DENVER — A household with Megan Rapinoe and Sue Bird in it is always going to be in the news. But women’s sports’ most famous power couple has been especially atop the headlines lately.
Rapinoe’s return to the U.S. women’s soccer team was announced June 13. Three days later, Bird announced that this WNBA season will be her last. From there, Bird played two road games with major emotional significance: at Connecticut, the state where she became a college superstar; and at New York, with Brooklyn a few miles from her Long Island hometown.
To no one’s surprise, fans and media piled into both games. The Liberty’s attendance was their highest of the season, and the home players wore “Thank You Sue” shirts during warmups. Bird hit a big late three-pointer to help the Storm earn an 81-72 win, and she got a standing ovation as she left the court for the final time.
“I’ve got people in here that I’ve known my whole life — friends, family … it’s really been amazing,” Bird told ESPN after the game, in an interview that was broadcast in the arena too. “This is where I grew up, and anybody knows who’s from New York, it teaches you a lot about basketball. And there is a legacy here: New York basketball’s the best, and I’ve just tried to uphold my side of it, but now it’s time to pass the torch.”
She even dropped a “Bing bong!,” the current New York sports catchphrase, and it might be the first time a Big Apple crowd cheered a visitor who did so.
Rapinoe watched it all from back home in Seattle, as she had a NWSL game to play with OL Reign on Sunday.
“So overwhelming, I think, in the best way,” Rapinoe said. “Being able to not only be in New York, but be in Connecticut for the one game as well, that UConn family, and then in New York with friends and family and her nieces and just the place that means so much to her. And be able to have that moment — obviously the Liberty took care of her in a really special way. I think it’s probably all still setting in a lot.”
Rapinoe knows better than anyone that her fiancée doesn’t demand the spotlight. But of course, Bird often is in it, as the 41-year-old has been since she won New York state and national titles at Christ the King High School in Queens.
At Connecticut, she tore an ACL eight games into her freshman season. But in the three years after that, the Huskies lost just three of their 110 games, made every Final Four, and won national championships in 2000 and 2002 — the last with a perfect 39-0 record.
From there, she was off to the pros. Bird has spent all 21 of her WNBA seasons in Seattle, with three winter sojourns at Russian teams along the way. She has won four WNBA titles and made 12 All-Star teams.
And last year, she won her fifth Olympic gold medal as the U.S. women continued their dynasty on the sport’s biggest stage. She also was one of the United States’ two flag-bearers at the Opening Ceremony.
“Sue’s not the kind of person that is wanting to be in the spotlight and is going to ask for that or demand that — but it doesn’t mean that she doesn’t need that or deserve that,” Rapinoe said. “And so I feel like the kind of half-a-season of a farewell tour is going to be really special for her. I don’t think there’s any other player that has had a more important career in the WNBA than Sue on and off the court.”
Rapinoe might be a little biased there, of course. But the list is short: Bird, Diana Taurasi, Tamika Catchings, Sheryl Swoopes, and not many others.
There was speculation for a while that Rapinoe and Bird would retire from playing at the same time. That now seems unlikely, or at least less likely, as she told Time magazine last week that she’s “all in on this next World Cup” next year. While that’s ultimately up to U.S. national team manager Vlatko Andonovski, Rapinoe would have to play for a club next year to make the case.
That can wait for now, though. This moment is about celebrating Bird, one of the all-time legends of any women’s sport.
“For me, in women’s sports, the Mount Rushmore is Mia [Hamm], Venus [and] Serena [Williams], Sue [Bird], and Billie Jean King” Rapinoe said. “You don’t get Megan Rapinoe if those people aren’t doing that, you don’t get Naomi [Osaka], you don’t get Sabrina [Ionescu], you don’t get any of that. They took on so much on and off the court, field, whatever, to set this whole generation up to be able to do what we’re doing.”