This Bird's Returned Home

It’s ironic, Seattle Storm forward/guard Kate Starbird noted last week after negotiations were finalized on the WNBA’s new Collective Bargaining Agreement, that players finally got free agency just after she got to the team and city she had wanted to play for all along.

After Starbird overcame the initial shock of being traded to the Storm on July 22 of last year, she couldn’t have been more excited. Not only was she returning to her adopted hometown, Starbird was also looking at an increased role with her new team. “I was at first devastated,” Starbird recalls of last year’s trade deadline. “But about 15 minutes later, I was just overwhelmed. It was probably the best thing that had happened to me in a long time, in terms of athletics.”

Starbird played her first game on the home team in Seattle in over three years on July 31, a day after celebrating her 27th birthday. Backed by a strong rooting section – “My mom said the first game at home is July 31, and they're all excited,” Starbird told the media shortly after the trade – she scored five points and hit a 48-foot three at the first-half buzzer as the Storm rung up a 75-63 victory, their fourth straight since making the trade.

While Starbird modestly says she doesn’t know if she played a role in the Storm’s strong push to the team’s first playoff berth, the numbers clearly show she did. A 10-13 team when it made the trade for Starbird, the Storm went 7-2 with her. With Starbird’s scoring punch off the bench, the Storm’s scoring average improved from 66.7 points per game to 72.8. “I think the team was waiting for a change and the change came,” Starbird says. “I’m not sure whether it was just me, or whether it was that things just started rolling in the right direction.”

At the same time, Starbird played the best basketball of her WNBA career. She finished the season as the Storm’s fourth-leading scorer at 5.9 points per game, shooting 45.5% from the field and from three-point range. She added 2.1 rebounds and 1.3 assists per game in 20.7 minutes off the bench. Those marks represented dramatic improvement over Starbird’s production in Utah. Stuck behind All-Stars Marie Ferdinand and Adrienne Goodson, Starbird played just 88 minutes the season’s first two months, averaging just 1.7 points per game.

It was that kind of performance that led many to question the Storm’s decision to give up second-year guard Semeka Randall – a starter at the beginning of the season – for Starbird. “Then when (Lin) Dunn said the Storm needed more perimeter punch and found it in a trade for Kate Starbird, well, that was just ludicrous,” columnist Jim Moore wrote in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. “Starbird, the former Stanford great from Tacoma who has been an unspectacular pro, averaged less than two points a game in Utah.”

Dunn and current General Manager Billy McKinney, the two people most responsible for the trade, were able to see past the numbers and see a piece they needed to complete the Storm puzzle. “Not only did she have the reputation of being a great player individually, but a great team player,” McKinney says now, explaining his thinking. “Kate was a tremendous help to us. She provided us with experience in addition to outside shooting last year when she came in.”

Starbird is certainly no stranger to success on the court. She finished her high-school career as the all-time leading scorer in Washington high school basketball history at Lakes High School in Lakewood with 2,753 points and was named USA Today’s Player of the Year during her senior year. That success carried over to Stanford University, where Starbird was Naismith Player of the Year during her senior season.

After completing her college career, Starbird was the fourth pick of the ABL’s Seattle Reign in the 1997 ABL Draft. During her rookie season, Starbird averaged 12.7 points, 3.1 assists and 3.0 rebounds per game. She improved to 13.6 points per game in the first 15 games of the 1998-99 season as the Reign started out 8-7 before the league folded.

Starbird saw her playing time cut dramatically during the first half of last season.
Kent Horner/WNBAE/Getty
Starbird was selected by the Sacramento Monarchs in the third round of the 1999 WNBA Draft, as part of the dispersal of former ABL players. After a season where she saw little action, the Storm got its first chance to acquire Starbird in the Expansion Draft. Holding the second pick, the Storm passed on Starbird in favor of guard Edna Campbell, who led the team in scoring during her one year in Seattle.

Starbird was picked by the Miami Sol with the next pick, third overall, and traded to the Utah Starzz in exchange for Elena Baranova and a draft pick. With the Starzz, Starbird saw more action and doubled her scoring average during her first season in Utah before averaging a career-best 4.7 points per game during the 2001 season. For more than half of the 2002 season, however, Starbird was buried in Utah, which led to the trade.

She hurried to join the Storm in the midst of an East-Coast road trip, playing her first game against the Orlando Miracle. “The first game I was out there,” Starbird recalls, “I was so surprised to hear my name, I turned to Kate Paye and said, ‘Hey, it’s you,’ and she said, ‘No, Kate, she’s talking to you,’ because we were both sitting next to each other.” Not expecting to play actually proved a benefit in hindsight, Starbird believes. “I wasn’t really expecting to play a lot coming off that trade,” she says. “So much so that I was so relaxed when I got in the game, and I wasn’t nervous, and I think I kept that kind of relaxed feeling the whole time.”

With the prospect of playing a major role for a contending team, Starbird redoubled her off-season conditioning efforts. The results have been obvious, with the lanky 150-pounder showing increased muscle definition. Still modest, however, Starbird says her goal heading into training camp this season is just “to make the team”. That shouldn’t be a problem. In fact, with a full training camp to mesh her game with those of her teammates, Starbird may be poised for an even bigger 2003. “It will only be a benefit for me, in terms of fitting in – off the court and on the court,” she says of training camp.

Adding to Starbird’s excitement about this season are her high hopes for the Storm with the addition of Coach Anne Donovan. “She’s an excellent coach,” Starbird says. “I have a lot of respect - I’m kind of scared of her. So much respect for her, what she’s done as a player and what she’s done as a coach.” After helping lead the team to its first playoff berth last year, Starbird believes it can do even more this year, saying, “I think we’re going to be great. I really do.”

It’s been a long and sometimes difficult WNBA journey to this point for Starbird, but now she’s poised to reap the benefits.