Seven-time all-star Sue Bird doesn’t view herself as old (which she isn’t) but she’s starting to think about slowing down in the twilight of her Hall of Fame career.
It was announced in May that Bird, 33, wasn’t re-signed by UMMC Ekaterinburg, the Russian team she’s played for the past three WNBA offseasons. According to Bird, the Russian Federation has altered its domestic rules, again, to limit the number of Americans on a roster to two. Previously the limit for the domestic league was three.
“I’m kind of ‘odd man out’ a little bit,” Bird said.
Recent FIBA rules changed to stating players must compete with the passport used for national team competitions when also competing in EuroLeague sanctioned games. Bird has an Israeli passport because of her father’s heritage and used it in the past to count as an international player. But because she competes for Team USA, Bird can no longer count as an international player on a roster with American stars like Diana Taurasi and Candace Parker or Tina Thompson in the past.
That was fine this past offseason because the Russian domestic league allowed three Americans on its rosters. Bird opted out of EuroLeague play and just competed in the domestic league with Taurasi and Parker, leading Ekat to its third straight Championship of Russia and a European SuperCup title.
Now that’s not an option. UMMC Ekaterinburg retained Taurasi and Parker as its Americans on a revamped roster that also lost former Storm C Ann Wauters. The Belgium native will compete in France.
Bird hasn’t signed with another team and doesn’t mind.
“I love Russia,” Bird said of wanting to stay in the country. “There’s not a lot of spots and teams don’t have as much money as they used to. There’s just not as many opportunities for an American point guard. Usually they (all international teams) want a post player and a scorer and fill in the pieces with Europeans. I’m cool with that.”
Drafted by the Storm in 2002, Bird has played in Russia since 2004. She’s won five EuroLeague titles and played in two EuroLeague All-Star games during the WNBA offseason where she’s won two championships for Seattle. And you can’t forget the three gold medals Bird has helped Team USA win in the mix of her year-round playing schedule.
The strain of the nonstop play resulted in four surgeries the past six seasons alone for Bird. The past two were procedures on her right hip in October 2012 and left knee in May 2013, the latter forcing her to miss the 2013 WNBA season — a first in Bird’s stateside career.
The 2013-14 season in Ekaterinburg was Bird’s first complete season overseas, joining the team for training camp in October to continue her rehabilitation from the knee surgery. Her first games were there, reporting late to Storm training camp.
Bird is shooting a WNBA career-low 31.7 percent from the field for Seattle, which is 2-5 to open the season.
“I don’t feel this overwhelming pressure to play or to ‘make money.’ That’s not my driving goal,” said Bird, who’s averaged about $300,000 a season in her 10 years playing in Russia. Her most lucrative were five seasons for Sparta&K Moscow.
Bird’s guaranteed WNBA salary is $107,500 for this season, according to a copy of the ratified CBA.
“If the right situation, a good spot and the right contract presents itself, absolutely I’d play,” Bird said of the upcoming offseason. “If it doesn’t, I wouldn’t mind staying home. I’m not going to lie, I miss America. I’m 33, right? I’ve got to start a real life soon.”
Bird owns an apartment in Queen Anne and calls Seattle her home, so it would mean more time in the city during the winter months. Her family and restaurant businesses are back East, so obviously time would be spent there, too. But a five-hour flight is nothing compared to what it took to see family and friends the past decade.
If Bird were to skip an overseas season, she could also help the Storm with its winter marketing. Seattle is one of the few WNBA markets that hasn’t had a high-profile player stick around during the offseason to promote the team.
“As a basketball player, you often feel this need, this pressure to play,” Bird said. “You’re not a doctor, you’re not a lawyer, you’re not a reporter, you’re not in this job that you can do (forever). Basketball is a short period of time and you’ve got to take advantage of it.”
While Bird doesn’t have any prospects now and numerous players have already signed contracts for the upcoming season in Europe and Asia, it doesn’t mean the opportunities are shrinking. There isn’t a hard deadline to sign players like in the WNBA. Bird could be off to Turkey, Korea or China in October to play a full season or sign with a Russian team in January 2015.
“A lot of us players, if you were to ask them, feel like they have to play overseas,” Bird said. “Why? ‘Why not? Might as well do it while I can.’ For a while, I felt that way — I’ve got to make the most money that I can. Now, do I feel like I could still play overseas? Absolutely. But I don’t feel that pressure anymore. If the right thing comes my way, I will absolutely take it. If it doesn’t, I will absolutely look to do other things and stay home.”