What Sue Bird's former teammates remember about the UConn legend – CT Insider


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Former University of Connecticut womens basketball players, from left; Tamika Williams, Sue Bird, Swin Cash and Asjha Jones, pose at the WNBA Draft in Secaucus, N.J., in this April 19, 2002, photo. Bird keeps in touch daily by e-mail with her fellow first-round picks, who led the Huskies to an unbeaten national championship season last year and dominated the top six selections in the spring draft. (AP Photo/Bill Kostroun). HOUCHRON CAPTION (07/28/2002)(05/18/2003): Bird.
Sue Bird, UConn is all smiles during second half action at the Alamodome in San Antonio Friday March 29, 2002.
Connecticut’s 2002 NCAA Division I women’s basketball championship team and their coach watch a video Monday, April 1, 2002 at Storrs, Conn., of their 80-72 win over Oklahoma on Sunday, March 31. From left are: Diana Taurasi, Tamika Williams, Asjha Jones, Swin Cash, Sue Bird and head coach Geno Auriemma. The NCAA trophy and part of the net and the Sears Trophy sit in front of the platform. (AP Photo/Bob Child)
Sue Bird of Team Stewart handles the ball during the 2022 AT&T WNBA All-Star Game against Team Wilson at the Wintrust Arena on July 10 in Chicago.
FILE – Phoenix Mercury guard Diana Taurasi (3) talks with Seattle Storm guard Sue Bird (10) during the second half of a single-game WNBA basketball playoff matchup, Wednesday, Sept. 6, 2017, in Tempe, Ariz. Seattle’s Sue Bird and Mercury star Diana Taurasi share the court perhaps for the last time in a WNBA clash in Phoenix, Friday, July 22, 2022. (AP Photo/Matt York)
FILE – Connecticut’s Sue Bird (10) and Diana Taurasi (3) celebrate their 82-64 win over Penn State in the NCAA Mideast Regional semifinals in Milwaukee, Saturday, March 23, 2002. WNBA Seattle’s Sue Bird and WNBA Mercury star Diana Taurasi share the court perhaps for the last time in a WNBA clash in Phoenix, Friday, July 22, 2022. (AP Photo/Amy Sancetta, File)
The United States’ Sue Bird, right, and Diana Taurasi with their gold medals after the medal ceremony for the women’s basketball competition of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games at the Saitama Super Arena on Aug. 8, 2021, in Saitama, Japan. (Aris Messinis/AFP/Getty Images/TNS)
Connecticut guard Sue Bird screams after a team scoring run in the second half against Tennessee, Friday, March 29, 2002, during a semifinal game at the NCAA Women’s Final Four in San Antonio. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)
CORRECTS TO CELEBRATES LATE IN THE SECOND HALF, REMOVES WORD CLINCH–Connecticuts’ Asjha Jones, left, Diana Taurasi (3) and Sue Bird celebrate late in the second half against Oklahoma in UConn’s 82-70 win in the NCAA Women’s Final Four championship Sunday, March, 31, 2002, in San Antonio. (AP Photo/Donna McWilliam)
Connecticut’s Sue Bird (10) Shea Ralph, center, and Svetlana Abrosimova, back, cheer as center Christine Rigby hits a basket to break 100 during the final moments of the Connecticut-Oklahoma NCAA East Regional Womens semi-final basketball game at the Siegel Center in Richmond, Va., Saturday March 25, 2000. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)
CHICAGO, ILLINOIS – JULY 10: Sue Bird #10 of Team Stewart waves to the crowd after coming out of the 2022 AT&T WNBA All-Star Game in the fourth quarter at the Wintrust Arena on July 10, 2022 in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images)
In the fall of 1998, a 17-year-old small and speedy kid from Syosset, N.Y. arrived in Storrs.
She was quiet and private, yet would randomly blurt out absurd movie quotes and knew all the lyrics to any Biggie Smalls song.
That’s the first impression Sue Bird gave her UConn women’s basketball teammates back in the late 1990s. UConn was three years removed from winning its first national championship and the program carried high expectations.
Those expectations changed when Bird suffered an ACL tear eight games into her freshman year. The time spent away from basketball motivated the Huskies’ starting point guard to become something bigger than herself, to raise expectations that much higher.
Bird led UConn to national championships in 2000 and 2002. She was a two-time All-American, a Wade Trophy winner and both the AP and Naismith Player of the Year. In the spring of 2002, she became the program’s first No. 1 overall pick in the WNBA Draft, launching an historic 20-year career with the Seattle Storm.
Bird also owns the Olympic record of five gold medals in a single sport.
“There’s been a lot of greatness to come through Connecticut on the basketball court,” said Shea Ralph, Bird’s UConn teammate from 1998- 2001. “But I’m not sure that UConn would have been the same UConn without her. … I’m not saying that it wouldn’t have been great or really good, but Sue Bird’s impact had a rippling effect that still affects the players that go there now.”
That quiet kid from Long Island retires from basketball this fall.
Bird returns to Connecticut this week to play her final regular-season game in the state Thursday, when Seattlefaces the Connecticut Sun (7 p.m. / NBA TV) at Mohegan Sun Arena.
“Sue is such an anomaly and I mean that in every sense of the word, because she’s the same person who overcame an ACL tear in college and went on to be arguably the best point guard to ever play,” said Maria Conlon, Bird’s UConn teammate from 2000-2002. “I can’t believe it’s been 20 years. It’s kinda crazy because it’s never been done before.”
‘QUIET CONFIDENCE’
Bird’s freshman class at UConn included Tamika Williams (now Williams-Jeter), Asjha Jones, Swin Cash and Keirsten Walters. They called themselves the ‘Tassk Force,’ as Ralph (now Vanderbilt head coach) remembers. Each had a purpose on the Huskies’ roster, yet everyone recognized that Bird’s was different from the rest.
“When I look back on knowing her when she was right out of high school, she always had a quiet confidence,” Ralph said. “I mean we all had some growing up to do, but it was different for Sue. The level that she played at, the level that she operated at off the court, it was just different. You knew she was special.”
While Williams, Cash and Jones immediately made their presence known, it took a little longer for Bird to come out of her shell with her teammates. She showed her personality on the court, but she was quiet and reserved off court.
“Sue, believe it or not, was an introvert,” said Tamika Williams-Jeter, now Dayton’s head coach. “She had this mid-range pull-up that she could get to that I had never seen in girls basketball at that time, nobody had that. But she was not a big talker.”
“She had to really work to just have a voice and then you got these uber-league, alpha dogs in me, Asjha, and Swin and just talk all the time, Or Asjha doesn’t talk, but you’re scared of her because she’ll give you the stare down. … (Sue) really had to find her way in that. But Sue is one of those people that people say, ‘Once you get to know them, you get the best of them.’ ”
Her teammates remember being shocked in those moments when Bird showed a new side to herself.
On team road trips or in the locker room before games, she would randomly start freestyle rapping — sometimes to the latest hip-hop songs or making up bars as she went.
“She knew every word to Biggie Smalls,” Williams-Jeter said. “We were like, ‘Who is this kid from Syosset, New York that knows every word of Biggie Smalls?’ ”
Said Ralph, “She was a really impressive freestyle rapper. She would make them up to certain beats. I mean for her quiet confidence, when she would do that, it was like, ‘What in the world? Is there anything she can’t do?’ ”
Slowly but surely, Bird did get more comfortable with the team and it wasn’t long before she was forming lifelong friendships.
Bird, Conlon, and Ashley Battle bonded over their love for movies. They’d have full conversations in quotes from their favorite films and challenge each other to movie trivia on AIM Instant messaging boards. “Sue has a memory like an elephant,” Battle said.
Conlon and Bird shared a passion for music and spent countless hours burning playlists on CDs with Napster. Conlon, now the head coach at Greens Farms Academy, says she still has about 20 mixed CDs she and Bird created in college.
“Sue was the one that always had the best playlist,” Conlon said. “She knew all the new stuff.”
Bird and Williams-Jeter, along with the majority of the team, Ralph said, would gang up and pull light-hearted pranks on Cash. They took her stuffed animals hostage on bus rides and sent her Polaroid-picture ransom notes or danced along to her pregame gospel music. And they always found time to sneak into Cash’s dorm since she was the only one with cable TV.
The group enjoyed being in Storrs and attended other UConn sporting events throughout the year. Whenever associate head coach Chris Dailey invited them out to a nicer event, they wore their matching “Boots and Jeans” outfits which featured Spice Girls platform boots from Payless and dress-up jeans from Old Navy.
Another side of Bird’s off-court evolution was her dedication to fitness. And that was sparked by the ACL injury she incurred during practice in December 1998, eight games into her freshman year.
“Sue was just super skinny, super weak at the time, scraggly, like fast, could drop a dime, high basketball IQ, didn’t shoot the 3-ball that great, and tears her ACL,” Williams-Jeter said. “So, there’s two ways she can go. She can return as a scraggly kid from Syosset or she can return a beast.”
Bird spent the remainder of the season recovering and going through rehab. But something clicked during the time away from the court. She became dedicated to getting stronger, bigger and better. She spent six days a week in the gym, working out and lifting.
“I remember there were times late in the season that she would walk in a room and I’d be like, ‘Oh my God,’ ” Williams-Jeter said. “I mean she had muscles coming out of her neck.”
Bird averaged 10.9 points, 4.3 assists, 1.8 steals and 2.5 rebounds in 28 minutes per game as a sophomore. With her back as its starting point guard, UConn won its second championship in 2000.
“She had a certain gratitude about the game, right? Because it had been taken away from her and she came back a monster,” Williams-Jeter said. “That was the difference. I don’t know what she would say, but I don’t know if she would be the player she was without tearing (her ACL). I don’t know because she might have turned back to this quiet kid, but she came back a different person.”
‘NATURAL LEADER’
Bird’s role as a team leader solidified her junior and senior seasons.
She hosted Conlon on her official visit to Storrs and showed prospective Huskies what it looked like to be great.
“I just remember thinking, I was so blown away by how down to earth she was and nice and welcoming,” Conlon said. “I could tell that going there she would definitely be someone that could hopefully be a mentor, obviously a friend, but just an overall great human being.”
Not only did the team gain Conlon, Battle and Morgan Valley in 2000, but future Husky great Diana Taurasi was also a part of that freshmen class. Taurasi and Bird became close friends, sharing a bond that still exists.
Bird led by example. She carried herself with humility and had a court vision unlike anyone else at the time.
“Sue was always a natural leader,” Conlon said. “She was always the one that was always level-headed. She always did the right things. She was always at the right places, both on the court and off the court.”
In her senior year, she led UConn to its third championship and second undefeated season (39-0). She led the team that season in assists (231), steals (96), assist-turnover ratio (2.48), 3-point field goal percentage (46.6 %) and free throw percentage (94.2 %).
Bird won the 2002 Wade Trophy, given annually to the best player in NCAA women’s basketball, and was named both the AP and Naismith Player of the Year.
“When you play a team with Sue on it, it is going to be the most well-prepared team,” Taurasi said on July 22 following her last WNBA regular-season meeting with Bird in Phoenix. “It will be the team that knows the other team the best and is going to put her teammates in the best position to win every single night.
“It is hard to go against a person like that. She is doing everything to win the game. There are a lot of players who play the game for points and rebounds, but Sue plays to win. I think that is a lesson for a lot of people to learn. The game doesn’t matter unless you are playing to win and that is what Sue has always done and she taught me that.”
Less than a month after leading UConn to the title, Bird became the program’s first No. 1 overall pick in the WNBA draft.
She’s spent the past 20 years bringing the same level of excellence from UConn to the Storm. Seattle has won four WNBA championships. She holds the league record in career assists (3,181) and games played and started (572).
On June 16, Bird announced her plan to officially retire following the 2022 season. The day was inevitable and left her former teammates feeling both happy and nostalgic.
“It’s going to be weird to have basketball without Sue Bird,” Conlon said. “I mean she’s going to be a part of basketball forever regardless in some capacity.”
“I have happiness for her and selfish sadness for all of us,” Ralph said with a laugh. “She deserves it. I can’t even believe she’s still playing. I can’t even make it up a flight of stairs, but Sue Bird is playing and winning gold medals, her fifth one, and it’s amazing. It’s truly amazing watching her compete still at the level she competes at.
“But I’m sure she’s tired. I’m sure her body is worn out and so I’m happy for her that she feels like she’s ready to move on to the next phase of her life, but I’m really sad that I won’t get to see her play basketball anymore.”
Bird has eight regular-season games left, including Thursday. The Storm will have to wait until August to learn its playoff path as Seattle hunts for a WNBA-record fifth title.
“It’ll be an end of an era on the court, but it’ll be the beginning of an era off the court,” Taurasi said on July 21.
Thursday night at Mohegan Sun will likely close the chapter of Bird’s basketball presence in Connecticut. Her impact on the state — and basketball in general — will endure.
“Sue has grown into the best version, I think, of what Sue always could be,” Ralph said. “All the things that she is now, you saw those when she was younger. I think her life took a path where now all those things can be at the forefront and she can be really, really good at all of them and that’s just maturity, growth and a lifetime of doing things the right way.”
maggie.vanoni@hearstmediact.com
Maggie is a general assignment sports reporter for Hearst CT Media who focuses on highlighting the humanity within athletics with every feature. She comes to Connecticut after growing up and working all along the West Coast, including stops at The Seattle Times and The Orange County Register. Outside of writing, she enjoys spontaneous adventures, reading, hiking and visiting her family back home in Portland, Oregon.

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