At London’s Olympic Park, Sue Bird doesn’t look much like a world-class athlete.
Bird – standing at a generous 5-foot-9, 150 pounds – could easily be taken for a spectator as she strolls past Olympic gargantuans such as New Zealand shot put athlete Valerie Adams; 350-pound Holley Mangold, the U.S weightlifter; or even U.S. tennis player Serena Williams and her powerful thighs.
“Some of these Olympians are just specimens and you just feel disgusting compared to them,” Bird said. “I was walking around and thinking ‘Dang, I need to put a sweatshirt on.’ ”
But Bird is as deserving as any shot putter with bulging biceps or weightlifter at the Summer Games because she is Sue Bird, and she’s the best point guard in the world, said U.S. women’s national team coach Geno Auriemma.
The best is how Auriemma described Bird to a (New York) Newsday reporter recently, and on a team going for its fifth consecutive gold medal and one looking to build on 33 consecutive wins at the Olympic Games, it’s not a compliment to take lightly.
“She is not just the best point guard in America right now,” said Auriemma, who coached Bird at Connecticut. “Sue is the best point guard in the world right now.”
Bird isn’t the type of player to impress with her speed, agility or strength and she won’t put 30-40 points on the scoreboard every night – though she has done it plenty of times. What really makes Bird the most valuable asset to a star-studded U.S. women’s basketball team, the way she has been for the Seattle Storm the past 10 years, is her ability to make everyone around her better.
That ability has helped her accumulate an unmatched winning pedigree in women’s basketball – one that might compare to Bill Russell’s.
If Bird’s championship trophies were a hand of cards, she would have four pairs. Bird already owns two Olympic gold medals, two WNBA championships, two NCAA titles and two high school state championships.
And she is only 31 years old.
“She’s a tremendous ballhandler and passer,” Auriemma said. “She just sees the game, she understands it and she understands people. She knows what she has to do to get other teammates to play their best.”
Bird wasn’t the MVP of the WNBA in 2011, like U.S. teammate Tamika Catchings; she didn’t average a double-double like Candace Parker; she doesn’t have the youthful athletic ability of Maya Moore.
But Bird is used to not being the best player. She isn’t even the best player in Seattle.
That title goes to three-time league MVP Lauren Jackson, who spent the first half of this WNBA season half a world away from Seattle training with her Australian teammates for the Olympics. Bird said Australia could pose the biggest threat to the U.S. team’s dream of five consecutive gold medals.
“Australia is almost the team to beat, in my opinion,” Bird said. “They have been with each other already for two or three months. You can’t get around that. They are going to be clicking.”
Just as she is for Jackson and the Storm, Bird will be the cog that makes the U.S. team go. Bird uses screens better than anyone, makes timely passes and plays unselfishly. Her 1,879 career assists are second in WNBA history behind Ticha Penicheiro.
Bird’s unselfish play is rubbing off on her U.S. teammates.
“When we were (in London) in May (for the World Championships), the big joke was that everyone was passing too much,” Bird said. “The cool thing about the Olympic team is that nobody cares about minutes or points. It’s not about that. You just go out there and you do everything you can to help the team win.”
Bird was key in helping the U.S. team win the past two gold medals, including her prominent role in the 2008 Beijing Olympics, where the U.S. women won their fourth consecutive gold. Despite the great U.S. teams to come before, Bird said the 2012 version could be the best yet.
“When you look, top to bottom, there is really no weakness on our team,” Bird said. “We are very deep and hopefully that is going to play to our advantage.”
If Bird wins her third gold medal, she will have to make room for it alongside the other two she owns in her safe deposit box, which she deadpanned is located at a top-secret location and complete with thumb-print and eye-reader safeguards – the whole shebang.
“There is definitely room,” she said.
But maybe Bird will consider wearing all three at the closing ceremony as she meanders among the gargantuans at Olympic Park.
That way, she can leave her sweatshirts home.