Storm star Sue Bird finds her voice, and becomes an influential advocate for social justice

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There’s a poignant moment during an interview with Sue Bird when ESPN’s Lisa Salters asks the suddenly opinionated Storm star if she ever wants to revert to the soft-spoken wunderkind who shied away from controversial topics.

“I never want to retreat back,” Bird says. “I couldn’t go back. And there are times when it’s difficult. Whether it’s things people say. Mean people on social media or even in person.

“Obviously, it can be difficult. But the option of either going back or just not saying it all, that’s not a trade-off I would look at.”

The aforementioned exchange takes place during a segment on the ESPN’s “E60” titled, “The Evolution of Sue Bird” that airs Sunday on the network.

Salters interviewed a handful of Bird’s closest confidants, including her mother Nancy and sister Jen. There are testimonials from Bird’s former coaches, Connecticut Huskies’ Geno Auriemma and Jill Cook, who led her AAU and high-school teams.

And there are plenty of insights from Bird’s partner, soccer star Megan Rapinoe.

“There’s a part of me that’s excited to see it,” Bird said of the segment during a phone interview Friday. “Whenever you have the people closest to you speak about you and share stories, it’s exciting. I know it will be fun, and it’ll be flattering. It’ll definitely be cringe-worthy at times.”

After nearly two decades in the public spotlight, Bird wasn’t suddenly eager to retell her life story.

In November 2018, about two months after winning her third WNBA championship with the Storm, ESPN pitched an idea about chronicling her record-breaking career.

The piece was originally scheduled to air during the 2019 WNBA season, but Bird sat out that year due to an arthroscopic knee surgery.

ESPN producers shifted the story to focus on Bird’s attempt at a fifth Olympic gold medal before the coronavirus pandemic erupted and forced the Tokyo Games to be rescheduled for 2021.

Bird, who is averaging 10.7 points and 3.3 assists, had a strong start to the WNBA season before suffering a knee bruise that has sidelined her.

“(ESPN) followed me for the last year and a half and these different wrenches got thrown in, so the story kept evolving,” said the 39-year-old Bird, the league’s oldest player. “It ended up being a story about me and my evolution through my career on and off the court.

“It started out as one thing, turned into another and we ended up here. It kind of just happened on its own.”

The central theme of the piece is the maturation of an 11-time WNBA All-Star and four-time Olympic gold medalist who for years has championed equal pay in women’s sports and emerged late in her career as a vocal advocate for LGBTQ rights and the Black Lives Matter movement.

“As you go through a career in the public eye, you’re growing up in front of people literally,” Bird said. “So I think you change through the years and you get comfortable in different ways. And you figure out who you are. That’s really how it happens.”

Admittedly, Bird’s public persona has grown exponentially since coming out as gay in July 2017.

Not until recently had Storm fans been able to see fun-loving version of Bird who gabs on her sofa with Rapinoe about an assortment of topics during their live Instagram show “A Touch More.”

Or the serious-minded Bird, who spoke about a social-justice awakening in America while co-hosting the ESPYs this summer with Rapinoe and Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson.

“I used to shy away from moments like this,” Bird said in the ESPYs opening monologue, “because it’s convenient to be quiet, to be thought of as safe and polite.”

Behind the scenes, Bird was instrumental in her role as WNBA Players Association vice president during negotiations on a historic collective-bargaining agreement that dramatically improved salaries for players.

And publicly, Bird has engaged in a feud with Atlanta Dream co-owner and Republican Sen. Kelly Loeffler, who has been critical of the league’s support of Black Lives Matter.

Bird pushed WNBA players to wear “Vote Warnock” T-shirts to games this week to support Rev. Raphael Warnock, a Georgia Democrat who is challenging Loeffler for her Senate seat.

“It’s been awesome and very inspiring and very admirable,” said Alysha Clark, who is Bird’s longest-tenured Storm teammate. “As an athlete, to speak up for any issue that you’re passionate about, there’s always going to be people that disapprove and who don’t want to see you as more than an athlete.

“That takes courage to stand in the face of all of that knowing the risk of standing and speaking on truth. I admire her growth in that area and willingness to want to come out of her shell to help others.”

Looking back, Bird has many wonderful memories and few regrets about an 18-year WNBA career that began in 2002 when the Storm selected her No. 1 overall in the draft.

She wishes she would have taken a stand on issues earlier, but as Auriemma often says, “Basketball is not a game of how to, it’s when to.”

“As you get older, you get a little more confident and a little more comfortable,” Bird said. “Some people are like that right away. For me it took some maturing and getting comfortable in my skin.”

And today’s sports culture is more receptive than ever toward outspoken women athletes.

“I don’t think how I view things is much different now than when I first started,” Bird said. “But now female athletes are in a place where they truly have that microphone and that platform.”

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