When the Seattle Storm take the court on Sunday to face the Atlanta Dream in a matchup of the top two hottest teams in the WNBA, Sue Bird will make history once again.
She is already the league’s all-time leader in assists (2,768 entering Sunday) and earlier this week set the record for most All-Star Game selections (11). On Sunday, she will appear in her 500th WNBA game, surpassing DeLisha Milton-Jones for the most games played in WNBA history.
Bird was the No. 1 overall pick in the 2002 WNBA Draft and has been the starting point guard for the Storm since her first day in the WNBA. That first game was back on May 30, 2002 as Bird finished with 18 points, 6 assists, 3 rebounds and 3 steals in 35 minutes during the Storm’s 78-61 loss to the New York Liberty. Now, 5,988 days later, she will once again start at point guard for the Storm for the 500th time in the regular season.
She also has 39 playoff games to her credit, as she helped lead the Storm to the 2004 and 2010 WNBA titles. And with the Storm entering Sunday atop the league standings at 18-6, a return to the postseason and title contention is definitely in the forecast.
Not only is Bird entering uncharted territory for games played, she is doing it with the only WNBA team she has ever played for, which is a rarity for players with more than a dozen seasons in the WNBA. Of the top 25 players in terms of games played, only three have spent their entire careers with one franchise – Bird (1st, 500 games with Seattle), Tamika Catchings (8th, 457 games with Indiana) and Diana Taurasi (15th, 422 games and counting with the Phoenix Mercury). Milton-Jones, who previously held the Iron Woman title, played for five teams in her 17-year career.
Bird is the final player from the 2002 Draft still playing in the WNBA and one of only 11 active players in the league that were drafted more than a decade ago (prior to the 2008 Draft). While she is the oldest player in the WNBA at age 37, Bird continues to defy Father Time as she is playing some of the best basketball of her career. After setting a career-best in assists (6.6 per game) last year in her 15th season, she is on pace to surpass that mark this season as she ranks second in the WNBA at 7.2 assists per game.
Bird is orchestrating the league’s highest-rated offense in the league (108.2 points per 100 possessions) and is flanked by two young All-Stars in Breanna Stewart (the WNBA scoring leader at 22.3 points per game) and Jewell Loyd (who posted a season-high 31 points in Seattle’s last outing). In fact, Bird credits being surrounded by those young scorers as helping find her very own fountain of youth.
“Part of it is that I’m on a young team and you’re surrounded by young people in your everyday life and it’s contagious, so they kind of keep me young this way,” Bird said during a postgame interview session following their win over Connecticut on Friday. “When you’re around other old people, they complain a lot. so these guys aren’t complaining about their sore back so i don’t complain about it … too much. so they kind of keep me young, they keep me energized in that way.”
While the young players may keep her young at heart, the biggest ingredient to Bird’s age-defying level of play is the work she has put in off the court.
“A vast majority of it is I completely changed my diet; I completely changed my workout regimen; Stewie and I work with the same woman, and every day I’m doing something to make sure I’m able to play,” said Bird. “A couple years ago I just realized, alright the only thing I can control is really these little things to help my body. A lot of people’s bodies fail on them and I didn’t want that to happen. So luckily I found something that works and I’m sticking to it.”
Bird has been remarkably durable throughout her WNBA career. Outside of missing the entire 2012 season due to knee surgery (cyst removal in her right knee), she has missed only 33 of a possible 533 games (including Sunday) over 16 seasons. She has played every game of the season six times (2002-2004, 2006, 2011, 2016) and is on pace to play at least 30 games for the 13th time in 16 seasons.
The resume that Bird has built during these 16 WNBA seasons is already Hall of Fame worthy:
- 2× WNBA champion (2004, 2010)
- 11× WNBA All-Star (2002-2003, 2005–2007, 2009, 2011, 2014, 2015, 2017-2018)
- 5× All-WNBA First Team (2002–2005, 2016)
- 3× All-WNBA Second Team (2008, 2010-2011)
- 3× WNBA assists leader (2005, 2009, 2016)
- WNBA all-time leader in assists (2,768)
- WNBA all-time leader in games played (500)
- Top 10 all-time in minutes (2nd), 3-pointers made (3rd), steals (5th), points (7th) and field goals made (8th)
- WNBA All-Decade Team (2006, Top 10 players from first 10 years)
- WNBA Top 15 Players of All Time (2011, Top 15 players from first 15 years)
- WNBA Top 20@20 (2016, Top 20 players from first 20 years)
And she’s still not done. Bird is showing no signs of slowing down, so it is difficult to project how long she will play and what her numbers will look like when she does finally decide to hang up her Nikes.
The chart below compares Bird’s career averages with her 2018 season stats. The only two stats that show any sign of regression are minutes played (26.4) and points per game (9.9), which are both at career lows.
However, considering the Storm have the most efficient offense and are the second-highest scoring team in the league, Bird’s lack of scoring could simply be because that is not what the team needs of her at the moment. Instead, her assists are at a career-best as she focuses more on playmaking than creating her own offense. But she has scored at least 17 points in three of her last six games, so she can score when needed.
As far as minutes played, the addition of rookie Jordin Canada has helped ease the minutes burden on the veteran point guard, especially during this condensed season with less rest days than normal.
The rest of her stats are either close to or exceeding her career averages, which is unheard of for most players this late in their career. Bird continues to defy the traditional career arc that shows a steady rise over a player’s early seasons, reaching their prime years of peak performance, followed by a gradual decline in the twilight years.
Averaging a career-high in assists while simultaneously breaking the league’s all-time record for games played simply isn’t supposed to happen. Yet here we are. So with conventional wisdom out the window, the questions revolve around how long can Bird keep this up, how long does she have the desire to play and how long is she willing to put in the work to keep her body ready for the grind of a season? How long does she want to fight Father Time?
“For a lot of players, it’s not that they don’t want to play anymore, or that they get tired of it or bored of it,” Bird recently told the Hartford Courant. “It’s that their bodies give out. … Now we’re in a time where you look at Tom Brady, you look at LeBron James, and that’s all anyone’s talking about. I feel like myself and Diana [Taurasi] especially, we’re starting that trend in women’s basketball. When I turned 30, the first question I got was, ‘How much longer do you want to play?’ And I don’t see why that can’t be when you turn 40, I really don’t.”