale, which eliminated them from playoff contention.
On Sunday, the Storm and Lynx will retire Bird’s and Fowles’ jerseys in separate ceremonies.
Fowles played 15 seasons in the WNBA after being drafted second overall in 2008. The league’s all-time leading rebounder and the only player with more than 4,000 boards, Fowles also holds the WNBA record for career double-doubles (193). She was the 2017 WNBA MVP, helped lead Minnesota to the 2015 and 2017 league titles and was named the WNBA Finals MVP during both championship runs.
Bird, the No. 1 overall pick in 2002, played 19 WNBA seasons — all in Seattle — and retired as the league’s career leader in assists (3,234) and games (580). She helped guide the Storm to four titles and was chosen an All-Star a record 13 times.
But their impact extends far beyond statistics. Heading into Sunday’s celebrations, ESPN’s Kevin Pelton, Alexa Philippou and M.A. Voepel examine each players’ legacy and share how Bird and Fowles impacted the game and, in some cases, their own careers.
‘The Sue Bird Effect’
How do you sum up Bird’s 21 years in Seattle in a few hundred words? You can’t, which is why I needed several thousand about her not-as-direct-as-it-looked path from No. 1 pick in the 2002 draft for a fledgling team to an emotional sellout crowd after a Storm loss to the Las Vegas Aces in Bird’s final regular-season home game.
So instead let’s talk about the Sue Bird Effect. I’m part of it. You might be too. As luck would have it, my first WNBA game was Bird’s debut in 2002 against the New York Liberty. That was a coincidence. That I’m still covering the league two-plus decades later is not.
Bird drew me in, like so many Seattle fans over that span. The opener, a home loss just like Bird’s final game, was forgettable. Game two at home, a 78-68 win over the Lynx, was anything but. Bird scored eight of her 27 points in OT as the Storm came back to win — and I was hooked.
It took a little longer for the rest of Seattle to catch on to what was happening at KeyArena. During the middle of Bird’s rookie season, the Storm actually offered refunds to dissatisfied fans in an effort to get more in the stands.
By season’s end, when Seattle beat the rival Portland Fire (behind 33 points from Bird) to help clinch a first playoff trip, the Key had begun to fill. And by the time the Storm sent out KeyArena with a championship before their first season at Climate Pledge Arena aligned with Bird’s last, the team had the league’s largest base of season tickets.
Of course, Bird wasn’t the only reason Seattle has become a flagship market for the WNBA. The Storm also boasted Hall of Famers Swin Cash and Lauren Jackson, with Jewell Loyd and Breanna Stewart sure to join them, helping produce four titles in Bird’s career. And the investment of a local ownership group of former season-ticket holders has given Seattle stability off the court.
Still, across the comings and goings, Bird was the constant for nearly all of Storm franchise history.
Longtime CEO Karen Bryant, who was with the franchise from its inception through 2013, summed it up well: “You can’t talk about the success of the Storm and not start with No. 10.” — Pelton
From 2000 to 2004, Bird won two NCAA championships, gold medals in the Olympics and FIBA World Cup and a WNBA title. It was whirlwind of winning, and even someone as pragmatic and levelheaded as Bird couldn’t help but think it would just keep on.
But it would be six more years before her Storm won another WNBA title, and that night in Atlanta is a favorite Sue Bird moment. Because I haven’t seen Bird look any more joyful on the basketball court than when she jumped into Lauren Jackson’s arms in celebration on Sept. 16, 2010.
Of course, she won at other levels between 2004 and 2010: another Olympic gold in 2008 and four EuroLeague titles playing in Russia. But that time period also included her only USA Basketball loss, in the semifinals of the 2006 FIBA World Cup.
And the Storm lost in the opening round of the WNBA playoffs those five years in a row. Entering 2010, Bird was feeling the frustration of that. But the Storm were set for a magical season.
Seattle went 28-6 in the regular season — the franchise’s best winning percentage — and Jackson won her third WNBA MVP honor. In the playoffs, nothing was going to stop the Storm: They swept the Los Angeles Sparks, Phoenix Mercury and Atlanta Dream.
Bird, who had averaged 11.1 points and 5.8 assists in the regular season, bumped the stats to 12.1 and 7.7 in the playoffs.
“I can take you play-by-play of every playoff loss of the last five years,” Bird said in a triumphant Storm locker room after Game 3 of the Finals at Philips Arena. “It really was annoying. I had to constantly talk about it and hear about it, and it was irritating. To finally be able to put that aside is a relief.
“I judge myself as a player based on winning. And to not win in five years, really, really hurt. It’s been a long time since 2004. To get back to win a title, to go undefeated in the playoffs … I couldn’t be happier.”
It’s funny now to think that Bird was staring at her 30th birthday that night in 2010 — it was a month away — and feeling she had gotten something crucial to her career legacy with a second WNBA title while she was still in her 20s.
She didn’t know then that she would win two more WNBA titles and play until just before her 42nd birthday. As much perspective as she had in 2010, she had even more in 2022 when she said goodbye to her playing career — and hello to being a basketball legend forever. — Voepel
Having previously covered the Seattle Storm and UConn Huskies, it was impossible to miss the complete veneration those fan bases had (and still have) for Sue Bird. People in Connecticut joke that Huskies coach Geno Auriemma is more well-known than the state’s governor. No doubt, even two decades after she suited up for the Huskies, the same is true for Bird.
But in recent years, Bird had emerged not just as a legend beloved in Seattle and Connecticut and by WNBA fans, but as an icon who transcends the basketball world entirely.
In the final seasons of her career, Bird seemed to thrive most when she talked about off-court matters. She’s been thrown countless questions over Zoom, on the sidelines and in news conferences about everything from the WNBA’s evolution to abortion rights to, as she once was willing to discuss with me an hour before a game, the different standards of superstardom for white and Black women’s basketball players.
Despite growing up self-admittedly shy, Bird ended her career as one of the W’s outspoken figures, eager to push the needle forward within the league and society. The more she expressed her authentic self, the more she seemed to attract the admiration of people beyond her teams’ or the sport’s diehard fans.
Bird’s basketball career is over, but as she said in her retirement news conference last June, “41 is actually young.” And she’s left the impression that her next act — whether in basketball, media or another realm entirely — will be similarly special. — Philippou
Something ‘awfully special’ about Sweet Syl
Fowles was always a powerful presence on court. But at the start of the 2015 WNBA season, Fowles made a statement with her absence.
After seven seasons with the Chicago Sky, who drafted her No. 2 in 2008, Fowles wanted to move on, specifically to the Minnesota Lynx. And she was willing to sit out the season if she had to.
It’s far from Fowles’ genuinely gentle personality to be confrontational off court, but she felt she had no choice. In 2014, she had helped the Sky reach the WNBA Finals, where they were swept by the Phoenix Mercury.
She was 29 years old going into the 2015 season. She had played in the Final Four all four years with the LSU Tigers, losing in the semifinals each time. She didn’t want her WNBA career to have a similar “close-but-not-quite” legacy. She wanted a WNBA championship and thought moving to the Lynx was the best way to get one.
On July 4, Fowles thought a deal would be struck, but it fell through.
“At that point, I pretty much just gave up all hope and said I wasn’t going to play this summer,” Fowles said.
But on July 27, 2015, the Sky dealt Fowles to Minnesota in a three-team trade also involving Atlanta. She played her first game for the Lynx two days later, getting 11 points and five rebounds.
Former LSU teammate Seimone Augustus, also been denied a title in college, knew how Fowles felt. Augustus was a key part of Minnesota’s championship teams in 2011 and 2013 and didn’t just want another title for herself in 2015. She wanted it for Fowles.
All of which brings us to my favorite Fowles moment: Game 5 of the 2015 WNBA Finals. Fowles had turned 30 the day of the second game, Oct. 6, when she had 21 points and nine rebounds as Minnesota tied the series. The Lynx took a 2-1 lead when Maya Moore’s buzzer-beating 3-pointer delivered a 80-77 Game 3 win.
But in Game 4 in Indiana, Fowles had been in foul trouble. She played 17 minutes and took two shots, finishing with five points and five rebounds in Minnesota’s 75-69 loss to the Indiana Fever.
You could see the determination on Fowles’ face before the deciding Game 5 at Target Center in Minneapolis. She hadn’t come all this way to see her quest fall short again. The Fever were wary of Fowles being on fire, but they couldn’t stop her. She had 20 points on 7-of-11 shooting and 11 rebounds in 37 minutes, the most court time of any Lynx player that night.
In front of a franchise-record crowd of 18,933 that included Minnesota’s own musical icon Prince — who then invited the team to his Paisley Park compound to celebrate after the game — Fowles led her team to a 69-52 win and got her long-awaited WNBA title.
Fowles was Finals MVP (she would be again in 2017). Fowles, known for her smile, was beaming afterward. That night, in the biggest game of her WNBA career, she had come through big-time. — Voepel
Covering Fowles’ final WNBA season served as a constant reminder of the impact she’s left not just on the game of basketball, but most importantly on those around her.
Her iconic dunk at the 2022 All-Star Game sent both teams, as well as the Chicago crowd, into a hyped frenzy. The reaction was fitting given that’s where Fowles began her legendary career and made abundantly clear her stature and good spirit were not lost on any at Wintrust Arena. Lynx teammate Napheesa Collier sped up her return from pregnancy/childbirth so that she could take the court one last time with Fowles. And the always humble Fowles, wanting Collier to focus on her health and the baby’s, tried to talk her out of it. Speaking with Collier’s mother, Sarah, for a story on Napheesa’s return, Sarah held back tears when describing how much “Mama Syl” meant to Napheesa and their family.
At Fowles’ final game — versus the Connecticut Sun at Mohegan Sun Arena — the Mohegan tribe gifted her goodies for her upcoming retirement, while Sun players approached her both before and after the game to pay their respects. The Uncasville crowd gave her a prolonged standing ovation as she exited the court for the final time and embraced each person on the Lynx bench.
Some of Fowles’ primary emotions after the game — which the Lynx needed to win to stay in contention for a playoff spot — were annoyance and frustration … with herself. Generally one to prioritize others, Fowles felt like she did her team “a disservice” by not playing her best (she still finished with a double-double, her league-leading 193rd). The Lynx fell 90-83, missing the playoffs for the first time since 2010 and capping a tumultuous season in which Fowles was sidelined multiple weeks with a knee injury.
Beyond the disappointment over that being the way a legend like Fowles went out, there was still some beauty to it. Choking back tears, Lynx coach Cheryl Reeve said it best.
“Syl’s awfully special, through it all,” Reeve said. “I might have been really resentful if I were Sylvia Fowles. Through most of the season I might have been really pissy as a person. Syl found a way. She’s just got a hell of a lot more love in her body than most of us.” — Philippou
It’s amusing that Fowles retired just before the beginning of the WNBA’s “superteam” era because one can argue that Fowles being traded to the Minnesota Lynx created the league’s first superteam.
Quickly, a definition: Like a “super group” in music, a superteam has to bring together the best players from multiple teams in the same lineup. That’s why the Houston Comets and Los Angeles Sparks, the league’s first two dynasties, don’t qualify. Those players grew into stars together rather than joining up in pursuit of a title.
The Lynx were already on their way to a dynasty when Fowles arrived midway through the 2015 season, having requested a trade from the Sky after playing her first seven seasons in Chicago. Adding Fowles to upgrade what had been Minnesota’s biggest weakness at center took the Lynx to a new level.
Their 28-6 record in 2016, Fowles’ first season, was the best in franchise history. A year later, Minnesota became the first team to outscore opponents by double-digits since the 2000 Comets, earning Fowles MVP honors despite playing alongside another MVP in Maya Moore.
The other funny thing is that Fowles, the last player to join the Lynx’s star-studded starting five, outlasted them all (Moore didn’t announce her WNBA retirement until after Fowles’ last summer). Fowles spent the three seasons after Seimone Augustus’ departure for the Los Angeles Sparks as Minnesota’s last link to the dynasty — a decidedly un-super team move.
Perhaps that’s why the label never hung on the Lynx, who had added their other outside stars (Rebekkah Brunson and Lindsay Whalen) back when they were in the lottery and grown into contenders with the addition of Moore through the draft. With Fowles, the team aspect always seemed to come before being super. — Pelton
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