Sue Bird and rest of league dedicated 2020 to more than basketball



It’s officially been over for almost a week, but it’s never too late to give the WNBA its flowers for an incredible 2020 season, one that will be remembered far more for the leadership and impact players made off the court than for the games on the court — though those were amazing too.

Before entering the “wubble,” confined to courts and housing at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida, to minimize the risk of catching or spreading COVID-19 (something else they did quite successfully, by the way), players decided to dedicate the shortened season to racial justice and particularly Breonna Taylor, the young Black woman killed in her own home by Louisville Police officers in March.

Say her name, they demanded. Not just in the opening days or after the first couple of games, but for the entirety of the three months they held the regular season and playoffs: it was on jerseys and t-shirts, it was on courtside signage, her face was on video screens. At the trophy ceremony for the Seattle Storm, who won their fourth WNBA title with a sweep of the Las Vegas Aces, commissioner Cathy Englebert made sure to mention Taylor immediately.

In no way did the efforts end there.

Players were supportive of voter registration efforts, joining with LeBron James’ “More Than a Vote” initiative and encouraging members of their communities to register, make a plan, and vote.

They joined NBA players in refusing to play in late August, infuriated by the shooting of another Black man, this time Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin. The Washington Mystics walked onto the court in white t-shirts with seven bullet holes painted on the back, representing the shots Blake absorbed, which have left him paralyzed.

Perhaps most impactful, when they were frustrated by the bigoted words and actions of Atlanta Dream co-owner Kelly Loeffler, a U.S. Senator who had the audacity to tell the women of a majority-Black league that saying “Black lives matter” — literally, their lives matter — was political and they should (stop us if you’ve heard this before) stick to basketball. And she did so to curry favor with her right-wing base in Georgia, and President Trump, no fan of Black women and athletes with the temerity to speak their minds if what they’re saying goes against him.

When Loeffler wasn’t booted out of the league, the women used their collective voice to do the next best thing: they met virtually with one of the candidates trying to win her Senate seat, Rev. Raphael Warnock, to get a sense of his stance on key issues, and then had t-shirts printed with the words “Vote Warnock.”

In doing so, they provided Warnock with a bump in momentum and a surge in fundraising for the campaign: in the three days after WNBA players publicly endorsed Warnock, his campaign raised more than $236,000 online, from 3,500 new grassroots donors; his Twitter audience grew by nearly 4,000 followers.

Warnock has since surged to the top of the polls in Georgia, where early voting began on Monday.

Those actions aren’t a comprehensive list, nor does it include the deeds of players who sat out the season to dedicate their time fully to causes, like Maya Moore and Renee Montgomery.

And all of this came months after they stood up for themselves and those that will follow them in the league, demanding and getting a vastly improved collective bargaining agreement.

Seattle Storm guard Sue Bird poses for a photo after the team won basketball's WNBA Championship Tuesday, Oct. 6, 2020, in Bradenton, Fla. (AP Photo/Chris O'Meara)
Seattle Storm guard Sue Bird poses for a photo after the team won basketball’s WNBA Championship Tuesday, Oct. 6, 2020, in Bradenton, Fla. (AP Photo/Chris O’Meara)

Sue Bird the GOAT

While we’re handing out flowers, let’s get more for Sue Bird. It’s beyond time that she be recognized as one of the greatest basketball players of all time.

(Notice we didn’t say “women’s basketball.”)

Just shy of her 40th birthday and in her 19th season, Bird set a WNBA Finals record in Game 1 with 16 assists; she totaled 33 assists in the Storm’s three-game sweep.

She should have been recognized as the GOAT long before this, but there should be no doubt now, not with four Olympic gold medals, four WNBA championships, a dozen European championships playing with Russian teams, and two NCAA titles with UConn.

And it was her idea to protest Loeffler by endorsing Warnock.

There’s been a debate in Seattle in recent days about who is the greatest athlete in the city’s history, as Seahawks’ quarterback Russell Wilson stakes his claim to his first NFL MVP award with his play thus far. There were of course votes for Mariners Ken Griffey Jr. and Ichiro Suzuki.

Bird is more accomplished than all of them.

Wilson paid homage on Sunday, wearing a yellow Bird jersey to the Seahawks’ game against the Vikings, and said after leading the game-winning touchdown drive that he felt “like Sue Bird in the clutch.”

If you missed out because you refuse to watch, you’re in a shrinking group: television ratings were up significantly this season, proving that if you air them people will watch, and that standing up for what truly matters will not, as Loeffler disingenuous missives suggested, hurt the league.

The WNBA is over 20 years old, but it feels like this season it arrived.

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