Growing up in Croatia, Nika Mühl didn’t follow UConn women’s basketball, or really any American sports for that matter. She was more in tune with European hoops. But as soon as she committed to the Huskies in her junior season of high school, Mühl made a point to catch herself up on the program’s history.
“Every game,” Mühl said, “I had to watch it.”
Mühl became a huge fan of Sue Bird in the process, finding herself enamored with the point guard’s style of play in the same way people across the state of Connecticut were during her storied career with the program from 1998-2002. In the years since then, Mühl has developed an even greater appreciation for Bird’s wide-ranging impact on women’s basketball and beyond.
“She’s such a great inspiration and such a great player,” Mühl said last month. “On and off the court, the things she’s done and the way she uses her platform is amazing. Obviously on the court, the Goat. No words, just the Goat.”
That legendary status has been celebrated in WNBA arenas across the country over the last month since Bird officially announced her retirement. She broke the news in June before a game against the Connecticut Sun at Mohegan Sun Arena, the same place where she’ll close a particularly special chapter of her career Thursday night. Barring a meeting between the two teams in the WNBA playoffs, it will be Birds’ final game in the state where she first rose to the national spotlight while winning two NCAA championships.
As they look to chase a title of their own and aspire to careers in the WNBA, the current generation of Huskies have great admiration for Bird.
Dorka Juhász has noticed the impact Bird makes on the Storm from a leadership perspective, while Mühl mentioned how much she looks up to her playmaking ability, which has earned Bird her status as the league’s all-time assisted leader. They share the same No. 10 as well, though Mühl noted that was just a coincidence, as she’s the worn number most of her life.
“Things that are so hard to do, [she] makes them look easy,” Mühl said. “I love that about her game. … She always tries to find the best players in the best position, whether it’s her or her teammates. Very unselfish player, super emotional — I love that. I see a lot of things that I want to be in her.”
UConn players got to witness that firsthand earlier this summer when the team attended the June 17 game between the Sun and Storm. Bird put on a show, scoring 14 points on 4-of-6 shooting from 3-point range while also adding four assists and two steals. For many players that was their last chance to see Bird play, as most of them are now back home on break.
The Huskies then spent time after the game with Bird and the other former UConn stars on Seattle’s roster, Breanna Stewart and Gabby Williams (Tina Charles hadn’t signed yet). Bird is still very engaged with the UConn program, players said, so they’d met her a couple times prior to that, including at last season’s Final Four in Minneapolis.
“It’s always a really nice reminder … of how close the alumni and the UConn family is,” Azzi Fudd said. “We still have a long way to go to reach professionals and WNBA and stuff, but they’re still there, they’re supporting us from the outside and they are resources that we have. We can go to them if we have questions or want to talk.”
Juhász said Bird also joked with the players about how much stricter summer workouts had become since her time in Storrs.
“Sue was bringing up I think that like, ‘Hey, if you win, it’s a little bit different,” Juhász recalled with a laugh. “But they’re very funny and they’re obviously very supportive of us. They’re always in our corner. So it’s just great to catch up with them and just talk about not just basketball, but life and coaches and stuff like that.”
With Bird’s playing career nearing its end, that interaction held extra meaning for the Huskies.
“We all kind of knew her retirement was bound to happen soon,” Fudd said. “Getting to see her in person one last time was special. And then getting to see her after the game as well, it was really nice to see.
“It’s also kind of a reminder that she’s human. Even though she’s the amazing Sue Bird, she’s still human like the rest of us. So she’s a really good role model for us to have.”
Lila Bromberg can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and @LilaBBromberg on Twitter.