SEATTLE — No one mentioned it publicly during the five-month run up to the WNBA Finals because they knew Sue Bird wouldn’t approve.
She wanted to win a title for them so they could experience what she felt in 2004 and 2010 following championship runs.
But they wanted to do it for her — their 37-year-old leader who is the heart and soul of the franchise.
“Oh yeah, this is for Sue,” league and Finals MVP Breanna Stewart said, drenched with celebratory champagne inside the visiting locker room at EagleBank Arena. “This is all about Sue. Her leadership and what she means to this team — and not just this team but this league and women’s basketball in general.
“I know I didn’t want her career to end without getting back here. Not that she’s going anywhere, but personally I was motivated to get her another championship.”
Winning and alcohol creates potent truth serum where confessions and secrets are revealed.
One by one, Storm players paid tribute and gave testimonials to their living legend Bird, thanking her for being an inspiration to accomplish their greatest achievement.
“I can’t speak for everybody in here, but certainly I wanted to win for Sue every single day,” backup guard Sami Whitcomb said. “Like many of the girls on this team, I grew up idolizing Sue Bird and playing with her is still a little bit surreal. … You see the work she puts in and she sets a great example. She motivates me and in return, you want to give her something too. And all you can really give her is your best at practice and (in games).”
It’s a good thing the Storm players never let on about the win-it-for-Sue talk.
“Oh I would have put a stop to that (crap) real quick,” Bird said laughing. “Look, this isn’t about me. It never has been. It’s about this team growing throughout the year and doing the little things every day to keep getting better.
“We said it all year, you can’t get too high or too low. Focus on the next game. And we did that. … But hey, on the other hand if winning a title for me gets you to perform your best, I can live with that. Just don’t tell me about it.”
In truth, it was never really much of a secret.
This team ebbs and flows with every no-look pass and clutch three-pointer from the 17-year veteran who left an indelible fingerprint on these playoffs.
It was Bird who scored the go-ahead basket in an overtime win to beat Phoenix in Game 2 of the semifinals.
Bird returned from a broken nose suffered 48 hours earlier for masked heroics, in which she took over in the clutch while scoring 14 of her 22 points in the fourth quarter of a decisive Game 5 win in the semis.
In Game 2 of the Finals, Bird sank an improbable 35-foot 3-pointer to beat the buzzer in the fourth and provide an emotional lift during a 75-73 victory.
And Wednesday, Bird tallied 10 assists, her career high for the Finals, while scoring 10 points, including a pair of dagger three-pointers in the fourth quarter. It was her first double-double performance in the championship round.
“When you talk about being a coach on the floor, she’s it,” said first-year Storm coach Dan Hughes who admits to sharing authority in the locker room and during timeouts with Bird. “She’s exactly what you want in a point guard and a leader. She gets it.
“Not only does Sue understands the things we need to do on the court to be successful, she’s knowledgeable about what it takes off the court to be at your best like diet, taking care of yourself and making sure you get proper rest. … Sometimes when players hear those messages from a peer, it resonates a little bit more than when it comes from a coach.”
Of course this 2018 title was about Bird, more so than the other championships.
In 2004, she partnered with Lauren Jackson and Finals MVP Betty Lennox for an unexpected Finals win. And in 2010, Bird piloted a dominant team of veterans including league and Finals MVP Jackson, Swin Cash and Camille Little to another title.
But they’re gone now and only Bird remains.
She’s overcome a knee injury that forced her to sit out the 2013 season and survived a four-year roster reconstruction that resulted in two years of missing the postseason followed by a pair of first-round playoff exits.
Now Bird is a champion once again on a young team seemingly at the start of a dynasty. (Aside from her, the average age of the Storm’s starting lineup is 26.5.)
She’s paired with Stewart, All-Star guard Jewell Loyd, two-time champion Natasha Howard, defensive ace Alysha Clark and a supporting cast that includes Whitcomb and rookie Jordin Canada, Bird’s heir apparent.
“They’re the defending champs now, they’re young, they’re really talented, they’re smart, and they know how to play with each other,” Washington coach Mike Thybault said. “Teams are going to have to figure out some ways to match up and have as much fire power as they do because even on the nights that you play pretty good defense, they still — they just have so many weapons to put the ball in the basket.”
For years, Bird has sidestepped talk about when she’ll put an end to a Hall-of-Fame bound career that includes two NCAA titles at Connecticut, four Olympic gold medals, three FIBA world championships and four EuroLeague championships.
She turns 38 next month after one of her best years in which she averaged 10.1 points and 7.1 assists, a career high and second best in the WNBA, while playing the fewest minutes (26.6) of her career.
Bird is redefining what it means to grow old in the WNBA and said “40 is the new 30.”
Taj McWilliams-Franklin played until she was 42. Delisha Milton-Jones walked away at 42 and Tully Bevilaqua, Bird’s former teammate, retired at 40.
A year ago before the All-Star break, Bird gleefully pondered a scenario in which she would walk away if she ever won another title and go out on top like John Elway following a Super Bowl win at 38.
“I’m not even thinking about retiring,” she said Wednesday.
Does that mean Bird is returning for a 17th season?
“It means I’m still under contract,” she said smiling.