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Friendship, Competition and Respect: A Story of Sue Bird and the Mystics

At Friday’s shootaround prior to Game 1 of the WNBA Finals, the Seattle Storm took the court first as the home team, did their walk through and drills, then met with the media for 15 minutes before leaving the court as the visiting Washington Mystics took the court for their allotted time.

As Sue Bird was exiting at one end of the court, Mystics coach Mike Thibault jogged over to her from the end of the court to catch up with her before she left.

“Here we are 15 years later, can you believe it?” he said to her as the two laughed and shared a quick embrace. Thibault then complimented Bird on the great season she just had and the two wished each other the best before their series was set to begin.

Bird and Thibault first met in the WNBA Finals back in 2004 as Bird’s Storm took on Thibault’s Connecticut Sun. Bird was just in her third WNBA season, while Thibault was far from being the winningest coach in league history as he was just in his second WNBA season.

Over the past 14 years, Bird and Thibault have been on opposing sides of regular season games, but this is their first Playoff meeting since Bird’s Storm defeated Thibault’s Sun, 2-1, in the best-of-three series.

When asked what he remembered most from their first Finals matchup, there was one word that quickly came to mind.

“Misery,” he said with a laugh. “I remember sitting there on the bench when the ball was being passed to Nykesha Sales on the baseline … I thought we’re going to win and then we didn’t.”

Thibault was referring to Sales’ potential game-winning and series-clinching shot in Game 2 of the series. Despite scoring a then-Finals record 32 points, Sales’ shot did not fall as the Storm evened the series and then won the third-and-decisive Game 3 two days later to win their first WNBA title.

“We had our chance in Game 2 and if the shot goes in, there would be a trophy sitting there in Connecticut, but it didn’t,” he said. “The other thing I remember and I’m reminded every time we come here, is how loud the building is, how great the fans are. This is an unbelievable environment to play a playoff game, it’s deafening, it’s like when football teams talk about hand signals versus verbal things, you’ve got to be a very alert and aware team because of the noise.”

Sue Bird of the Women’s Senior National Team practices with Assistant Coach Mike Thibault by her side on July 30, 2008 at Maples Pavilion at Stanford University.

“And the last thing I remember is Sue was there then, and Sue is here now. She’s just been that symbol; somebody wrote today that they better build a statue for her – they better, she’s that good, that solid. Having coached her in USA Basketball, I have so much admiration for her. I’ve known her since she was a sophomore or junior at UConn. I remember my daughter’s first influence about meeting a pro player was Sue Bird taking time to take her aside when she was in college and talk to her about stuff and that made an indelible impression on my daughter who turned out to have a good career herself. And I just remember Sue taking the time after a game to do that. I have a long connection with her and an admiration for her.”

In Seattle’s practice between Games 1 and 2, Bird recalled Thibault coming up to her during that Friday shootaround and said the feeling of admiration is mutual, but that both she and Thibault will flip the switch to being competitors as soon as the game is set for tipoff.

“You see it in those moments, you’re friendly, you’re happy, but we all know for 40 minutes we’re going to be battling and then it just goes back,” she said. “It all is based on the fact that we all respect each other so much. That’s really what it’s about.”

Does that look like friendship in eyes of Kristi Toliver as Sue Bird brings the ball up the court against her in Game 2 of the 2018 WNBA Finals on Sunday?

After Seattle’s Game 2 win on Sunday, both teams took separate five-hour flights across the country to Washington, D.C. as the Finals resume with Game 3 on Wednesday night.

Take that flight time and double it and you have the time it would take to travel from New York to Moscow. That is something that Seattle’s Sue Bird and Washington’s Kristi Toliver did together years ago that served as the start of a strong friendship that has grown over the past six years.

“We were both playing in Russia at the time; she was playing on a team in Moscow, I was playing on a team in Ekaterinburg, and both of our flights were out of New York to Moscow,” said Bird. “So we ran into each other in the lounge, and obviously we knew each other before that, but not that well. So we just started talking, then we get on the plane and we’re sitting next to each other, and we had a 10-hour flight together, and we just really hit it off.”

“As soon as we got to Russia, we got each others’ number and we’ve talked forever since,” added Toliver. “I’m just so thankful that we were both playing in Russia at the time and that we just met because we connected instantly, and that’s been my person that I go to about everything in my life. So I’m just super, super thankful and really humble to be able to share the court with her with a championship on the line.

“To be going against Sue – who is somebody that a big part of who I am is because of her, and so to have her not only as somebody that I looked up to growing up, but also one of my very best friends – it’s special because you don’t get to be in these kind of situations often. To go against the best point guard of all time, with a championship on the line, it’s fun.”

So after Bird had to face her longtime friend Diana Taurasi in the semifinals with a Finals berth on the line, she is now facing another good friend in Toliver for the WNBA championship.

But as strong as those friends are off the court, all parties involved know that once they step between the lines all friendships have to be set aside for a while. Everyone has to have an “I love you off the court, but I’m going to kill you on the court” type of mentality.

“Yeah, that’s what it is,” said Bird “The friendship is the same, whether you’re going to dinner, or you’re running into each other and just exchanging a friendly joke or a friendly hug or whatever it is, and then you cross the line for 40 minutes and you’re enemies. And when the game is over you go back to being friends.”

Those friendly jokes and hugs may turn into tough fouls and trash talk during the game, but once the final buzzer sounds, the switch is flipped back to friendship mode.

At least until the next game. Which in this case is Wednesday night at 8 p.m. ET.