It All Started With Sue Bird

Sue Bird is not really into astrology, but she knows she is a Libra.

As a point guard, Bird embodied the very essence of Libra energy every time she stepped on the court—having to balance the different styles of play of each one of her teammates, learning each of their preferred communication methods, or bringing the team together when they started to fracture or fall out of sync. Libras, the ultimate diplomats, are often concerned with balance and fairness. Over the course of Bird’s 19-year career in the WNBA, the league went from a fledgling afterthought in the world of sports to being on the verge of mainstream viewership. Her single-minded focus on being the Seattle Storm’s unwavering, reliable leader was a thread that tied those two disparate phases of the league’s existence together.

Bird quite famously shied away from ruffling any feathers or pushing any buttons throughout much of her career, preferring to put her head down and let her play speak for itself. (Libras are also famously conflict-averse.) But the thing about Libras that many people don’t see coming is how committed they are to justice. And so, in the face of injustices that became increasingly hard to turn away from—workplace conditions, racism, sexist double standards, LGBTQ+ discrimination—Bird began to speak up.

“Yeah,” Bird says when I tell her some of this on a Zoom call. “I’m a proud Libra.”

She is in a room I recognize from the photos of the New York City apartment she owns with her fiancée, former soccer star Megan Rapinoe, that were featured in Elle Decor magazine. The apartment was the first home the two purchased together and part of their vision for retirement, a place in the city—which “feels like the place [they] fell in love,” Rapinoe told Elle Decor—and near Bird’s hometown on Long Island.

I’m speaking to Bird during March Madness, when the women’s tournament is receiving more hype than the men’s and viewership numbers for the women’s games are breaking records. The whole world seems to be talking about University of Iowa’s Caitlin Clark, who is projected to be the first pick in the upcoming WNBA draft. I mention seeing a longtime sports journalist, a man who has mostly covered men’s sports, say that Clark will be a refreshing addition to the W because the league lacks any real villains—players who lean into an on-court persona that fans love to hate or root against. Bird, who played the exact opposite of that role during her career, names Diana Taurasi, Liz Cambage, and Sophie Cunningham as well-known examples of this archetype.

“God, how many times you turn on the TV and they just totally botch it,” she says. “They just leave out details, or they name only two names that they know because they may have seen them on Twitter that day. We’re not understanding the history and the nuance. That’s how I see these business ventures in my retirement: as being able to bring nuance to the table.”

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Bird’s legacy as one of the best point guards ever to play the game was already cemented. But as she neared retirement, she decided there was more she wanted to be remembered for. A new documentary, Sue Bird: In the Clutch (available to buy or rent to stream now), tells the story of her career—from her childhood as a star athlete, to the workhorse she became playing under coach Geno Auriemma at the University of Connecticut, to helping the Storm win the franchise’s first WNBA championship. She retired from basketball in 2022 after nearly two decades, five Olympic gold medals, and four WNBA championships.

“ ‘Who am I if I’m not a basketball player?’ is the looming question at the start of this film,” she says. “They say athletes die two deaths: the actual death that we all eventually have, but then also the death of when they stop playing, because it is a little bit like the death of an identity.”

In answering this question, the documentary attempts to give fans more access to the notoriously guarded Bird, who tends to shy away from public—and even private—displays of emotional vulnerability, though there have been more glimpses of them since she came out publicly in 2017. Interviews with childhood friends, family members, and former teammates affirm that Bird was someone who preferred to channel all her feelings into basketball. (She is a Capricorn moon, so this, too, makes sense.) As I watched, I hoped to learn something new about who Bird is as a person, but that is a story that the film is only partially willing to tell.

“Honestly, there’s probably like two, three, four more layers of vulnerability that we could have gotten to,” Bird concedes. But her friends and loved ones help fill in the picture of who Sue Bird is when she’s not playing basketball, and the insights we get into those relationships reveal something deeper.

Bird’s longtime friendship with former UConn teammate and aforementioned “villain” Diana Taurasi is common knowledge at this point. In many ways, it’s an opposites-attract kind of situation. Where Bird doesn’t want to make waves, Taurasi is only too willing to give someone a piece of her mind. Bird, at an unassuming five foot eight, is known for quietly dominating games, while Taurasi’s trash talk is legendary.

“I think Sue wants to be a little more like Diana and Diana wishes she were a little more like Sue,” Auriemma, who coached both women, speculates in the film.

Bird likes that Taurasi doesn’t sugarcoat things: “Give it to me straight,” she says during a confessional interview, five different rings on her fingers because this film is lesbian culture. “Don’t blow smoke up my ass.”

There’s a similar dynamic between Bird and Rapinoe, the former U.S. Women’s National Soccer Team member known for her directness and willingness to lean into hard conversations regardless of whom that might upset. Clearly, there is something about these kinds of people that Bird is drawn to, something she gets by surrounding herself with people who are louder, brasher than she is. In the film, multiple people talk about how Bird is happy to take a back seat to bigger personalities. And being someone who can balance out the louder voices in a group is a big part of what allowed Bird to achieve success on the court.

But in her personal life, she’s had to work to establish her own voice, rather than relying on the people around her to suck up all the air in the room. “That’s something that [Megan and I] always talk about in our couples therapy,” she says, “just this idea of taking up space. Megan takes up a lot of space, while I naturally don’t. I’m trying to figure out that balance within our relationship, but there’s a reason I’m drawn to somebody who takes up space. I admire that, or maybe wish I was more like that.”

That Bird brings up couples therapy is a big deal, a sign she really is learning to open up and let the world in a little bit. Another recent example of this shift is her appearance alongside Rapinoe on the Pablo Torre Finds Out podcast in February. Bird and Rapinoe make a few casual jokes about their sex life, with Bird mentioning “dry humping”—the kind of thing that would have been unheard of from her just a few years ago.

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“I never thought of it as like, ‘Do I feel this pressure to, like, be respectable?’ But now that you’re saying it—100 percent,” says Bird. “Of course we have sex—we’re engaged. … But I guess there is this fear that has always existed around gay sex … that it’s inappropriate for kids [to hear about], so normalizing that is super important. But more than anything, for myself, it’s just about being authentic in that way.”

Authenticity also means putting her money where her mouth is. Bird has recognized that if she is going to complain about lack of media coverage of women’s sports, she should step in and help provide it. But there isn’t really a blueprint for the kind of transition that she is trying to make, with perhaps the closest analogue being someone like Billie Jean King. Bird is undeterred, though, and hopes she can provide a path for athletes who come after her to follow.

In 2021, she cofounded the media production company Togethxr, which prioritizes representation, alongside USWNT player Alex Morgan, Olympic snowboarder Chloe Kim, and Olympic swimmer Simone Manuel; and in 2022, she launched the production company A Touch More with Rapinoe. Bird has worked hard to be where she is today, in a place that allows her to bring her whole self to the table, to exemplify the fullness of the Libra archetype that she is so proud to embody—pursuing balance, pursuing justice, and doing it all from a place that strives to lift everybody as she climbs.

“It’s really important for those who have intimate knowledge to start covering our sport and to start telling the stories of our sport,” says Bird. “I think players have that. And that’s where I’m really excited to have some impact now in telling those stories and making sure they’re told in the right way.”

Sue Bird: In the Clutch is currently available for digital purchase and rental on AppleTV+, Amazon Prime Video, VUDU and Wolfe On Demand.

Lettermark

Frankie de la Cretaz is the co-author of Hail Mary: The Rise and Fall of The National Women’s Football League. Their work has been featured in The New York Times, The Atlantic, Rolling Stone, and more.