Work in Sports
The Leader of the Pack
After a national title season, could even bigger things be in Storrs for the Huskies' Sue Bird?
Updated: Tuesday October 31, 2000 1:42 PM
By Richard Deitsch, SI For Women
The setting may be a campus bookstore, as opposed to nearby Gampel Pavilion, but Sue Bird clearly is leading the break. Inside the University of Connecticut Co- op, she spins through an aisle of sweatshirts, bounds past a rack of bumper stickers and skips around a posse of students before stopping in front of a stack of women's basketball T-shirts.
"Lot of Tamika here," says UConn's junior point guard as she thumbs through a mountain of T-shirts emblazoned with the number 34 of junior forward Tamika Williams. "Plenty of Shea here, too," she says, referring to senior swingman Shea Ralph (number 33). "Me? Looks like I'm sold-out."
Could it be, Bird is asked, that there simply is no T-shirt made with Bird's number 10 on it? "No, I'm sold-out," she says, laughing. "Trust me."
Certainly UConn coach Geno Auriemma does, especially after last season, when Bird proved to be the missing piece of the Huskies' championship puzzle. As a freshman in 1998-99, Bird tore the anterior cruciate ligament in her left knee just eight games into a season that ended with Iowa State upsetting UConn in the Sweet 16 of the NCAA tournament.
When she returned to the flock last season, Bird became, as both Ralph and Auriemma later put it, "the MVP of our team." Her five three-point baskets against Penn State in the national semifinal game tied an NCAA record and, most important, she protected the basketball during the Final Four with the zeal of a Secret Service agent (no turnovers in 69 minutes).
Says Auriemma: "Even though her engine isn't the loudest, and her colors aren't the brightest, people know that's a race car. She just has something about her."
Not that Auriemma is the easiest car owner, or coach, to work for -- and he is notorious for being toughest on star players and point guards. Before the start of last season, he laid down the rules of the road to Bird.
"Are you willing to take the responsibility where, if the team messes up, it's your fault?" Auriemma barked.
"Yes," said Bird.
"Even if you're not on the court," Auriemma continued, "it's still your fault."
"That's what being a point guard is about," Bird replied.
Being at the center of the action is nothing new for her. As a five-year-old growing up on Long Island, N.Y., she would entertain crowds during halftime of her older sister's Catholic Youth Organization games by attempting baskets from half-court.
Bird later led Christ the King High School in Queens to two state titles and the national championship in her senior season. It was during Bird's high school years that Nancy and Herschel Bird, her parents, separated after more than two decades of marriage. (They are now divorced.)
"I hate to compare it to this, but it's very similar to my knee injury," she says. "I'm just not the type of person to let stuff like that get me down. Obviously, I was mad and went through all those emotions, but I think moving [Bird transferred from Syosset High to Christ the King prior to her junior year] actually helped me deal with it. I was at a new school, my parents were splitting up, and I spent time with both of them. All these things were going on. It was almost like I couldn't worry about it."
Bird plays the point at a hip-hop pace, more DMX than Dixie Chicks, which may explain her love of rap music. Hanging on a closet door in the dorm room she shares with teammate Swin Cash, just past the posters of Michael Jordan and the print of Van Gogh's The Starry Night, is a four-foot-high poster of controversial rapper Eminem.
"All right, I admit I like Eminem," Bird says, knowing she'll hear from her mother on her choice of 21st century icons. "He's pretty good. Really."
You'll just have to trust her on that.