By CHRISTOPHER BYRNE
Her basketball career is nothing short of trailblazing. Sue Bird was the consummate player who spent her entire WNBA, professional career with the Seattle Storm. She’s racked up an incredible list of firsts, records, championships, and even four Olympic gold medals. She’s been a star almost since she first took to the court. She’s also one of the first WNBA stars to have a 20-year professional career and has been a teammate, leader, and role-model for the game and those women who play, whether professionally or at the college level. She’s also, according to everyone who has played with her, one of the nicest people who’s ever hit the boards, though a fierce competitor. Even her opponents have been in awe of being on the court when she plays. Certainly, that easy charisma and joyful outlook was evident when she spoke with CT Voice.
And for all her global success, there are many in Connecticut who still claim Bird as their own. She had an outstanding career at UCONN where as a player she led the Huskies to many wins and records, and though it’s more than two decades since she left Storrs, her memory lives on—as well as the doors she’s opened for other women in the sport.
Bird returned to Connecticut in May where she joined coach Genno Auriemma and another former UCONN player Morgan Tuck on a panel at The Connecticut Forum in Hartford to talk about their history at UCONN and, equally importantly, life after competitive play.
For Bird, she’s been able to follow a path to being more authentic and being able to live openly as a lesbian, but it wasn’t always a, you should pardon the expression, straight path.
“The way things played out as a professional basketball player, you’re in the news…on TV. There are a lot of wonderful things that come with that. I entered UCONN in 1988. I graduated in 2002, and I remember upon graduating, I was starting to choose an agent. And the vibe back then was, ‘Oh, they don’t want to know if you’re gay.’ Or, if you’re gay, you don’t want to show that because it might impact your off-court opportunities.
“So, that immediately kept me in the closet. I was scared, and there was a lot of fear out there. What’s interesting is that entering the WNBA, it was a very welcoming place. In the locker room, I felt very comfortable to be myself.
“I would say that from around 2003 until I came out publicly in 2017, I was basically out in every facet of my life—friends, family, coaches, colleagues. Everyone at the Storm knew. And it wasn’t until I said [that I was gay] publicly that I realized the burden I had been carrying by not, you know, kind of just being myself out in the open. It was just a wonderful experience for me to come out that way.
“That’s my experience. Everybody has to come to it in their own way, in their own time. I was 23 when I told my parents, and yet I was 37 when I told the world. It’s not that I was struggling; I just didn’t realize that that authenticity piece was so important.
“I think everyone who has ever come out can relate to the idea of what happened in 2017 for me. I had to stop doing all the little come outs.” Bird describes the awkward moments when she would meet someone to whom she wasn’t out and had to go through the process again and again. When she finally came out publicly, she felt the burden was lifted.
Bird is encouraged by the ability of more athletes to come out and believes that it bodes well for professional athletes of all genders in the future. Still, she’s conscious of—and grateful for—the people who have gone before, which eased her process. Bird is engaged to soccer star Megan Rappinoe, whom she met in 2017. (Publicity around that relationship is one of the reasons Bird came out publicly.) They got engaged in 2020 but are planning to set a wedding date after the World Cup in August of this year. As Bird says, she and Megan have had “ups and downs” in their relationship, but they know their situation isn’t unique and that they are traveling “roads that have been paved well before me and Megan.
“There are people who came out like Billy Jean King. You could throw out tons of names—such as Martina Navratilova—where it was extremely difficult. It was so much easier [for me] because of them.
“And you just hope because of people like myself and Megan and other athletes, other public figures who have come out in the last 20 years or so will make it easier for the next generation and so on and so forth.” In particular, Bird was referring to Raiders defensive end Carl Nassib who came out in 2021. Nassib announced he was gay in an Instagram post where he said that he had “agonized over this moment for the last 15 years.
Helping others to avoid that “agonizing” is important to Bird, and she points to women’s basketball as playing a key role in helping people to feel free enough to live authentically. “Women’s basketball has always been ahead of society, and I feel like society finally caught with us in terms of the things we’ve stood for, the demographics we represent, especially the communities that are marginalized.” She notes that this is endemic of a larger cultural awareness and shift—one that more sponsors want to be part of and that they want to support and amplify in the culture at large.
Bird hopes to inspire others to be able to live authentically. “I can’t emphasize that enough.” She hopes to encourage young athletes to be able to live their truths on and off the court. She adds that in a world of social media, “it’s easy to compare yourself and feel bad about it. But the message I always like to deliver is, there’s only you; one of one; there’s only one of you, and you need to bring that. And even though [you’re] different, that doesn’t make it better or worse.
“I always speak from an athlete’s standpoint,” she adds, noting that one of the most important things she can do is showing up for the game…and realize her own gifts. “I can’t do what Bre Stewart can do, that’s just not gonna’ happen. I just can’t do what she can do. She’s amazing. But if I don’t bring my part, we’re not winning championships, and there’s equal value in that. So, I just try to remind people of that. I think when you are yourself, and you are authentically yourself—the good, the bad, the ugly, the pretty; there’s beauty in that. There’s beauty in living that way, and I just really encourage people to do that.”
Living authentically extends to the transgender community as well, which Bird supports. “I am a hundred percent for trans athletes being able to compete. I think, sadly, this is a community being used politically for other reasons. I think it’s disgusting.
“I think that the idea of policing young people’s bodies is awful. The reality to me is: what are we really talking about? Especially in youth sports, we are talking about someone being able to live their life authentically, and you’re worried about them winning a championship when the odds they won’t even go professional. Are you going to take away this experience for young people’s lives?
“I can tell you firsthand—forget being in professional sports—as a young person [playing sports] did everything for me. You learn so much in sports. And so, the idea of taking that away just because someone’s trying to live their life authentically. It’s just really sad.”
Moving ahead, Bird is not resting on her laurels. There may be coaching or other involvement in the game in her future, and she has just founded a media company called Togethxr, which she created with soccer great Alex Morgan. Their goal is to tell stories about women in sports that don’t typically get coverage in mainstream media. “Hopefully they’ll become mainstream. It’s about covering women athletes, people of color, marginalized groups, stories that don’t get the time or exposure they deserve.”
It’s a fitting next step in a career that’s been all about team building, creating community, and living with one’s truth and integrity.