PHOENIX — Sue Bird and Diana Taurasi have been here before. A final game, a tearful goodbye. After the Mercury knocked out the Storm in a single-elimination playoff game last season the two swapped jerseys, and Bird, the four-time WNBA champion, was ready to hang it up.
The home fans in Seattle chanting “one more year” helped move the now 41-year-old to give it a final go-around, but it wasn’t the only time she heard it.
Back in October when Taurasi entered her fourth WNBA Finals at home, Bird suited up for a role off the court as a part of the ESPN crew covering Phoenix’s matchup with the Sky. Mercury fans serenaded Bird with the same plea, creating a favorite memory of hers in a typical place of epic battles between the superstars.
They got another year, and the two close friends got another crack at one last game together in Phoenix on Friday night.
“Those memories, they stay close to my heart. Whether we played against each other, with each other; it’s been an incredible ride,” said Taurasi, who made her 500th career appearance Friday. “In any profession when you get to do something with your best friend for 20 years—life’s good.”
While the game may have ended an era, on the court it felt like any other contest for Bird. The Storm were trying to peak at the end of the season, ahead of the playoffs, while the Mercury were trying to stay in postseason contention.
“I think of it more as just a celebration. I don’t think of it beyond that,” Bird said. “[I] find that balance of enjoying these moments. They are special, right? But also not letting it overcome me in a way that’s gonna take me out of the game.”
Bird and Taurasi’s story began in 2000, when the latter joined reigning champion UConn as an over-eager freshman. Since then, there’s been an NCAA championship together ( five total between them), five Olympic gold medals, seven combined WNBA Finals, a multitude of battles and a friendship forged in iron. Their on-court story may end with the pair doing an opposing-player joint postgame press conference after their final regular-season game together, a first for even them.
Breanna Stewart, a two-time Olympic teammate of both Taurasi and Bird, knows how they start can bond them as a fellow UConn luminary.
“To go to school together, work through the trenches. Sometimes the program is not the easiest on players, and having your teammates to be your backbone, your support. That’s where I’m sure their grown relationship and their friendship started, and now it’s just over many, many years,” Stewart said.
For six years 1 pick Stewart had a front-row seat to Bird’s legacy, after winning UConn a national championship, just like the 21-year WNBA veteran. To Stewart, Bird’s impact expands past the court, where she advocated for players and helped shape a new collective bargaining agreement as vice president of the players association, setting new standards for what her colleagues deserve. Bird also served as a progressive face of the league, pushing alongside her fellow queer, often Black teammates for equality in the realms of race, gender, sexual orientation and more.
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Hopefully [Diana and I] were able to play in a way that inspired people to be themselves,” Bird said. “I think we’re just proof that if you really invest in yourself in that way, believe in yourself in that way … hopefully part of our legacy is just being yourself.”
Bird isn’t the only WNBA stalwart walking away at the end of the season. Two-time champions Candace Parker and Sylvia Fowles have also alluded to or announced their retirement, closing a league chapter some of the most important figures in basketball.
The night before Storm vs. Mercury, two of that cohort—Bird and Taurasi—hung out Taurasi’s Phoenix home with her wife and kids, reminiscing and settling into this next phase of life outside of basketball. Bird will be done whenever the Storm’s playoff run ends, but Taurasi may still be going.
Bird hopes that she and Taurasi put on some good shows over the years. Despite having just two points on one field goal attempt Friday night, it was a show indeed.
The all-time assists leader finished with five assists: classic Sue. Taurasi, on the other hand, had an explosive game, with 28 points and six three-pointers: classic Diana. The Mercury won, 98–78.
“I think when you play against Dee and she gets going early, you know you’re in for a long night,” Bird said. “That’s kind of part of what makes her great, is that she’s infectious, right? There’s something contagious when Dee’s flowing like that hitting, shots.”
Mercury coach Vanessa Nygaard joked that no one knows Taurasi’s real age. We’ve never seen her birth certificate, and there’s no way a 40-year-old is playing that well.
“Dee has nothing to prove. She can play as long as she wants to play, but clearly she plays at an extremely high level and can really do a lot for our team,” Nygaard said, despite an up-and-down season for Taurasi and the Mercury.
Taurasi ignited the rowdy crowd several times with deep jumpers, a thunderous block, even picking Bird’s pocket and picking up the assist, raising noise to a decibel typically reserved for the playoffs. More than 14,000 fans came to watch one last regular-season battle between Bird and Taurasi, some even traveling from Brazil. For scale, some 13,000 fans attended the Finals game where fans chanted, pleading for a final season, for this last goodbye.
Just before tip-off the Mercury gifted Bird a custom pair of sneakers and played a tribute video of thoughtful messages from players, ending with Taurasi:
“It’s time for you to go,” she said. “We love you, Sue.”
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