By Bill Simons
Perhaps no player in the history of basketball has garnered as many important awards as Jewish-American superstar Sue Byrd. She has dominated her sport in high school, collegiate, World Cup, Olympic, EuroLeague and Women’s National Basketball Association competition. Despite the physical rigors of the hardcourt, the 40-year-old point guard – surmounting injuries and surgeries – has displayed basketball mastery for nearly 25 years. Bird has excelled athletically while summoning the courage to articulate deeply held, but politically controversial, positions – while animating her personal life with honesty and passion.
Basketball stardom preceded Bird’s political activism and iconoclastic lifestyle by many years. Bird moved with her father from Long Island to Queens so she could play in a more competitive basketball environment during her last two years in high school. A teenage phenom, Bird paced Christ the King Regional High School to two New York state titles with the team going undefeated her senior year. Named New York City and New York State Player of the Year, Bird was heavily recruited by top collegiate baseball programs.
Playing under coach Geno Auriemma, Bird led the University of Connecticut to NCAA championships in 2000 and 2002. With Bird on the court, the Lady Huskies had an astounding 114-4 record. Pacing UConn in points, assists and rebounds per game her senior year, Bird won the 2002 Naismith Women’s College Player of the Year Award. Bird’s “incredible consistency as a player comes from her consistency as a person,” asserts Auriemma. “She’s an incredible leader on the basketball court of epic proportions.”
One of the towering figures in professional basketball history, Bird has spent her entire WNBA career (2002-present) with the Seattle Storm. Despite missing two seasons due to injuries, Bird, a 12-time all-star, is the all-time WNBA leader in games (546) and minutes (17,187) played, assists (3,034) and turnovers (1,329) – and second in three-point field goals (939). Among active players, her career totals are third in points (6,541) and second in steals (686). Bird has led Seattle to four WNBA championships and, with the playoffs still to come, the Storm remain in the 2021 hunt for another title.
To supplement her WNBA salary, modest by NBA standards, Bird participates in media promotions. And, during the WNBA off-season, she has played with Russian professional teams in the EuroLeague, winning five championships.
A stalwart of the USA National Team since 2002, Bird was instrumental in the United States winning four International Basketball Federation World Cup gold medals as well as a bronze medal. Her five FIBA World Cup medals set a standard.
Intelligence, strategy, attention to detail and resilience define Bird’s remarkable all-around game. While eschewing flamboyance, she can shoot, pass, rebound, defend and motivate. Bird’s no-look full-court passes, pick and roll, downtown three-point shots and ball steals derail opposition momentum and inspire teammates. Bird is the leader: she has always found a way to win. Sam Walker of The Wall Street Journal puts in succinctly: “The most successful active team captain in professional sports anywhere on Earth is Sue Bird.”
Jews celebrate Bird and her accomplishments. Shaked Karabelnicoff, content creator at OpenDor Media, gushes, “We’re seriously kvelling.” FanSided media contributor Lauren Rosenberg contends, “Even if you know nothing of basketball, you know who Sue Bird is. Bird brings pride to the Jewish community.” However, Bird’s Jewishness is complex. Bird’s parents, Jewish physician father Herschel and Protestant nurse mother Nancy, separated, thus exposing her to both Christian and Jewish traditions. Although Bird has Jewish relatives in Israel, spent substantive time in the Jewish state and acquired Israeli citizenship, she did so to enhance her access to international basketball. Of her Jewish-Christian ancestry, Bird affirms, “I have both inside of me.”
Byrd made her fifth Olympic appearance at the 2021 Tokyo games. She and her teammate and friend Diana Taurasi became the first basketball players of either gender to win five Olympic gold medals. By a vote of the U.S. contingent, Bird was one of America’s two flag bearers at the Olympic opening ceremonies.
Yet, back in the U.S. Bird has joined other WNBA players in absenting herself during the playing of the national anthem. Critics claim hypocrisy for Bird to carry the flag overseas while protesting in the U.S. As a labor union vice president, she helped fellow players achieve incremental salary and benefit gains through the 2020 WNBA Collective Bargaining Agreement. Bird advocates forcefully for Black Lives Matter, Say Her Name and LGBTQ+ issues.
Two photos taken about 38 years apart suggest the evolution of Bird’s identity. In the first photo, toddler Sue Bird poses with her sister Jen, five years her senior. Seated side-by-side on a couch, the sisters, in matching lavender tops and purple overalls, holding their stuffed Snoopy dogs, are adorable. Love, comfort and happiness radiate through their eyes and smiles. Growing up, Sue wanted to emulate her smart and athletic big sister, who went on to earn degrees from Brown University and Yale Law School.
The second photo adorns the March 2021 cover of GQ magazine. It features a romantic, intimate and erotic embrace between Bird and her fiancée, Megan Rapinoe. Due to the skillful composition of the photo, it is not clear if the couple are wearing tops. Other expressive photos of shared loved accompany the feature story, “Megan Rapinoe and Sue Bird Are Goals.” “Goals” refer to sport, personal and political agendas.
Bird had long confided in family and close friends, but not until 2017 did she come out publicly as gay. An Olympic and World Cup gold medalist, Rapinoe is Bird’s athletic equal. The daughter of Christian working-class parents, the brash and flamboyant 5’6” Rapinoe, sporting a short hot-pink hairstyle, presents a contrast to Bird. A native of the comfortable suburb of Syosset, the 5’9” Bird, her dark brown hair ponytailed, is grounded by a thoughtful, calibrated template. However, Bird and Rapinoe share a fierce athletic competitiveness, idealism – and love. Their achievements, courage and activism make Bird and Rapinoe the most impactful couple in sports history. Discussing the impetus for the GQ photo spread, the couple evokes legacy: “You can do it your own way.”
Bill Simons is a professor emeritus at SUNY Oneonta where he continues to teach courses in American history. He is also the co-director of The Cooperstown Symposium on Baseball and American Culture, and served as a speaker for the New York Council on the Humanities.