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Sue Bird’s Impact Resonates Way Beyond Basketball

The WNBA legend talks about representation and life lessons.

Sue Bird is widely considered one of the greatest basketball players of all time, and while her 2022 WNBA season may be her last, her year has been filled with firsts. Tops on that list: her appearance in the 2022 SI Swimsuit Issue. While on set in St. Thomas, we sat down with the Seattle Storm guard to dig a little deeper into her experiences on and off the court.

Bird grew up active in Syosset, N.Y. The self-described tomboy played soccer, basketball, soccer and track at an early age. “I know my Mom lied to get me into certain camps when I was a kid,” Bird says. “She’s like, ‘Oh, she’s 10. It’s fine.’ And I was like 7. Once I could start joining teams, probably around second grade, I was on all those teams and that went all the way through high school.” Bird was just as passionate about soccer as she was basketball. In fact, if it weren’t for a transfer during her sophomore year of high school, she might rival her fiancee, Megan Rapinoe, on the pitch today. “I was really into soccer,” Bird explains. “It wasn’t until my sophomore year of high school, where I basically transferred schools and the school I was going to had an amazing basketball team and they didn’t have a soccer team, so no more soccer ... and so I knew that going in. But that was the moment where I decided, ‘All right, it’s basketball’ but it wasn't until then.”

Bird landed at Christ the King High in Queens for two years, where she ramped up her level of play and won the New York state championship her senior season. After considering offers from Stanford and Vanderbilt, she chose UConn and found a mentor in coach Geno Auriemma. “He would always say, ‘Basketball’s not a game of how to—it’s a game of when to.’ You learn this very quickly,” says Bird, who won two NCAA championships with the Huskies and was the 2002 Naismith national player of the year. “When you become a professional, everybody can pass. Everybody can shoot. Everybody can dribble. Everybody can do the things, but not everybody knows when to do those things. Like when to pass, when to dribble. And that subtle difference is what makes a player make the WNBA or not, literally. So I’ve always tried to live by that, but it really does apply to life.”

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Bird has translated that lesson into how she manages her own mental health. Instead of beating herself up when she makes mistakes, she has learned to choose when to be tougher on herself and when to be more self-compassionate. “I have really gone out of my way—because it’s not my strong suit—to just be nice to myself, to show myself some grace, be kind, whatever you wanna call it. And it’s really helped,” she says. “In sports, you might have encouragement, but you might not also be telling people how you’re feeling.”

Bird was photographed by Laretta Houston alongside fellow WNBA players Nneka Ogwumike, Te’a Cooper, DiDi Richards and Breanna Stewart. “Once the shoot was over, we all went to dinner,” says Bird. “We were kind of just chatting and somebody brought up how Laretta was one of the first Black women to shoot a cover, but also one of the first women.”

Representation for women has been central to Bird’s broader mission. So much so that when USWNT striker Alex Morgan approached her to help start a media and commerce production company with snowboarder Chloe Kim and swimmer Simone Manuel she jumped at the opportunity. “Women only get 4% of total [media] coverage,” explains Bird about the founding of TOGETHXR. “It became a ‘put your money where your mouth is’ moment [for all of us] because we complain about this… We want more coverage. The whole idea is sharing the spotlight. Giving the spotlight right to women. Women of sports, women of color, but it’s not just sports, it’s also lifestyle culture, because it’s all interconnected these days anyway.”

Bird adds, “We’re helping younger girls, giving them role models. We’re allowing them to see people they can look up to and, you know, see it and be it.”