I remember going to Sue Bird’s house on Long Island right before she came to UConn.
We sat in the kitchen with her mom Nancy, who pointed out the tree Sue used to climb outside the kitchen window, the pictures of little Sue at track meets, the plaque she won for shooting free throws when she was 6 years old.
Nancy was effusive; Sue was a quiet teenager. As the point guard of the No. 1-ranked girls high school team in the country, Christ the King, Bird was well-known in the high school and AAU circles in the New York City area, but in August of 1998 — long before social media existed — maybe not so much beyond that. Even during a trip to Gold’s Gym on the Jericho Turnpike, where Bird worked out the day we visited, the man behind the counter wanted to know why myself and a photographer were there.
“Where is she going to school?” he asked us. “What does she play?”
I wrote then of that Class of 2002, the one that would end their time at UConn with an undefeated season and the program’s third national title: “They will be besieged, scrutinized and adored by a legion of UConn basketball fans. Though they are from other states, they will be adopted by Connecticut. They will play in a national spotlight. Their lives will change.”
So it’s fitting that Bird, 41, now an iconic sports figure who trades bon mots with Larry Bird in commercials, was featured in the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue and has been a high-profile advocate for social justice, was back in Connecticut Thursday, the day she announced she will retire from basketball at the end of the WNBA season. Connecticut long ago adopted Bird and her 2002 UConn teammates Swin Cash, Diana Taurasi, Tamika Williams (now Williams-Jeter) and Asjha Jones as its own.
Bird, whose Seattle Storm team will play the Connecticut Sun Friday night, played in the national spotlight with UConn and the Storm, winning four WNBA titles, and in the international spotlight with the Olympic team, where she and Taurasi won an five gold medals .
“People would say ‘ You played with Sue Bird?” Williams-Jeter said, laughing. “I say, ‘She’s still my little Birdie to me.’ ”
In April 2002 in San Antonio, Bird won her second NCAA championship with a team that was arguably one of the best ever in women’s college basketball. She had a career-high 26 points, to go with 11 assists in the Midwest Regional final against Old Dominion and was named the regional’s most outstanding player to help UConn get to the Final Four.
“Thank God there’s a WNBA and we can all watch her play at the next level,” ODU coach Wendy Larry said that day.
Her mother told us stories that day in August 1998 about how little Susie hated to lose. How she was in a relay race at age 6 and her teammate botched the baton handoff and Sue took the baton and threw it on the ground. When another mother asked whose little girl that was, Nancy deadpanned, “I don’t know.”
Fittingly, in Bird’s senior year, the Huskies would not lose, capping off a 39-0 season with an 82-70 win over Oklahoma in the championship game at the Alamodome.
“Jubilations!” Williams-Jeter screamed to the crowd of 29,619 fans.
What I remember most from that Easter Day back in 2002 was when the giant flag that flew over the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001 was unfurled on the floor during the pregame ceremonies. Bird and Cash helped hold the flag as the national anthem played and Bird, a New Yorker born and bred, looked down at the flag and bit her lip.
It had been a long road to get there. She had torn her ACL in practice in December of 1998 during her freshman year. UConn didn’t make it to the Final Four that year. In 2000, the Huskies won it in Philadelphia. In 2001, though Bird saved the day with a last-second shot to beat Notre Dame in the Big East championship game, they were snake bit with injuries and lost to the Irish in the national semifinal game in St. Louis.
“When I first met Sue on campus, she was totally New York to me, her accent, soft-spoken voice, really nice, very respectful,” said Williams-Jeter Thursday. “She had a way about her, like a coolness.
“After she tore her ACL – they say you can go up or down after an injury like that – and I remembered Sue transformed. Not only her body, she got stronger, but I remember her mentality changed. Before, she was this little meek [person], trying to direct us and get us in order, but now she had no more time to waste. She was next level and she was demanding it from us.
“She’s somebody who went all the way to the top in so many ways.”
And so in 2002, they did it again. Over four years, the seniors had won 55 of 57 games at home. In their last game at Gambel Pavilion, an 86-48 win over Iowa in the NCAA Tournament second round, about 2,000 fans stayed long after the game, stomping and cheering and waiting for Williams-Jeter, Cash, Bird and Jones to make an encore appearance, which they did.
“I won’t believe the history and undefeated part until I’m 35 or 36 years old,” said Williams-Jeter — now the women’s basketball coach at the University of Dayton — the night the Huskies won the title in 2002. When my kids are 7 and 8 years old, I’m going to tell them I played with some of the greatest players. I played with Sue Bird.”
I read her that quote Thursday.
“That is the absolute truth,” Williams-Jeter said. “Sue was everything.”
Lori Riley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.