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October 31, 2013 at 8:00 AM

Storm 2013 Exit Interviews: All-Star Sue Bird returns to play after offseason knee surgery

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Storm All-Star Sue Bird shots a layup
PHOTO: Courtesy of UMMC Yekaterinburg

Series Note: The Storm was swept in the opening-round of the WNBA playoffs by Minnesota on Sept. 22. Game 2 was played at the Tacoma Dome due to a scheduling conflict at the team’s KeyArena court by one of its sponsors, Microsoft. Minnesota went on to win the WNBA championship as Seattle players dispersed to offseason destinations the following days after holding exit interviews with coaches and the media. This series will feature conversations from the 11-player roster.

The WNBA offseason won’t feel as long given news the league should generate on the business side. The league’s collective-bargaining agreement expired Sept. 30 and a new agreement will need to be in place before free-agency can open as tentatively slated in February. The 2014 WNBA schedule likely will be moved up to accommodate for the 2014 FIBA World Championships in Turkey from Sept. 27-Oct. 5.

Storm-wise, the team could remain the same in 2014. Here’s a conversation with PG Sue Bird, who missed the WNBA season along with  C Lauren Jackson (hamstring) due to offseason knee surgery. Bird, who turned 33 in October, returned to play with her Russian team, UMMC Yekaterinburg, on Oct. 15. She played 25 minutes and finished with 16 points and six assists in the team’s 87-64 Premier League debut at Enisey Krasnoyarsk. Bird has played three games overall to date, one in the Russian Cup series, to average 13 points and 3.7 assists. She’s teaming with former Storm posts Ann Wauters and Eva Kobryn on a stacked roster. You can catch the promo video below. Bird didn’t play the WNBA season but counted on the roster and was paid her WNBA-maximum salary in order to rehabilitate her injury through the organization with first-year Storm strength and conditioning coach Susan Borchardt. This conversation with Bird is bits and pieces throughout the season as well as before she left for Russia, so it’s extremely long. It may take the entire offseason to read. But first, that promo video:

Seattle Times: Before you head to Russia, you’re attending the USA Basketball mini-camp to evaluate players for the FIBA World Championship team?

Bird: Yeah, I’m going to go the training camp even though I won’t be able to participate. As one of the older players, or maybe more veteran players, we’ll call me, it’s good to still attend and be around. It’s one of the situations where I don’t know what the practices will be like and I don’t want that to be my first (full-contact) practice. I don’t know if I’d be ready for that mentally. I’m still working my way, but I feel good and I feel physically ready.

Q: There isn’t a concern about your first play and full-contact practice being in Russia? A common thought is overseas organizations don’t have as elite facilities and trainers as Americans when it comes to rehabbing injuries.

Bird: No, not at all. When you’re in a team setting, like a team practice versus playing pick-up down the street, it’s more of a controlled, game-like setting. That’s the best way for me to start. I feel very confident in my knee. Susan (Borchardt) has done a really amazing job getting me back. I feel in shape. There’s really no way to get in game-shape without playing a game, but I feel as close to that as possible.

Q: Does playing on your surgically repaired knee feel different?

Bird: No. I didn’t have pain before (the surgery). As you know, it was something in my bone, not a structural thing. This was just a matter of letting it heal. Of course you have to get your strength and muscle back. Atrophy is a (explicative). And that’s really the hardest part, getting all of your strength back. That’s basically what they’ve been doing with me for the last three months.

Q: Is your return at all like your freshman year at UConn when you originally tore the ACL in your left knee? Like wondering how good you’ll be for the 2014 WNBA season? You haven’t missed an entire season since then.

Bird: I was like 18-years-old and hadn’t really done anything basketball-wise and was trying to establish myself, have a good college career. Then being out, I didn’t have a chance to do that. There was a lot of uncertainty and doubts in my own head after the injury. I remember there was a preseason article written going through all of the college teams and it was, oh, UConn, they could be good but there’s a big question at the point guard spot. To their defense, I guess, what did I do at that point? Nothing. This is different. I wasn’t playing and I got injured and the season was taken away from me. It was more, I came into this season knowing it was going to happen. I’m older and the surgery was more preventative so I could play another three years, hopefully four or five, who knows? So, it’s totally different. The thing I feel most confident about is because I have been through injuries and surgeries and things like that, I feel very optimistic about being able to come out on the other side of this one. I’ve done it before, I know what it takes, I know what things mean. That first time, it was all new. I had no idea what was what. It was scary at times. Looking back, moments like that have helped me stay grounded now.

Q: Was there a game then that mentally told you the knee was fine? You haven’t torn it since, just had several maintenance surgeries.

Bird: I tore my ACL in December (1998) and that summer (1999) our team went to Europe. I was able to play in real game action before an actual college game. People didn’t cover that stuff then and that helped. There is a difference between practicing and playing in a game, a huge difference. So, I was able to do that without the actual pressure of a (college) game and that was a huge help. I was able to develop a confidence in my knee.

Q: You’re able to have a similar transition back this time, too, since your return will be with your Russian team, UMMC Yekaterinburg.

Bird: I’ll be able to ease myself in. As of right now, the three Americans are still me, D (Diana Taurasi) and Candace. Candace and D will play EuroLeague and I’ll just play in the Russian League.

Q: You’re OK with that? EuroLeague is the top league overseas. UMMC is even hosting the EuroLeague Final Eight in April. The different European domestic leagues aren’t considered as difficult.

Bird: I love this team, I love the city and I love the organization. I’m in a great spot. I would would love to play EuroLeague as a competitive person. Russian League, if you look at the rosters, it’s going to be just as competitive. So, I’m looking forward to that as well.

Q: I thought you got your Israeli passport so y’all could play together within the guidelines of FIBA’s rule that limits the number of American players on a roster?

Bird: Since 2010, I’ve been declared an American. They made a rule that you have to play with the passport of the national team you represent. The rule was made against us. When the rule was put into play, there was probably eight or maybe nine players that it effected, so you really made a rule to effect nine people? I’m a little soggy about it. In Russian League, you can have three Americans. They (FIBA) would never do that on the men’s side, lets put it that way, and they don’t.

Q: What do you think of the Storm not playing its postseason game at KeyArena?

Bird: It’s definitely a bummer. There’s a reason why we play well in this building. It’s a comfort level and obviously the fans. I know the argument is the fans are going to be in the Tacoma Dome (attendance was actually a season-low 3,457). For us, it’s now an away game. We’re literally staying in a hotel the night before because the game is at 2 p.m. The motto in the locker room is to roll with the punches. Opposite to here, you don’t feel anyone is near you where at the Key, you feel like everyone is on top of you, which is good. But Tacoma people need love, too.

Q: For next season, everybody is somber now because of the playoff exit, but what’s your outlook for when you return in 2014?

Bird: I think about next season and I get very excited. This season may not have ended exactly how we would have liked, but at the same time there’s a lot to be proud of. There’s a lot of players on this team who got an opportunity and got a chance to really see what they were made of and really see what they could do in the WNBA. That just has made everybody on this team better and hopefully the addition of a couple of people — I’m referring to myself and Lauren — we can be even better next year.

Q: You opened another restaurant in Boston?

Bird: Yeah, it’s the same restaurant (Five Horses Tavern), and just two locations. I’m just an investor. (Owner) Dylan Welsh is a family friend from way back when and it just turned out he’s really good at restaurants, through a lot of experience of course. He asked myself and my Dad to be investors in his restaurants, so it’s us two, him and one other person (chef is Aaron Parsons). I’m literally hands-off. My Dad is really smart business-wise, but it’s really Dylan’s baby. He was the manager at a bunch of restaurants and other similar stuff. He had this idea and rolled with it. What’s cool about it is it’s affordable the way a pub would be, but the food is way more gourmet than pub food. It’s like pork belly tacos. Not fancy, but not pub food. But the beer list is extremely extensive and so is the whiskey. The beer and whiskey is their thing.

Q: Where you able to frequent it a lot when you started your rehab at home in New York?

Bird: I’ve been to the original one maybe three times, just when I could go up there. This new one just opened (September), so I haven’t been able to get out there. It’s a good investment and it’s been interesting to hear all of the on goings behind the scenes. He (Dylan) builds these places from scratch and has done a great job. I can’t say anything bad about him.

Q: You also joined Twitter after years of stating you wouldn’t get sucked into the craze, uhn?

Bird: Oh, yeah, it’s OK. It started with the Storm asking me to do a lot of the “Bird Tweets” things (on the team’s account). Then it evolved into asking me to open a Twitter account. It became this thing where the fans could help and we could have a contest to pick the name (@S10Bird). I figure I can control, well that’s the wrong word. It’s not like I have to be on there 24/7 like most people. It’s been cool. I like @UberFacts the best. I’m still a newborn on there. I don’t know what I’m doing half the time but I’m learning.

Q: How have you liked spending the season making Storm appearances? You kayaked with fans, made surprise visits to elementary schools and even put the Storm in the spotlight during your stints as a in-studio host for WNBA games aired on the ESPN networks.

Bird: It’s been cool. I’ve gotten a chance to do things that I probably never would’ve done just cause when you’re playing you just don’t have the time. To be honest, sometimes the (active player’s) schedule’s so crazy whereas my schedule is a little more relaxed now. I do workout everyday, obviously, but I’m not getting ready for a game. That part’s missing. That’s giving me a lot more time to do things and I’ve enjoyed it. I’ve gotten to do some fun stuff. The kayaking is obviously a highlight, the most out there, I guess. It was not just talking to kids or signing autographs. I’ve canoed when I was a kid but never full-on kayaked. And I didn’t realize where they take you is under 520 (SR-520 around the Arboretum). It was stuff I would never get to see.

Q: Did you go to the All-Star game in Connecticut?

Bird: I went home and Tina Charles did a fundraiser for her Hopey’s Heart Foundation and she invited all the UConn alum, so I was in New York. I did catch the second half of the game live (at Mohegan Sun Arena). But I was pretty much there to support Tina and her foundation. I think I would have caught the whole game, that was the plan, but traffic was bad. I did get to see the good part of the game.

Q: Yeah, that’s when Candace Parker took over to win the game’s MVP award. What was it like watching Tina Thompson play in her last All-Star game? She was honored throughout the weekend and made a quick speech afterward.

Bird: I didn’t really have an impression other than it takes moments like that to look at someone and their “body-of-work” and her career to bring it to the forefront and it makes you really think. It takes those moments where you’re kind of like “Wow!” You think about the things she has done and what she has accomplished. That was just one of many All-Star games and one moment of many in the rest of the season but it was nice to have her be honored in that way. Let her kind of enjoy that experience one last time. So, I thought it was pretty cool. And it’s not until those moments where you really start to think about what she’s done and what she’s meant to women’s basketball.

Q: You’ve played for 11 years in the WNBA. It’s not Tina, retiring after 17 seasons, but does that type of reflection on a long career make you think about yours at all?

Bird: No. When it’s like that or when I watched the Sheryl Swoopes thing (“Nine for IX” special), I feel lucky to have been able to play with these players, to be honest. They really — Tina, Sheryl, you could name a lot of names — I’ve been able to play with pretty much all of them and they really started things. I mean, they really got things going. I’m just thankful for those experiences.

Q: A long time ago, I think when you were a rookie, you mentioned you were bad with your women’s basketball history, lacked knowledge. Has that improved now?

Bird: For sure. When you get to actually meet people and know them, it gives stories a realness to them. You’re seeing this person or they’re telling you a story. It’s not the same as, “Oh, so-and-so did this.” You might hear about what Babe Ruth did but it’s not something I ever saw. But now I’m actually with Tina or I was with some of these people on the Olympic team and you see them as people and you see what they’ve been through and it’s a real thing. When that happens, all of that (history) resonates and how could you not respect it?

Q: What do you think about the Comets? Tina has had this great career but the team she accomplished it with folded in 2008.

Bird: It never really occurred to me that that might happen. Like if Seattle all of a sudden disappeared, that I would really not have a WNBA home, so to speak. It never really occurred to me until in that special they said Sheryl or Tina will never have their jersey raised in the rafters. It kind of sucks. I’m lucky that hopefully that never happens here. To have it happen to them is kind of weird. Obviously all of those great things and championships did happen, but to not still have a team, it does take away from it. I don’t doubt the league will do something (to commemorate the team), that’s just my gut. But I wonder if not enough time has gone by to kind of celebrate. It’s only been five seasons. I would be shocked if eventually there wasn’t something. The question only comes up now because Tina is retiring and now those players aren’t here anymore and you want to celebrate them.

Q: What do you remember about playing against Houston?

Bird: Just that they were very difficult to play against. I was there when the circus was in town and it (the arena) smelled like poop the whole time. It was always Sheryl and Tina’s team. My second year was when Cynthia (Cooper) came back and it was cool to play against her. I’d heard and obviously seen so many things about what an amazing one-on-one player she was and to actually experience it, I’m glad I had that moment. They were the championship team, always. And of course when they knocked us out of the playoffs in 2005, that was a heartbreaker.

Q: Has your off-court life been enough of a distraction for wanting to be playing, especially in the postseason?

Bird: To be honest, even though I have a decent amount going on off the court, my main focus in terms of me is just getting healthy. I’m here (practice) everyday with Susan working out and I’m doing basketball workouts, so it’s fine. Whenever you can kind of move along in rehab and introduce something new, you kind of forget about the four months that have past and you’re excited, again. It revives you a little bit. And to watch the team has been a lot of fun. This is a group, they really genuinely care about each other and play for each other and you can feel it and see it. They get along really well, so it’s fun to be around. And even though I’m not on the court with them or in games with them, I enjoy it with them. I can do shooting drills with the team; anything where nobody is going to touch me, essentially. I’ve got the red quarterback jersey on. I’m back and my leg muscle is back.

Q: It was funny to see the reaction when you were in a Storm jersey for road game in San Antonio this season, but it was only because the airline lost your luggage?

Bird: I flew in that morning and it was just a bad day. The luggage was just delayed. I had a connecting flight. So, I was literally in some Spandex and a t-shirt, some Nike thing, and I get in a cab and I don’t have my bags. I’m calling KB (Storm president and CEO Karen Braynt) and asking what should I wear. She said, “Well, what do you have on?” and I explained, then boom, the cab stops short. Coffee is all over me. So, that’s where the Storm warm-up came into play. I was like, this (crappy) day can’t get any worse. I had nothing to wear at the hotel for three hours and had to go to CVS and stock up (on toiletries) and all of that good stuff. Luckily (Storm manager of basketball operations) Derek (Liebert) had extra stuff and I just threw that on for the game. My bag got there later that night.

Q: It was the Storm’s annual organized road trip for Storm Crazies and they posted the pictures of you on Twitter, what did they say?

Bird: The fans were a little confused at first. I actually saw some of them in CVS and they were like, “What are you doing?!” because I was already dressed in the Storm warm-up. I explained the situation but I think the funny thing is that we had 60 or 70 people down there and they were like, “You look so good in green!” I was like, “You haven’t seen me in green before?” like it was the first time. Those were the funny comments, “Oh, we’ve missed you in green!”

Q: Even after actually wearing the game-day gear, again, you didn’t feel antsy to play?

Bird: Yeah, of course. But push is kind of a bad word when it comes to coming back from a surgery. It’s a slippery slope. If this were August, my answers would be different. But when you’re approaching the playoffs and they’re playing so well, do you want to throw someone in the mix of that who’s not 100 percent? I don’t know if that’s smart for me personally, just as an individual, and I don’t know if it’s smart from a team standpoint. I don’t even know if I’d help, so it’s hard to say what would happen. It’s a risk. And I don’t think it’s a risk for me health-wise and for the team chemistry-wise worth having. I don’t know how to judge that. There’s so many ways you could look at that. The bottom, bottom line is I just don’t know if I’ll be ready and you can’t push that kind of thing. But if I was where I am right now in early-August, it would be totally different. Right now, we’re talking two weeks. No.

Q: With Temeka Johnson taking over your starting position, how much did you helped her this season?

Bird: We’ve developed a pretty good relationship. It’s the first time we’ve really been around each other, generally, on a day-to-day basis. So, just getting to know each other has been cool. I’m always here to help but she doesn’t need it. When you’re with a team every day and going through things everyday, you kind of just learn at your own pace and your own way. What’s she’s done with the team and her ability to lead and some of the games she’s had — she’s been huge for this team’s success. She’s been a big, big reason.

Q: True, but you really haven’t said anything?

Bird: The very first game that I was here for, she said, “Hey, if you see anything or notice anything let me know.” But that was early in the season. Now, she doesn’t need it and I don’t think I said anything anyway.

Q: Minnesota is a growing problem for Seattle, so what does this team need to beat Minnesota?

Bird: Minnesota is tough. They’re very talented and they’re deep. But we have a team that when we play our best, and it starts on defense — that’s been the mantra ever since (coach) Brian (Agler) has gotten here — when we have a solid defensive game and we have one or two people have an above average offensive game, then we’re there. We’re a team that learns every time we play you. That happened last year (2012 postseason where Seattle won Game 2 at KeyArena). There were some games where they killed us in the regular-season last year. But then you saw in the playoffs, it was a little different game-by-game. We can wear teams down. And talking about defense, the one thing about this (2013) team that’s different from a lot of other teams is we’re very deep in that way. We have a lot of players who can score, I can think off the top of my head where they could score 20 points. We have a lot of options that way and when you put those two together, that’s when we’re at our best and tough to beat.

Q: Your first Storm coach, Lin Dunn, will be inducted into the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame in June 2014. What has she meant to the organization to you?

Bird: Lin is the coach that drafted me. There’s a lot of fond memories and good feelings when I think about her. Even though she was only here for a year for me, for the franchise she was here longer and really got them going. I’ve seen video of her walking down the street, bouncing a ball to get season-ticket holders and getting people excited. She really did a great job. Obviously it’s more than just basketball at that point. It’s her personality and that’s what makes her successful.

Q: The ABL was first in Seattle, but can you imagine the work she had to do in cultivating what is now regarded as one of the WNBA’s few successful franchises?

Bird: No, I can’t to be honest. It sounds hard. Really hard. But, like I said, her personality and the way she is, I can’t think of anybody better to do it. I’m sure it’s eight parts personality and two parts accent, but it works for her.

Q: So, Dawn Staley was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. She played a role in your Olympic career, right?

Bird: She knew that I could potentially be the point guard for USA Basketball in the coming years. Even as a (Olympic team) assistant in 2008, she was always very willing and eager to help me kind of take that point guard-torch, if you will, and run forward with it. I look back on that experience and have really good feelings about my relationship with Dawn. To see her get into the Hall of Fame, she’s obviously deserving. She’s impacted my life but I know so many other lives, whether it be on the court or off the court with her charity, were impacted the same. In terms of women’s basketball, she was there on that 1996 Olympic team. Don’t get me wrong, she had a great career at Virginia and everything, but that 1996 Olympic team was extremely pivotal for women’s basketball (launching the WNBA) and she was a big part of that. Even though she played in the ABL, we won’t hold that against her, she was able to then move on to the WNBA and do some great things here. Dawn just had an amazing career and her impact on women’s basketball is definitely felt.

Comments | More in Olympics, Overseas Hoops, Storm | Topics: Sue Bird, UConn

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