Sue Bird on why NCAA fans don't always follow the WNBA Bird notes that WNBA players represent society's most marginalized groups. "We're Black, we're women, we're gay," she says. "And those are the groups that are held back in our society."

Why haven't NCAA fans always followed the WNBA? Sue Bird has her theories

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This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest, Sue Bird, has to take some credit for boosting the popularity of women's basketball. She's considered the best point guard in women's basketball history, and she could shoot, too. In college, she led the UConn Huskies to become a two-time NCAA champion. With the Seattle Storm, she was a four-time WNBA champion. She was a WNBA All-Star 13 times and won five Olympic gold medals. It's hard to give up such an impressive career doing what you love, but she made the decision to retire in 2022 after 21 years in the WNBA. She wondered who she would be without basketball, and now she has a partial answer. She's an activist fighting for gender equity in women's sports. I didn't realize that during most of her years in the WNBA, she was forced to supplement her WNBA salary by playing overseas. In her case, it was in Russia during the offseason. She played for a team owned by a mysterious, very wealthy, very connected man who was murdered.

Bird is also an activist now for LGBTQ rights. She co-founded a media production company and another company advocating for equal rights, coverage and investment in women's sports, pushing brands, companies and teams to give women equal representation. She's engaged to another icon of women's sports, retired soccer star Megan Rapinoe. A new documentary called "Sue Bird: In The Clutch" is about her career and her decision to retire. It's available for rent or purchase on Apple TV, Amazon Prime Video, Vudu and Wolfe On Demand.

Sue Bird, welcome to FRESH AIR, and congratulations on this documentary. As a point guard, a lot of the game was basically on your shoulders. You're deciding the plays. Can you describe how you saw your role?

SUE BIRD: Well, a lot of it was just that - making sure that our team was always on the same page, that we always understood what we were trying to accomplish. You know, to get a little granular, it's as specific as what play we're running, when we're running it, why we're running it, what we're looking for both offensively, defensively. I think that became my identity, particularly later in my career, but it took probably all 20 years to really perfect it. But it was always a part of me. Even when I think back to when I was a little kid, I always wanted to have my fingerprints on the game in that way.

GROSS: Are there ways you had to train yourself to see everything on the court and to understand people's personalities on your team and on the team you were competing against so you could tell whether there's a good day or a bad day for them and how they were likely to respond to something?

BIRD: Yeah. You definitely - I mean, a big part of playing team sports is understanding your teammates, understanding, you know, what makes them click, understanding who you can be a little harsher with, who maybe needs a pat on the back. Sometimes that can change day to day. And then at the same time, you know, you're also someone on the team. So you're going to have your own emotions, your own mood swings. It's impossible not to be impacted by the emotion of the game at times, the highs and the lows. They happen regularly. So you're kind of monitoring and tracking your own emotion while, at the point guard spot, for me personally - while, you know, kind of, like, taking the temp of all your teammates at all times. Again, that's - this doesn't happen overnight. For me, it was - a lot was learned through experience.

GROSS: I want to ask you about an outstanding moment in your career as a shooter. There was one game in particular where you saved the day twice, and this was in 2001 and was UConn versus Notre Dame. It was the Big East title game. So you sunk the ball, breaking the tie at halftime. And then at the end of the game, after Notre Dame hit a free throw, tying the game, there were five seconds remaining, and you drove the ball down the court and, like, you know, shot it. It kind of bounced, and then it went in.

Meanwhile, as you - I think as you were in air - it's hard to tell whether you were already, like, down or still in air when, you know, a guard kind of, like, swiped at you, knocking you a little off balance. It looked like you stumbled backwards a little bit, turned around and then landed. By that time, the ball had gone in, and you landed in the arms of one of your team members, and then everybody came out and hugged you. And it was like an - the crowds are cheering, an incredible moment. And, you know, that shot won the game. So you saved the game twice with incredible shots. What do you remember about those moments?

BIRD: Oh, I remember everything, every detail, the feeling of it. That was my junior year, and we had had a little bit of a tough season. We had some injuries, just - you know, we were still good. We still went into the NCAA tournament favored. What you're describing happened in the Big East finals. So we were about to head into the NCAA tournament after that. And we were still favored, but for UConn standards, it was a little up and down. So I remember everything about those moments. I'd missed some time before that game with some back spasms, so the fact that I was even playing felt like a miracle for me, personally. And then to hit a game-winning shot on your home court - we hosted the Big East tournament that year. But interestingly enough, Notre Dame was the one seed. So we're on our home court, but we're in our blue uniform, and we're sitting on the visitor bench. So everything was backwards that day except that last shot that I took. That one was good.

GROSS: That must feel so good.

BIRD: It does. It does. It's literally what you do when you're a little kid. I mean, every athlete could tell you there's always a moment - you're a little kid, you know, whether you're in your backyard, at the park, whatever it is, doing a three-two-one moment where you kind of count it down in your head.

GROSS: So it's kind of a moment of desperation, right? Your team's about to lose, and you save it. You need focus. You need confidence, and you need some guts to take the shot. So how do you achieve that kind of calm and focus in a moment of terrific anxiety and desperation?

BIRD: I mean, athletes - we're all a little crazy because we are literally groomed to control our emotions in these really hyperemotional moments. So you prepare. You try to put yourself in those types of situations. Your coaches try to put your team in those types of situations so you can feel it. Nothing's like an actual game, so you're trying to mimic it as much as you can. But the best way to tell this is in the actual moment - I would say every big shot that I've ever hit in those split-second moments, I feel very calm. I don't have a lot of chatter in my head. I'm able to just feel the game. I'm not thinking a lot. But that's because of the preparation. That's because of the practice. And then, of course, as you get older especially, it's because of the experience. It doesn't - it just doesn't throw you off as much as when you're younger.

GROSS: Can you maintain that kind of calm at difficult moments off the court in the rest of your life?

BIRD: I can. I can. Sometimes Megan hates it, but I can.

GROSS: Why does she hate it? She's had to...

BIRD: No, no. I'm joking.

GROSS: ...Do the same thing, right?

BIRD: Yeah, yeah. No. I'm joking. It's just there's some times where you might expect, like, a bigger emotional response, and I'm able to just keep it even keel. But to be honest, it's something that - you know, it's interesting. I think athletes are rewarded a lot for characteristics or abilities that doesn't always serve them when they take their uniform off and they're in - whether it's an intimate relationship, friendships, with your family. It doesn't always serve you certain things. So keeping my emotions in check isn't necessarily the key to success in some of my relationships. So it's definitely something I've been working on, to be honest.

GROSS: Yeah, well, here's another thing. I mean, as an athlete, you and, of course, Megan, too - like, the point is to win, right? But you can't, like, win a relationship.



BIRD: You definitely can't.

GROSS: It doesn't work that way. Like...


GROSS: Who's ahead?

BIRD: Right. We can - we sometimes keep score. It never works.

GROSS: Yeah, yeah. And there's moments when you really have to compromise. So, like, how do you - especially with two athletes, like, two star athletes, two winning Olympic gold medalists in one relationship, how do you not struggle to win?

BIRD: So interestingly enough, we don't feel competitive. We don't feel, like, a competitiveness within our relationship or with each other. But what does show up is - you know, my personality is very much - like, I'm not that different from who I was on the court as the point guard. And where I'm going with that is a lot of times, I had to put other people's needs ahead of mine - right? - for the betterment of the team, for the common goal.

And I think Megan and her style of play was - it's not a selfishness, by the way. It's actually a good selfishness. I always say this. If you had five of me on a basketball court, it would be a terrible team 'cause you need different personalities. You need different types of players to make a good team. Megan is the type where her game has a little more selfishness in it. She's looking - she's, by the way, a great passer, but she's looking for those moments. She's seeking them out.

And so how's that show up in our relationship? At times, you know, she might take up a little more space. I might be willing to give that space up. So it's on both of us, myself first and foremost, to take space in our relationship and for Megan to kind of see when that's happening and then vice versa. So that's kind of one way in which it's impacted our relationship, but we're aware of it now - shoutout to couples therapy. And it's been - it's made the relationship even more fun to navigate.

GROSS: Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is retired WNBA star Sue Bird. A new documentary called "Sue Bird: In The Clutch" is available for rent or purchase on several platforms. We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Sue Bird, the greatest point guard in women's basketball history. She retired in 2022. In college, she played for the UConn Huskies and was a two-time NCAA champion. During her 21-year pro career, she played for the Seattle Storm and won four WNBA championships. She's won five Olympic gold medals. The new documentary about her called "Sue Bird: In The Clutch," is available for rent or purchase on Apple TV, Amazon Prime Video, Vudu and Wolfe On Demand.

One of the things that shocked you when you joined the WNBA was that it had less press coverage and much smaller audiences than women's college basketball. Why, do you think? And what year are we talking about when you entered the WNBA?

BIRD: Yeah, so women's college basketball is a huge entity. The NCAA is a huge entity. So when you go to college - and especially at a college like UConn, where we have sold-out crowds every night, we're the hottest ticket in the state of Connecticut. There's no other professional team really around that area. So we had a ton of media coverage.

GROSS: Right.

BIRD: And so at the time - 2002, when I got to the WNBA - this is a league that's only in its - gosh, maybe, like, sixth year at that point, if memory serves - fifth or sixth year. So it's still new. It's getting going, and it definitely had some ups and downs in its coverage. I think when I entered the league, it was heading into a downslope and then definitely plateaued. So it was different. It was different. It wasn't the same platform as college basketball. It's definitely gotten better.

GROSS: It must have been so strange to go from college to pro basketball and feel like the game had been diminished in the pro version of it.

BIRD: It was weird. It was weird because it didn't add up. Like, all we talk about, especially in the U.S., is how we love to watch elite sports. We love to watch the greatest, right? And the WNBA is that for women's basketball. So from college to the WNBA - that's a huge jump, and I knew it. I could feel it right away. I had a great rookie season, but I knew I was on a different level. I'm 21. I'm not playing against experienced 30-year-olds. It is different. And so the level of play and the product was great, and it was so much higher. But it was lacking in all these other ways in terms of the media coverage, like we said, the investment. So it was confusing.

GROSS: Do you blame that on marketing or lack of awareness of the WNBA? I mean, why would people lose interest in women's basketball just because they're professionals?

BIRD: Yeah, I was thinking the same thing because I always say this. Women's college basketball is amazing, and it's hot, and everybody knows the names year after year. It's particularly hot right now. But I'm telling you. Throughout the course of the last 20-plus years, there was always - there's always a big name in women's college basketball that people know. And I'm like, wait a minute. The same people, all of us that played in college, were the same people in the WNBA. So if you liked us in college, like, why didn't you follow us to the WNBA?

And it is probably one of the more interesting and maybe more difficult questions to answer. I have my theories. I think it's wrapped up in something in the world of - society loves to give young girls and young women opportunity and promote that and support it. But something about when they become women - it feels a little less supported. I also think that the WNBA - and this is probably, more than anything, the reason the WNBA - the makeup of the WNBA is every marginalized group that exists today. We're Black. We're women. We're gay - high percentages of all of those categories. And those are the groups that are held back in our society. And so I don't think it's a coincidence that the WNBA has been held back in that way.

GROSS: So in terms of the differences between the WNBA and the NBA, those differences were vast. I think the gap is closing a little, thanks in part to your efforts in negotiating a new contract. But let's talk about some of the differences. Let's start with things like pay. Compare people in the WNBA with the NBA. And I don't know if you want to compare in terms of stars or...

BIRD: Yeah.

GROSS: ...People who aren't famous but, you know, are still, like, good enough players to be there.

BIRD: Yeah. So I don't know exact NBA numbers. I want to say that if you are a supermax player in the NBA, you're making, you know, upwards of 40-plus million dollars a year, right? I think LeBron's contracts. Russell Westbrook - like, the players that are household names, I think they're in that range. If you're a WNBA player and you're on a supermax deal, you're somewhere in the $250,000 range, I think it is nowadays, for your salary.

We do get an overall compensation package that's a little different. So we do have other opportunities. They pay for your housing, obviously benefits and things like that. But we also have opportunities to do marketing deals with the league. So there's team marketing deals with your team, then there's league marketing deals with the league. So that can get you, in terms of overall compensation, close to actually, probably nowadays, like, more than half a million dollars. But still, half a million dollars is nothing compared to 40. And then when you look at minimum - I don't know what the NBA minimum is - the minimum in the WNBA is, give or take, 80,000.

GROSS: And when you started, it was much less than that.

BIRD: Oh, yeah. When I got drafted - I was on a two-year deal when I got drafted at around 60,000, 65,000. I came off that deal and I immediately made the max. And at the time, maybe 100,000. So from 2004 until we signed that new CBA in 2020, I was making 100,000. And that increased, you know, because of, like, inflation increased, you know, X amount every year. And I think by the end I was at, like, 120. The percentages in which my contract increased was at a lower rate than inflation. So I can argue that I lost money playing in the WNBA. And that's obviously an issue.

GROSS: And that's an example of why you went to play in Russia in the offseason.

BIRD: Absolutely.

GROSS: And you're hardly the only one because you can make more money in Russia during the offseason and supplement your income. So before we get to what that was like, I'm really interested in hearing, based on your Russian experience, what went through your mind when Brittney Griner was arrested and held prisoner for an extended period of time?

BIRD: Yeah, just a lot of different thoughts, a lot of different emotions, mostly fear and worry for her, right? Like, what does this mean? What does this mean for her as a human, right, being held prisoner, being in a cage? You know, like, literally when you see some of those pictures, it looks like she's in a cage. What does that do to a person? And what does that do to a person when you don't know when you're going to get out? How does that - I was like, forget BG as a basketball player. The minute it happened I was like, I knew it was going to be a long time. I think she got out quicker than any of us could have anticipated. I've lived and played in Russia for 10 years. And, you know, I know that it's just a country that goes by different rules than we do here. So it felt like there were so many unknowns.

I also understood that if she were in that position, it likely meant it was out of any of the hands that could help her. Meaning, when we go over there, we're generally taken care of. We are very well taken care of. And so a lot of times, the owners that we have played for have positions of power. And cash is king over there. I'll just be honest, it feels like money talks when you go over there to Russia. So the fact that none of those types of people could help her, that really alarmed me.

GROSS: Did you know her personally?


GROSS: Yeah.

BIRD: Oh, yeah. She's - I've played two Olympics with BG, obviously played against her. But yeah, I know BG.

GROSS: So you were worried on a very personal level.

BIRD: Oh, absolutely. Our whole league was. It's a very small league. It's only 144 players. So even though we fight and hate each other when we play against each other, the minute we're off the court or the minute we're somewhere else, particularly another country, that's like your best friend.

GROSS: Well, we need to take another break here, so let me reintroduce you. My guest is retired WNBA star Sue Bird. There's a new documentary about her called "Sue Bird: In The Clutch," and it's available for rent or purchase on Apple TV, Amazon Prime Video, Vudu and Wolfe On Demand. We'll be right back. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview with retired WNBA star Sue Bird, the greatest point guard in women's basketball history. She won five Olympic gold medals. She's engaged to another icon of women's sports, retired women's soccer star Megan Rapinoe. A new documentary called "Sue Bird: In The Clutch" is about her career and her decision to retire. It's available for rent or purchase on Apple TV, Amazon Prime Video, Vudu and Wolfe On Demand.

So you played for three teams in Russia. The second team, which is the team that you played for the longest - five years - that was owned by a real mystery man. You know, he was incredibly wealthy. He gave the players incredible gifts, did them incredible favors, and you didn't know how he got his money. And then he was murdered. I mean, he was in his car, and there were about 20 bullet holes through the driver's side window. I think it was the driver's side window. But it was...

BIRD: It was the passenger side.

GROSS: Passenger side.

BIRD: He was the passenger.

GROSS: Oh, was he getting driven?

BIRD: Mmm hmm.

GROSS: OK. So - anyway, so he was just, you know, murdered. What did you know about him and how he got the money when you played for him?

BIRD: Not much. This wasn't someone you could Google. This wasn't someone that - you know, whose information was readily available to you. We knew what he told us. We knew a lot of his stories. The one part we all 100% knew was that at one point he was in jail in Israel. He was arrested for being a spy for Russia. So he's, like, on Russia's side and he was living in Israel. He lived in Tel Aviv for a long time, and he was ultimately arrested there for being a spy. So that part we knew. We knew he had a colorful life, right? Like, you're just not some rich person in Russia who's, like, you know, chumming up with all the Russian celebrities. We'd be out to dinner and people would be coming up to him constantly to say hi or just to, like, pay their respects, almost.

So we knew he was someone, but we didn't see anything, for lack of a better - shady happening in front of us. He was just Shabtai. We knew he had a ton of businesses. One of them was pharmaceuticals. He was really big into entertainment. He told us tons and tons of stories of all the, you know, performers he brought over to Russia, whether it's, you know, Liza Minnelli he brought over or Michael Jackson. He would always have these stories, so we knew he did a lot. But, no, when he got murdered and we kind of discovered a little bit more, or were told a little bit more, there was parts of his life we didn't know. I just - you heard stories but, like, you'd shrug. I didn't know.

GROSS: You decided to stay on the team. But how did you decide whether to leave or stay? Because after all, I mean, he was murdered, there was a possibility of something shady going on and this was Russia.

BIRD: I know this is going to sound crazy. We never felt scared. We never felt danger. We never felt any of that. Even after he was murdered, it never felt that way. I don't know that - the way I've described him before is that we knew he wore a lot of hats, but the hat he had on when we were around him and the world that we lived, we lived a pretty simple life. We had our house. We'd, you know, go to practice. Hey, where do you guys want to eat for lunch? And then we go home. We'd travel for games.

It wasn't like we were out and about all that much - every now and then, of course, you got to live your life. But the sides that we saw and what we were exposed to, I never felt scared. Now, was it a little alarming that he got murdered in the car that we had been in multiple - I mean, thousands of times we had driven in his car. Yeah, that's a little scary. But I didn't feel like his murder was ever going to lead to danger for us or harm for us as basketball players.

GROSS: So just to compare, what was it like going from the favors and the gifts that you got from the owner of the Russian team back to the WNBA in America for the season? Can you compare, you know, just the material world for you in Russia versus the U.S.?

BIRD: No, you can't compare it. I do want to highlight again, part of that is the business models are different. In the WNBA, they can't give you gifts. It's called salary cap circumvention. So it's just - it's not a part of the culture here. But in Russia, absolutely. Shabtai, who was our owner, he would take us on shopping sprees. He would essentially throw his credit card at us and say, have fun at the mall. That was just a part of the culture over there and how things operated. There was definitely times where we were like, oh, God, I guess we have to win now.

GROSS: (Laughter).

BIRD: But it never truly felt that way. It never felt like, I will buy you this gift if you win this game. I think he just really viewed us as performers. He actually said that to us once. We were playing in a game. We were in France. I'll never forget it. And we were up by 20 with, let's say, five minutes to go in the game. Very customary at that point in the game of basketball to take your best players out, to take your starters out. They've kind of done their job. Let other people get game experience and let your starters rest, right? We don't need to play them.

And he got all upset with our coach - put the starters back in. And his point was these people - we're in the town of Valenciennes. These people paid money to come watch this team play. That's why you paid that ticket. So that's always how he cared for us. He cared for us as performers. He understood, if I give them, you know, a situation where they have nothing to ask for, nothing to worry about, that their housing is taken care of - we all had drivers - that you didn't have to think of anything and all you had to do was perform, that's what he wanted to do, because he ultimately wanted to have a championship team.

GROSS: Putin is very anti-gay. There's anti-gay laws in effect in Russia now. You weren't out yet when you were playing in Russia. I think I have that right. I mean, but you were out to your friends, you were out in the league, but you weren't out to the public. So what was your level of out-ness...


GROSS: ...In Russia knowing that, you know, the Putin regime, if I can use that word, was really anti-gay?

BIRD: Yeah. Yes, you are correct in saying that I did not publicly come out until 2017. I was already - I had already stopped playing in Russia. But I was out by every other metric - friends, family, teammates - same in Russia. I had girlfriends visit me. You know, I was single at different points in my time over there. And, you know, I don't know if dating is really the way to describe it, but I was single and ready to mingle, if you will. And I never had to hide that. And that wasn't my experience. I also do fully acknowledge that I lived in a bubble. I lived in a protective sports bubble that the team, you know, not with this in mind, but that was really provided, right? Like, I didn't - I wasn't really bumping up to the world and the politics of Russia, if you will. I was aware, and it wasn't really until, I want to say, when the first conversations around gay propaganda started - it was in my - maybe my last two seasons when you started to hear that they were, you know, taking any type of, quote-unquote, "propaganda" - meaning movies, texts, you know, literature, you name it - out of schools 'cause they didn't want that to expose their children.

We talked about it in our locker room with our Russian teammates. Some of my Russian teammates, friends throughout the time I was there are gay themselves. So it's almost like, I don't know. You're - it's like two different worlds. It's like what the politicians were saying and what was actually happening. In fact, one of the cities I played in, you know, the most popular club was where you'd watch a drag show - literally. Every rich man in the city was in that club hooting and hollering at, quote-unquote, "Lady Gaga." It wasn't Lady Gaga.

GROSS: No. I get it.

BIRD: It was a man dressed as Lady Gaga.


GROSS: I get it.

BIRD: Yeah. No, I know. I'm just kidding.

GROSS: So - but you know what you just described about the propaganda laws on taking, you know, anything with references to gay people out of schools, I'm thinking like, that sounds like the U.S. now.

BIRD: Don't even get me started. It's very scary times we're living in.

GROSS: Let me reintroduce you. If you're just joining us, my guest is retired WNBA star Sue Bird. A new documentary called "Sue Bird: In The Clutch" is available for rent or purchase on several platforms. We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Sue Bird, the greatest point guard in women's basketball history. She retired in 2022 from the WNBA. A new documentary about her called "Sue Bird: In The Clutch" is available for rent or purchase on Apple TV, Amazon Prime Video, Vudu, and Wolf On Demand.

You didn't come out publicly until you were a couple with Megan Rapinoe, who's basically kind of your equivalent in the world of soccer - not as the same kind of position, but just in terms of stature. And what did she say to convince you to come out publicly?

BIRD: Yeah. So I was of the mind that I was out. As I mentioned before, I had told all my friends, all my family. All my teammates knew. My agents knew. The Seattle Storm organization knew. Everybody working at the WNBA knew. Like, it wasn't something I was hiding. Why did I have to say this to a journalist to make me any more or less out? And what Megan - we started dating in the fall of 2016, and we had a lot of conversations. And again, I was making my point. And I would even say to her, like, I go out - we go out to dinner. We kiss in public. We hold hands. How am I not out? There's nothing I'm hiding.

And Megan's point, which I definitely came around to, was as long as there are people - both children, adults, doesn't matter - who are getting murdered, bullied and everything else under the sun for being gay, people like us have to come out. Public figures have to come out because that's how you change the narrative. That's how you change the perception. It's essentially how you change culture and society.

GROSS: Were there things you were afraid of?

BIRD: Yeah. I think I had a little bit of, like, a PTSD happening around being judged, around not being able to be marketed. It was just kind of embedded in me at an early age. By early age, I mean probably going back to my college years, and then in my early WNBA years. It was essentially, in so many words, told to me that I had a certain look, which is to say that I'm a cute little white girl, "a girl next door," quote-unquote, and that that's what's going to sell, and that's what's going to help you get marketed, and that's what's going to give you this prosperous career. And so there was some fear for sure around coming out for me that I think just - I never - I just had it somewhere stored inside of me. And until Megan and I started having those conversations, I never circled back on it.

And it happened in an interview just like this. Michael Voepel was covering - doing a profile piece on me for the All-Star Game that year 'cause it was being held in Seattle, and he clicked the recorder off, and just was like, hey, can I ask about your personal life? And I was just like, you want to know if I'm gay, huh? I was like, yeah, I am. Put the recorder back on. Let's do this.

GROSS: (Laughter).

BIRD: It happened, like, that quick, that easy. I didn't - you know, I didn't have to think about it. I already knew that I wanted to do it.

GROSS: It spared you having to issue a press release.

BIRD: Exactly. Exactly.

GROSS: Was it ever disorienting, or did you have a feeling of dishonesty when you were being marketed as this, you know, kind of straight girl next door, you know, player when you knew that you were gay and that your real life, your real personality didn't fit the marketing image?

BIRD: Absolutely. It was just a lot of feeling like - I wish you could see my face when I do this, but a lot of, like, heh, heh, heh. Hi, everybody - heh, heh. Good to be here. This is me in a dress - heh, heh, heh. I'm sure you like it. I'm miserable. Hi. A lot of that.


BIRD: Both, like, literally and figuratively. But, yeah, it - obviously something wasn't fitting for me. And what's interesting - it actually kind of ties back to the documentary a little bit because I think when you watch the story of my career, it parallel paths the WNBA story in this interesting way because I think what has allowed the WNBA to turn a corner in its - oh, God - in just its ability to be marketed in the way the fan base is growing is that as players, as teams and as a league, we finally started to lean into who we actually are. And the authenticity piece - and that's actually exactly what happened for me when I came out. And now I could actually just be myself.

GROSS: Now that your public self could be more like your real self, what's changed in terms of how you present yourself to the public or even what you wear?

BIRD: Oh, yeah. I'm just wearing what I want. It's great. I don't want to wear anything that makes me uncomfortable ever again, so I'm very quick. I found my voice, if you will. When it comes to - you know, maybe you're on a commercial shoot, or, you know, you're getting ready for a photo shoot. I'm very quick to say what I like, what I don't like, what I'm comfortable in, what I'm not comfortable in. And what's interesting is, I think, I'll speak for myself. I think I have - when I'm dressed in what would be considered more traditionally, like, male, boyish clothing, I actually feel more feminine. I don't know how to explain that, but because it's actually - I'm comfortable. So the true essence of who I am is able to come out in a different way. By the way, the best part about it is there are some days for events, mostly, where I'm like, yeah, put me in a dress. I'm feeling it today. And I get to make that choice. And that's just really powerful.

GROSS: One of the things Megan Rapinoe is known for, in addition to soccer, is her sense of fashion. Does she give you tips?

BIRD: Oh, for sure. She's low-key my stylist. She has such a wonderful - it is very convenient. I'm not going to lie. One of Meghan's superpowers is her ability to see things in people that are there but that that person doesn't really see yet. And her second superpower - it's adjacent to the first one - is that she really gives people confidence once she sees it. And for me personally, some of that has come out in my sense of style. She challenged me to try new things. A lot of times I was resistant. And then the minute she got me to see it the way she saw it, to see me the way she saw me, it opened up a whole new world. And we're talking about clothes. But that's really just a metaphor.

GROSS: Let me reintroduce you again. If you're just joining us, my guest is Sue bird. There's a new documentary about her called "Sue Bird: In The Clutch" that's available for rent or purchase on several platforms. We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Sue Bird, the greatest point guard in women's basketball history. She retired in 2022. A new documentary about her called "Sue Bird: In The Clutch" is available for rent or purchase on Apple TV, Amazon Prime Video, Vudu and Wolfe On Demand.

So surgeries - you've had hip surgery on each hip. You've had - what? - three knee surgeries.

BIRD: Six.

GROSS: Oh, my gosh.

BIRD: Oh, yeah.

GROSS: That's a lot.

BIRD: I'm in the double digits overall.

GROSS: Wow. So did that affect your decision to retire?

BIRD: Yes and no. I do think a big part of my story is my left knee. I had all six surgeries on the one knee. I mean, literally name it, and I've had it. The ACL...

GROSS: That was your ACL knee. Yeah.

BIRD: Yeah, my ACL knee, my meniscus. Who knows how much is in there now? I've had to have that scoped, cleaned out. You name it. I've had microfracture surgery. At one point, I had, like, a growth, almost. Like, there was some bone that laid and it just kept laying over itself. So it grew to the size of a golf ball. I had to get that removed.

GROSS: Whoa.

BIRD: It's a lot in there - pre-arthritic. You name it. So the story of my career is really a story of caring for that knee and making sure that I was able to - you know, by the time I retired, I was 41 years old. And the reality is you're trying to keep up with 21-year-olds. And so you have to be in a certain physical shape. And so I could have kept playing. I actually know I could have. I could have played another couple years. I always - I sometimes think - I'm like, oh my God. If I never tore my ACL that first time - 'cause a lot of the subsequent injuries were basically because of that. I'm like, oh, my God. I could have played till I was 50.

But knowing that it was really the amount of focus and work and diligence that it took to stay at a certain level - that I just didn't want to do anymore. I just was kind of done doing it. I was losing it. You know, to be that disciplined all the time, day and day out, month after month, year after year, it finally caught up where I just didn't want to do it anymore. And that's really part of the reason that I retired.

GROSS: What's it like to watch women's basketball as a spectator now? How do you feel watching Caitlin Clark?

BIRD: Caitlin Clark excites me, right? Her style of play is exciting, and what she has - the ways in which she has built a fan base and the ways in which she has built a following - it really excites me because I think it's going to have huge implications for the world of women's basketball as a whole. I do think it's important to highlight that this platform of women's basketball, if we want to call it that - it was built by so many players before her. I think she's an exceptional player, and she's the perfect player for this moment. But I think a lot of new people to this world think there haven't been great players before. That's obviously not true. I can rattle off a thousand names. But there's something about the timing of where women's basketball is and Caitlin's play that match, like, when those two things are colliding, which we're seeing. It's creating a lot of buzz and a lot of fanfare and a lot of attention. And it's really helped women's basketball cross this cultural cachet line, if you will. And that's really what we've been missing, and that's been so important. So I feel like the better she does, the better it is for everybody. But, of course, there's other storylines, too. And that's the wonderful thing about sports.

GROSS: Do you ever feel like, oh, God, I wish that was me again?

BIRD: Yes and no. I think, you know, we're born when we're born, is kind of what it is. But - and I've always joked. I've, like, famously said, I hope that, you know, when I'm 50, 60 years old, I'm like that disgruntled older athlete that we see on the men's side a lot. You know, I remember, you know, watching TNT a couple times, hearing Charles Barkley talk about his early days. You know, he's like, oh, I had to fly commercial. I didn't have these charter flights, or oh, these guys are making 40 million. Like, my contract was only - I don't know - 10 million. And he kind of sounds disgruntled.

And I've always joked, I hope I'm that disgruntled athlete because that means all the, like, you know, blood, sweat and tears was for something. It means the game has grown, right? I've always said when we see WNBA players signing million-dollar contracts, I will feel proud of that moment. But, of course, who wouldn't want to play basketball now? Do I wish I was 22 and playing? Absolutely. I mean, what a time to be playing women's basketball. So of course I'm sad that I don't get to do that. But I know as a 43-year-old, I couldn't, so I'm cool.

GROSS: Were there certain songs on your playlist for getting pumped up before a game?

BIRD: Yeah. I'm a hip-hop fan, so that's my go-to, whether it's - usually it's Jay-Z.

GROSS: Is there a song in particular? We can end with it.

BIRD: Yo. You want to end with a song. This song is my favorite Jay-Z song. And it's called "My 1st Song." And I actually used a quote from this in my final Instagram post where I was finishing my career.

GROSS: Sue Bird, thank you so much.

BIRD: Thank you. It's a pleasure.


JAY-Z: (Singing) It's my life. It's my pain and my struggle. The song that I sing to you, it's my everything. Treat my first like my last and my last like my first. And my thirst is the same as when I came. It's my joy and my tears and the laughter it brings to me. It's my everything. Like I never rode in a limo. Like I just dropped flows to a demo. Like it's '92 again, and I got O's in the rental. Back in the Stu' again, no problemo. It's a whole lot simpler when you think back. You thought that you would never make it this far. Then you take advantage of the luck you handed, for the talent you been given. Ain't no half-steppin'. Ain't no slippin'. Ain't no different from a block that's hittin'. Gotta get it while the getting's good. Gotta strike while the iron's hot. When you stop, then you gotta bid it good riddance. Goodbye.

GROSS: Sue Bird is a retired NCAA and WNBA star. The new documentary about her is called "Sue Bird: In The Clutch." It's available to rent or purchase on Apple TV, Amazon Prime Video, Vudu and Wolf On Demand.

You know the expression work family? An important member of the FRESH AIR work family, Heidi Saman, is leaving our show today. She's been with our show since 2010, and we watched her start her own family, getting married and having two children. When she started as an associate producer editing interviews, she seems shy about offering her opinions. But when she became one of our two movie and TV interview producers, I came to rely on her deep knowledge of film and her thoughtful, informed and often really funny takes on movies and TV.

She's also a filmmaker, so she points out aspects of the lighting, editing and camera placement that I'd never have noticed. Her filmmaker's eye helped me in another way. During the COVID lockdown when I had to do Zoom events, I'd first Zoom with Heidi so that she could advise me on how to adjust the lighting and how to fix up what was on camera. And I am proud to say I got one of the highest honors you could receive during lockdown - a perfect score on Room Raters.

Before she joined our show, Heidi had a short film that played at the Cannes Film Festival. While working on our show, she wrote and directed a feature film called "Namour" that was shown at the BlackStar Film Festival, which focuses on films about and by Black and brown Indigenous people from around the world. Now she's going to be the festival's program director. It's an exciting position, and she'll be able to immerse herself in films. It breaks my heart she's leaving the FRESH AIR family, but I'm so excited about her new job. And she'll still be in Philadelphia, so we're counting on her visiting whenever she can. We'll miss you, Heidi, so much.

Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, we'll get some parenting advice about dealing with behavioral, emotional and mental health issues. Our guest will be child psychiatrist Harold Koplewicz, author of the book "Scaffold Parenting: Raising Resilient, Self-Reliant, And Secure Kids In An Age Of Anxiety." He's the founding president of the Child Mind Institute. I hope you'll join us.


GROSS: To keep up with what's on the show and get highlights of our interviews, follow us on Instagram - @nprfreshair. FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Ann Marie Baldonado, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Therese Madden, Thea Challoner, Susan Nyakundi, Joel Wolfram - and for the last time, Heidi Saman. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. Our co-host is Tonya Mosley. I'm Terry Gross.


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