Bird's focus, intensity keep her among the WNBA's best
You might think that someone who already had two NCAA titles, a WNBA championship and an Olympic gold medal would not have needed to engage in critical self-evaluation last year.
But then when you hear that "someone" is Sue Bird, you're probably not very surprised. Because that fits with the evolution of Bird's basketball career.
"It comes to a point," she said, "where you have to look in the mirror and figure some things out."
No matter what your occupation, it is a daunting concept to say, "Success comes down to me."
Mind you, there is a difference between that and "I have to do it all." Bird wasn't thinking, as she prepared to go overseas to Russia in 2007, that she had to carry her team there. Nor her Seattle Storm team this WNBA season, nor the 2008 Olympic team.
Rather, she was deciding that she had to play better more consistently to fully carry what she believed to be her weight.
She has done that and more. Bird and Team USA earned a fourth consecutive Olympic gold medal -- Bird's second -- last month in Beijing. It was during that tournament that Storm teammate Lauren Jackson -- gutting her way through the Summer Games for Australia -- acknowledged she'd need to have surgery on her battered right ankle.
LJ rejoined the Storm this week, but she's not ready to play yet and there's no guarantee she will be able to go for the playoffs. (If it's humanly possible, though, she'll do it. Jackson has proved that if she can drag herself on court, she will play in spite of a lot of pain.)
Seattle, with veteran coach Brian Agler in his first year with the Storm, increased its leadership quotient by acquiring two of the greatest players in women's hoops history -- Sheryl Swoopes and Yolanda Griffith -- plus the very talented Swin Cash for the 2008 season.
But the only Seattle player who has started every game so far, and the leader in minutes played, is Bird. She's averaging 14.5 points and 5.3 assists -- 19.2 points in the six games since the season resumed -- and is one of the top candidates for league MVP.
"I'll be the first to admit in the WNBA and overseas, my last two seasons, I really haven't been pleased with how I've been playing," Bird said. "That's just from a personal standpoint. And in the WNBA, on the team level, our teams haven't been succeeding. And that's something I pride myself on -- no matter what my statistics are, I want to be on winning teams and help my team win."
So what do you do when you're in that frame of mind? Bird turned 27 last October, so while she is certainly in her peak years physically as a professional basketball player, she wasn't going to transform herself into being a better athlete. And her basketball IQ, already quite high, didn't need any elevation.
Her competitive drive wasn't waning, nor was her great affection for the sport or her commitment to it. So what was left to work on?
Isn't it funny how often it's just the same old stuff? Basics. Focus. Intensity.
"It was as simple as shooting a little extra after practice and just really getting my head right," Bird said. "I feel as if I'm a mental player more than physical. I'm not the tallest or quickest or all that other stuff, but with my brain I can kind of make my impact."
Bird isn't necessarily giving herself quite enough credit; she is a talented athlete, and her pull-up jumper is a good illustration of that. But in comparison to the most explosive players in the league, she's not top tier. So for her, it ultimately does come down to how much she's "on" mentally at all times.
Many years ago, I had an editor who wanted to ban writers from ever using quotes that included the words "intensity" or "focus," in particular. They were just clichés, he said, that didn't mean anything.
Sometimes, that's true. Especially when a team gets beat because it's really not that good -- or at least not as good as the team that won -- and the defeated group is tossing out, "We just didn't play with enough focus and intensity."
It's an understandable rationalization, because then those involved can still leave the door open that losing is something they can control or change. Even if, in fact, it might not be.
But other times, those things that sound utterly banal are indeed the only ways to describe the key to improving consistency. Which is what Bird knew she had to do. Her statistics in seven WNBA seasons haven't had any dramatic peaks or valleys. She has been a consistent player.
However, she knew -- as players who are the most honest with themselves do -- that there were some big moments in games where she had not made a play that could have changed the outcome.
Her mentality reflects what her coach at UConn, Geno Auriemma, can always tell you after every close game. He can pinpoint a couple of plays where the difference of a split second of recognition -- "Uh-oh, I should be over there!" -- really can make the difference.
When you hear Auriemma break down games in such detail and explain how many "little things" can add up to a win or a loss, it brings even more resonance to his assessment that Bird "just has an innate sense of how to run a team. She's Tom Brady."
Auriemma said this before the Patriots quarterback was lost for the season with a knee injury but that provides a segue to Bird's career, too. Her freshman year at UConn, 1998-99, Bird suffered a torn ACL in December and had to sit the rest of the season.
The Huskies had a lot of talent, but the lack of a floor leader was glaringly obvious during the 1999 NCAA tournament. In their regional semifinal loss to Iowa State, the second half, especially, could have been an instructional video on how much a point guard can matter.
So as both a collegian and an Olympic player, Bird has had periods when she had to improve by watching rather than playing. The latter came in 2004 at the Athens Games, where she was an understudy to Dawn Staley.
"I was definitely there for the experience," Bird said of those Olympics. "I did play, but when it came to the semifinals and finals, I was there to observe. I understand it's a different experience when you're not playing; only when you're thrown to the wolves do you really know what it's like. But you can learn and absorb by watching. And that's what I tried to do."
Bird came back from those 2004 Olympics and, with Jackson and then-Storm player Betty Lennox, led Seattle to the WNBA title. The past three seasons, the Storm have lost in the first round of the playoffs.
During that time, there have been plenty of distractions. There was the circus accompanying the sale of the NBA's Sonics to an ownership group that never had the slightest bit of honest commitment to keep that team in Seattle -- or keep the Storm at all. There was the decline of relationships between former coach Anne Donovan and some of the players. There was the ever-harsh X factor of injuries. And there was the Storm's ultimate separation from the Sonics, as another group bought the WNBA team to keep it anchored in Seattle.
In other words, it's a lot for Bird to take on herself -- this idea that she just wasn't doing make a difference if she didn't start with herself?
"I think that's the key," Auriemma said. "At Connecticut, she was injured her first year, but the next two years -- and even a little bit during her senior year -- she was very comfortable being the conductor. She didn't necessarily have to ever be on center stage, never took more shots than she needed to; it wasn't part of her personality.
"But when we got into the NCAA tournament her senior year, she started averaging more points a game and it was like, 'This is my time now.'"
Her coach in Seattle is currently seeing the same thing.
"She's getting to that 'A' level virtually every night," Agler said. "She's locked into what's going on."
Mechelle Voepel of The Kansas City Star is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.