The jersey swap at the end of a hard-fought, single-elimination, overtime game, was planned in advance of an ending that would be written over 45 grueling minutes on the floor.
Diana Taurasi and Sue Bird know the thing we all know, that the number of times that they share the floor together is getting agonizingly shorter. Therefore this occasion needed to be marked.
We won’t know if this is the last time we’ve seen Sue Bird on a basketball court – the Seattle Storm’s legendary guard will take some time after Sunday’s 85-80 overtime loss to Phoenix in the second round of the WNBA playoffs to weigh her options.
But the fact that she is weighing her options at all is a sign that things are changing.
“I have no idea,” Bird said when asked about a timeline for her decision.
“I have really been trying to push away those thoughts and I’ve said time and again that I knew I wasn’t going to be able to function if I thought this was going to be the last one,” Bird said. “I just knew it was going to impact me negatively. Even with the fans cheering today, ‘One more year’, the minute I let myself think about it, it makes me want to cry, so I’ve really been pushing it off.”
The Seattle fans had their say at the end of the game, chanting “One more year!” while Taurasi egged them on. Bird told her best friend to “stop it”, after she pulled her jersey over her face to wipe away the tears.
It is this moment, this possibility, that kept Bird, the league’s all-time assists leader, and four-time champion, from allowing herself all season to consider whether the WNBA’s 25th season might be her last.
Bird said she has always known at the end of a season that she’d be back. This one is different.
“This is the first time this offseason that I have to weigh it,” Bird said. “I know for sure that I want to let the emotion of the season die down. I don’t want to make an emotional decision.
And I also feel very lucky that physically I’m still good, that it’s not the physical part taking me down. It will be my own decision.”
Bird finished the day doing what she always does, leading.
Without 2020 Finals MVP Breanna Stewart on the floor, and with star guard Jewell Loyd (who had scored 37 points against Phoenix in the regular-season finale) grinding through a difficult offensive day, Bird stepped up.
Bird finished with 16 points and five assists in nearly 37 minutes, including 4-for-8 from beyond the arc, including a huge bucket with 1:00 to go in regulation that sent the game into overtime.
If that was the last game in a one-of-a-kind career, it is fitting in a way that it was Taurasi, who is 15-2 in elimination games in her WNBA career, who dealt the knockout blow. Taurasi had missed five games with a sprained ankle, and her status up until about 30 minutes before the game was unclear. She warmed up, went to head coach Sandy Brondello and said she could go.
It didn’t look easy. Taurasi limped and gimped and grimaced and still managed to put up 14 points in 33 minutes with four rebounds. Taurasi made a pair of big overtime baskets – including a momentum-changing 3-pointer to tie the game at 76 with 3:39 to go, and another big jumper at the 2:13 mark to give the Mercury an 80-78 lead.
And when it was over, Taurasi made a beeline to her best friend, the player she has won NCAA titles and five Olympic gold medals with, the other half of one of the best buddy duos in basketball history.
“It’s a hard and tough decision when you have played basketball your whole life,” said Taurasi, who still has another year on her contract with Phoenix. “It’s easy for people on the outside to think ‘You’re done’, or maybe she’s had enough, played long enough. But you saw what Sue did today. She kept this team in it for the whole game.”
“Ability-wise, Sue is always ready to play. She is the ultimate professional. The tricky part about being a WNBA player is that now she has eight months now to think about whether she wants to play again. That’s a long time to think about if she wants to do everything that it takes to get back on the court, which at our age, whatever you used to do, is times 10.”
Unsurprisingly, Taurasi and Bird have already had this conversation.
“But I’m going to keep that in house,” Taurasi said.
Bird will go home, wake up in the morning and start her process. She doesn’t even know what that looks like yet.
And when the time is right, she will let us all know.
No matter what we are rooting for – but let’s face it, we are all on team ‘One More Year’ – we will know that Bird gave us everything she had. But by giving Taurasi her jersey, she may be getting us all ready for what’s next.
Longtime WNBA reporter Michelle Smith writes a weekly column on WNBA.com throughout the season. The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the WNBA or its clubs.