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Sue Bird Uses Veteran Know-How for Edge Over WNBA Rookies

Sue Bird has logged the most career minutes, games and assists of any W.N.B.A. player. In her 17th season, though, the Seattle Storm legend finds a competitive edge in a less-familiar stat: the 16 rookie classes she’s seen and, in some cases, outlasted.

“I think it’s even harder now to be a rookie in this league,” Bird said as she described how much the W.N.B.A. has changed since the Storm drafted her No. 1 over all in 2002. “The league now is just tougher. You have a good mix of veteran players and experienced youth — it makes for a really athletic game, a competitive game and a smart game.”

In those intervening years, the league shrank from 16 to 12 teams of 12 players each; open spots on rosters are rare, and the talent competing to claim them has improved dramatically — in part because the league exists and provides motivation.

“Obviously I didn’t grow up wanting to be it, because it didn’t exist,” Bird, who turns 40 next month, said of becoming a W.N.B.A. player.

The league was five years old when she was drafted; she said that growing up on Long Island, she did get to attend Liberty games before she began her college career at Connecticut. “I like to think that my class was one of the first that made its college choice knowing there was a professional league,” she added. There had been the option to play internationally as well as for some lesser-known American leagues but nothing with the full weight of an existing organization like the N.B.A. behind it.

More than two decades later, the league is full of players who grew up not only knowing that there was a professional league in the U.S., but watching Bird dominate. As her Storm (2-0) face off with the Minnesota Lynx in the W.N.B.A. semifinals, Bird is playing against last year’s rookie of the year, Napheesa Collier, and this year’s, fellow point guard Crystal Dangerfield — both of whom also came from UConn.

Though she’s more often aiming to encourage young players than to provide what’s often called a “welcome to the league” moment — on-court embarrassment made possible by a veteran’s skill and strength — Bird is not immune to the temptation to take advantage of a bewildered rookie, one who may be at least a little star-struck by her presence.

She knows the feeling. “With a few exceptions, like Cheryl Miller, I’ve played with and against the best basketball players this country has seen,” Bird said. “It is kind of surreal.”

The first time she attended a training camp with the U.S. national team, Bird said she remembered being driven to the facility from the airport and almost immediately getting thrown into a scrimmage alongside Olympic gold medalists. “All of a sudden, Lisa Leslie’s setting me a screen for a pick and roll, and I’m coming off it and passing to Sheryl Swoopes,” Bird said.

“Anytime you go up against the best and you succeed — you prove yourself — you’re just putting money in your confidence bank. It’s a memory you have, that you were successful. You just carry that with you.”

Now that she’s in the storied shoes of Swoopes and Leslie, Bird sees just how eager she must have looked to her elders. There are some rookies who tell her they had her poster on their wall growing up; other times she can detect rookie’s nerves (or attitude) by how they play her.

“Being on the court with Sue, you can see how smart she is and what she can do,” said Kiara Leslie, a Washington Mystics guard who just finished her first season in the W.N.B.A. “You always have that in the back of your mind that you’re on the floor with one of the greatest players who’s ever played.”

Bird senses that.

“Every now and then you notice a rookie going extra hard against you,” Bird said. “If someone’s going extra hard — like, I just watched film on you and I never saw you do that — then you kind of realize like, OK, they’re trying to maybe make a name for themselves.” In other words, just like Bird did all those years ago.

Some veterans take more offense to that frantic rookie energy than others, and use it to intimidate the newcomers. “It’s just physically punking them,” Diana Taurasi, the W.N.B.A.’s career scoring leader, said in a conversation with Bird on Instagram Live. “It’s this mental bullying that takes place right before the ball goes up.”

That predictable enthusiasm is part of what can make rookies easier to read — and easier to score on. Bird insisted that she doesn’t turn to trash talk (“I only engage when I’m first talked at,” she said), but she said she had plenty of other ways to exploit her competitive edge.

“There are just things that a rookie isn’t going to know — things none of us knew coming into the league,” Bird said. “So there are just small ways in which you can take advantage of that lack of knowledge, whether it’s terminology they don’t know, or different defensive schemes they don’t know, or how to guard certain actions that they just don’t know yet.”

“I’m not even talking about if a rookie’s guarding me,” she continued, adding that she knows “exactly what play to call” when she sees rookies up against teammates like Jewell Loyd and Breanna Stewart.

“For me, it’s more, ‘How can I manipulate this person?’” she said.

That lack of knowledge, though, cuts both ways, according to Bird. Minimal scouting reports on new players mean that at least for their first month or two, W.N.B.A. rookies have some degree of mysteriousness on their side — a rarity in an intimate league like the W. “Because we’re a small league, everybody knows everybody’s everything,” Bird said. “If we know a player can’t go left, everybody is screaming, ‘Force her left!’ When there’s blood in the water, we all attack it.”

At least for a little while, rookies’ novelty might keep them away from the sharks. “Then it starts to get real for them,” Bird said. “You start to take things away from them, see what they’re made of.”

Bird said that these rites of passage include lessons every player eventually learns on the court as they adjust to the professional game. But she also said that the same mental toughness required to go head-to-head with a veteran player and come out on top is important off the court — especially for W.N.B.A. players.

“I think female athletes today deal with a lot,” Bird said, citing the people who disparage the women’s game without having watched it. “I think for the first time in a long time, probably starting in the last year — I’m hoping what I’m feeling is right — it feels like it’s starting to take a turn for the better. We kind of started out hot, plateaued, maybe even took a dip, but now I think we’re starting to climb out of that.”

The W.N.B.A.’s battles for respect may have persisted throughout Bird’s career, but so too have the generations of players giving advice to one another and teaching those necessary lessons — even if it’s via a little tough love. “It’s all about maximizing your strengths and hiding your weaknesses,” Bird said. “Whether you’re a role player or the best player on the team, if you can do that it’s a recipe for a long career.”

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