Sue Bird, one of the Women of Team USA being celebrated this week, has had an incredible career on the hardwood.
As point guard, she played at the University of Connecticut when the Huskies won two NCAA championships. Now going into her 17th WNBA season, Bird has led her Seattle Storm to three league titles, including last year’s. Already the only U.S. player, male or female, to compete in five World Cups, Bird has won the tournament four times, to go along with her four Olympic gold medals. She even has won European championships while playing in Russia during the WNBA offseason.
And now, even though she’s playing with the Storm, Bird has been hired to work for the NBA’s Denver Nuggets.
“It’s been great. It’s been just a great learning experience for me. Being around a team and learning the ins and outs of front office work,” Bird said of the Nuggets job. “I go to Denver about once a month for a week or so. It has fit into my schedule. It’s been really accommodating, allowing me to understand that I’m still playing and as a basketball player with priorities in that regard, and they’re really cool about it.”
Among the work Bird does for the Nuggets is scouting college players to see which ones would be good to draft. But that’s hardly her entire job description.
“It’s not just one thing,” Bird said. “There have been times when I’ve done scouting. And when I’m in Denver, I’ve been to all the games and I sit in at a lot of the meetings. It’s just a really great opportunity for someone like myself who has played basketball for a very long time at all kinds of levels to really see the inner working in the front office.
"That’s really been for me the best part. I joke that whenever they ask for my opinion I have to make sure that I have one.”
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Sue Bird competes at the Olympic Games Rio 2016 on Aug. 8, 2016 in Rio de Janeiro.
There are now 20 former or current women players who have started working in the NBA and G-League — including Becky Hammon, who is an assistant coach for San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich — and Bird says more will work in the NBA and other male pro leagues.
“I think there was no reason for it not to happen, but I feel like now is the time,” Bird said. “Because you have a lot of women who have been in professional sports for a long time. You have a ton of experience, a ton of knowledge and NBA teams are starting to see it.”
Many men are head coaches in the WNBA, but a woman has yet to hold that role in the NBA. Why not? They are great players, they know the game and they also know how to help others get better.
“I think it’s about opening the door,” Bird said. “And once that door is open and you’ve been through it and had success like Becky Hammon, I think it brings down the barrier and opens people’s eyes to the potential of it. Once that happens, it’s only a matter of time before there are more and more. From that point on, it’s about merit.
“I don’t think these women are getting these jobs just because they’re women. It’s because they’re proving that they are extremely valuable.”
Of course, pay is an issue for women athletes. Players in the WNBA receive much less than those in the NBA. And women’s national teams have taken major steps to advocate for equitable pay with men’s national teams.
“The whole system has been set up for men to succeed in the world of sports and for people to know about it,” Bird said. “They’re always on TV, they’re always promoted. And people think that, ‘Oh, men’s sports is better than women’s.’ Well, it’s not that simple. We haven’t had the same opportunity to grow our leagues, so it’s not an even playing field. And now we need the same amount of support.
“Because it took time for the NBA to be what it is. It took time for the NFL to be what it is. And the NHL and for Major League Baseball. And now I think that’s a good example.”
Although Bird is 38 years old, has had her nose broken five times and had a couple knee injuries, she is still a stupendous player. She averaged 10.1 points and 7.1 assists per game for the Storm last season and could play in the Olympics for the fifth time in 2020 when she is 39. She continues to be great despite her age and people often asking why she is still playing.
As she has said many times, “40 is the new 30.”
And because of players like Bird, who is now the most decorated international basketball player in the world with nine total Olympic and World Cup gold medals, women athletes are deservedly getting more attention. And jobs.
“I think definitely that recently there has been a lot more attention on women’s sport,” Bird said. “Recently I was in Paris for the unveiling of the (FIFA Women’s) World Cup uniform. Nike did a huge event. Even something like that, that has never been done for women before. That’s just one small example. I think brands like Nike are really getting involved in their support, especially the commercials that came out. It’s being talked about. And being pushed more. With that, I think that’s how you can change people’s perceptions.
“It’s just about changing all those narratives around women’s sports. We’ve always been playing at high levels but now people are taking note and getting our stories out there. And that helps.”
Indeed. As former pro tennis player Trish Bostrom said, “All the young girls and athletes, they can look at Sue Bird and look at the Olympians and the tennis players and say, ‘Hey, I want to do that. I’m going to work hard and I’m going to do that.’”
Jim Caple is a former longtime writer for ESPN and the St. Paul Pioneer Press based in Seattle. He has covered sports on six continents, including 12 Olympics and 20 World Series. He is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.