From SPORTS ILLUSTRATED PRESENTS April 10, 2002
EVERYBODY KNOWS HER AND NOBODY KNOWS HER. This is what Geno Auriemma has concluded after spending the past four years with Sue Bird. "One of the things that makes Sue fascinating is that there's no definitive Sue Bird," he says. "Everybody feels close to her, yet nobody really is close to her. She's very complicated, yet very simple in so many ways."
Here is the simple part: She hates to lose. It infuriates her. Don't be fooled by the bright smile and the ponytail that give her that girl-next-door aura. Her mother remembers Sue competing ferociously as a six-year-old playing Candy Land and Risk. Her aversion to losing paid big dividends for Auriemma: UConn made three Final Four appearances and won two national championships with Bird and was 114-4 when she was in the lineup.
Bird has always been a reluctant scorer, though she can get her shot off pretty much whenever she wants. ("One of the three best point guards I've seen in my six years of scouting," Renée Brown, the WNBA's vice president of player personnel, says of her. "Her best basketball is ahead of her.") She has never averaged more than 14.4 points a game in a season, an absurdly low figure compared with previous Naismith Award winners, but since her sophomore year she has evinced a feel for taking—and often making—the shot that bails out her team or destroys the other's momentum. This season, for the good of the squad, she became more selfish. Bird averaged a team-high 18.5 points during the NCAA tournament, scoring a career-high 26 in the East Regional final win over Old Dominion.
Only once has her coach been able to truly get under Bird's skin. It happened during a particularly long practice session. Auriemma is famously hard on his point guards (Bird says her job description is "Everything is your fault"), and at the time UConn had just slogged to a 59-50 win over an ordinary Virginia Tech squad on Jan. 29. Auriemma often has male practice players run five-on-five against his team, and on this particular day one of them, a guy named Tom, shook Bird in the lane and pulled up for the potential scrimmage-winning jumper. Tired, Bird did not challenge the shot, and the ball fell into the basket. Auriemma, who admits he was looking for a reason to go off on his team, asked Tom if Bird had contested the shot. He shook his head no. Then Bird did something she had never done before. She snapped back at her coach: "Like he's not going to agree with you."
Auriemma then ripped into Bird, accusing her of always making excuses. She broke down in tears.
One week before the UConn team was coronated in San Antonio in 2002, Bird reflected on that February practice when she blew her cool. She recalled how she apologized in front of the team the next day for talking back to her coach and how Auriemma himself apologized for crossing the line in upbraiding her. Four days after that the Huskies had another scrimmage with the male players, and Auriemma couldn't resist taking another shot at his point guard. "I hope Tom doesn't play today," he told Bird, "because I want to win." Bird responded by telling Auriemma that Tom had better bring his sneakers. Tom played, and Bird wants you to know what happened: Her team won.