The goal: get two Seattle legends, Storm guard Sue Bird and Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson, in conversation without disruption. No publicists or producers pushing an agenda or script, just No. 10 and No. 3 chopping it up. Their floor to discuss the game, legacy and leadership during a health pandemic and amid social unrest. The result is a poignant glimpse into two of sports’ greatest minds and how they plan to leave their games and Seattle better than they were before they arrived.
This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Influence beyond the game
Sue Bird: I appreciate a really good game fit. Tell me about when you wore my jersey [recently].
Russell Wilson: How can I not, Sue? You all are the champions coming off the championship. You’ve changed the game in so many different ways, not just for women but for men, too, with how you dominate the game. How you dominate professionalism and how you make an impact every day. My little sister, Anna Wilson, she loves you. She’s a point driver at Stanford herself. I’ve been on the top of you all’s games, and what I love about you, in particular, is when you think about it … you’re playing quarterback out there. Even though I don’t have the handle like you have it.
And to be honest with you, the significance of your jersey is way bigger than me, way bigger than just you and I’s relationship. It’s really the significance that you’ve had on women’s sports and women around the world. It’s definitely impacted even my own family, my sister. She’s a young American girl who has a dream, you know. I have a daughter named Sienna, and hopefully she can be like you one day.
And if I can be like Sue Bird, I know I’m doing something right.
Bird: Funny you say that. Because even when I was in college, my coach [Geno Auriemma at UConn] would talk about being a quarterback on the floor. Being that person who is kind of like the voice in the huddle but is also having to do everybody else’s jobs. Because you have to predict, you have to see things. You have to monitor situations. You have to help your teammates. So, when I watch you play, it’s very similar. I like the watching of a play unfold, and you already know, like, “Oh, if that guy just moves 1 inch to the left, I got him.” And that’s how I feel on the basketball court. To see you or to hear you talk about those things, I feel the same. To see you rock my jersey — I mean, the pregame of all pregame fits for me. I appreciate that you had that thing on backward. Not a lot of people know, but the [WNBA] numbers are not on the front [of the jerseys].
Wilson: The funny thing is that I was like, “OK. I’m going to wear this backward so you can see the front. You got to see Bird. You got to see No. 10. You have to rock the number.” And the funny thing was, I was leaving the house and [my wife] Ciara, she gives me a hug and a kiss, and as I’m walking out, she goes, “One thing real fast.” I said, “What’s up?” She goes, “You better not lose in that jersey.”
Mutually respecting the process
Wilson: You’ve impacted my family and me in many different ways. I wish I could peek into the mind of how you get ready. Could you walk me through what that looks like?
Bird: We play games. There’s not some magic potion. But it’s also the time and the dedication that it takes. A lot of people, I think, miss the boat on that. Because I can sit here and tell you, like, “I watch film.” And I do. I watch a lot of film. Not on myself. I probably should watch more on myself. But more of, like, how our team is functioning. How other teams are going to play us, and where I can gain that one moment of advantage.
Even though basketball’s a 40-minute game, it’s really just about stealing, like, three possessions. And then boom, you might win by six. Whenever I’m watching [film], I see how teams guard us, and then I try to pick, like, one, two, maybe three things where I’m like, “At any given moment, from these three things, I’m going to be able to steal a possession.” Usually, it comes in the form of, you know, slip a screen here or get a mismatch there. But when I go into a game, I definitely have, like, a written list of things from that preparation. And then what I do is in the shootaround, on game day, right when we’re just walking through — I hammer it into my teammates’ heads. Like, “Guys, when I say this, this … you know, this is why we’re doing it.” So they can be on the [same] page as me. Because, again, I’m sure you know, it’s like if you’re not on the same page — if you’re thinking one thing and your teammate’s thinking another, you can’t connect in that way — then it’s probably not going to work. What about you?
In October, Sue Bird celebrated her fourth title after a blowout 92-59 victory against the Las Vegas Aces in Game 3 of the WNBA Finals. Stephen Gosling/NBAE/Getty Images
Wilson: You mentioned there are these moments — I call them GAP plays, game-altering plays. There are these game-altering plays in every game; there are these moments in time that you can capture, and you can either capture or lose it, let it slip. To be able to find those GAP plays and know when they’re going to happen and visualize them before they even happen, to let your teammates know, “Hey guys, this is what’s going to happen, be ready for this, be ready for that, anticipate this is going to happen.” All that dialogue and that concentration throughout the week make it really special.
I think that’s the part that I’m crazy about, the mentality part of it all.
Team chemistry creates those ‘got ’em’ moments
Bird: My favorite part is the got ’em moment. You prepared for something. You kind of knew it could happen. It happens, your team executed, and you’re like, “Got ’em!” Because you know that for the other team, that’s the dagger in the heart for them. Then you feed off that. And my other favorite thing is — and tell me if this happens with you — when your teammates start to do it, like, they might come over and whisper, like, “Hey, I think this, this and that. We could probably exploit that.” And I’m like, “You’re right, we could. Great idea!” You know, that’s the best part.
Wilson: DK [Metcalf] and Tyler [Lockett] do [that]. And DK’s young. He comes to the sideline, in the huddle or whatever it may be, and Tyler’s always done it. Tyler’s been such an unbelievable talent. If I’m the point guard, he’s the shooting guard. He knows how to get over. He knows how to create a space, and it’s been amazing to work with guys like that.
Who’s been one of your favorite teammates — in terms of this process of being able to see the game better than anybody else?
Bird: I’ve had a lot of teammates. When I think of the Olympic team and even college and beyond, it’s Diana Taurasi. We kind of see the game the same. With the two of us in the backcourt, you have two thinkers. You have two players who are point guards and shooting guards. You have two players who are kind of able to do both.
We play off each other really well. And then in Seattle, I mean, we’re fresh off a championship. So, I could list them. But I would say Stewie (Breanna Stewart), Jewell Loyd and Alysha Clark, and it goes beyond that. But those three, we have such good chemistry. So much is unsaid, which is nice.
Legacy isn’t all X’s and O’s
Bird: You’ve been playing for nine seasons. How has the game shifted for you, both on and off the field? But then also off the field, what it means to be a Black quarterback nowadays?
Wilson: When I came to the league, I just really wanted to know my place because I’m trying to learn how to start a job. I’m a third-string quarterback. I’ve got to study the stone. It was like: You get to be a named starter your rookie year, and you go into your second year and you win the Super Bowl. You go to the third year and get into the Super Bowl, but you don’t win. And you win one of these playoff games, next thing you know, you’re four, five years in. Then I realized that I need to invest and make sure that I invest in others and their game growth. I always talk about this concept — the whys of football. Why are we doing this?
You always got to know why.
And that’s when you get the full intel of the game. For me, it was not just the whys of football but I also want to play this game for 20-plus years. I started diving into my whole performance world and building that out and investing in that. So, that way, I could feel fresh. I could feel great every day, knowing that this job is a 365-day job.
In a way, playing quarterback here, you’re the CEO of a business, and it’s a multibillion-dollar business. You have to understand that it’s a great responsibility and a great opportunity to impact. So, for me, off the field, I always wanted to spend a lot of time in the community — my work with Seattle Children’s Hospital and so many things there. We built the [Why Not You] foundation to do that. That’s definitely been amazing just to really make an impact and instill a why-not-you attitude in the kids.
But with everything going on in America right now with, you know, social impact. Just thinking about everything going on with COVID and racially, and all the social injustices and everything. I have been fortunate to be able just to pull things together.
For me, being a quarterback. There weren’t too many African American quarterbacks, especially starters. And now the game’s changed a lot. Before me, there was only one other Black quarterback to win a Super Bowl. (Former Washington player Doug Williams was the first African American QB to win a Super Bowl, in 1988.)
Bigger than a game
Wilson: These times are changing, and it’s changing for the better, but we can’t stop there. We got to keep going, and it’s something that I’ve always observed about you. I know that you’ve helped the world in so many ways, from everything you’ve done with women’s rights and equality and how you stood up for your teammates, for your friends, even for people like me. You stood up for a lot of things. I’ve always admired that. Can you talk to me about that?
Bird: I think it’s twofold. I think, similar to you, just being a woman in the space of sports. It’s … almost, in a way, we’re not supposed to be here.
The more we are here and the more we succeed, and the more people can see that, then you are paving the way for others. Just by being excellent at what you do and playing that position the way you do, you’re paving the way. And I feel the same way. Just by being a woman in this country trying to put professional sports on the map, I’m paving the way for younger players. But it does go a little bit beyond because I feel like as a white player, and even as a gay woman, I understand that — especially as a gay woman — when people have my back that aren’t gay. It just speaks so much louder than me standing out there, you know, yelling for gay rights. That’s just the reality of it.
The word ally gets thrown around a lot. And this summer, with the WNBA, to be a white athlete speaking out about Black Lives Matter. I knew there was an importance to that. I also knew there were times that I needed just to listen and learn. But the moments that presented themselves where I needed to be vocal about it, I knew that my role was really important as somebody who wasn’t Black.
I’ve just learned so much by going through this past summer and the impact that we can all have as athletes and then the impact that I can have as a female athlete. And it’s almost like once you get a taste of the change that you can possibly make, you just don’t want to stop. You want to keep going. You want to continue to pave the way and be a part of that. That’s what legacy is.
I’d love to hear from you. I’m curious, when you hear the word legacy, like, what do you think of?
Wilson: First of all, I think about all the things you just said. About having an ally. Just know that you have an ally in me. Always.
Bird: Thank you. I appreciate that.
Wilson: I stand for love. It’s a bit amazing, you and Megan [Rapinoe, Bird’s fiancée].
And being the greatest point guard of the game. And being white and standing up for Black lives and minorities as a whole, it’s been amazing to watch. Your impact is real, and it definitely gets noticed, and understood. That’s important.
Bird: Thank you.
Wilson: I thank you for doing that. But it’s a legacy — it means, what have you done, what are your accolades? And how many touchdowns you can throw, and how many assists do you have? How many buckets you get, and how many points have you scored in total? All these different things. How many championships have you won?
This idea of legacy to me, it’s really who you change. It’s who you change.
Anytime you walk into a room, anytime you walk into a place, you leave it better than when you got there. And I think that that’s important in terms of legacy. And I think it’s really important for every [person] to understand that we all have different significances. We all have significance, though. And there’s something there that you can always leave. There’s always a place of impact for you.
I always tell my kids this, but the reality is — we all have a sphere of influence. Whether it’s somebody who has 20 million followers and somebody has won this many championships or who doesn’t have much at all and tries to figure out what to do next. So, if somebody’s, unfortunately, laying on their deathbed with cancer, the reality is that person still has significance. How do we challenge and encourage and love and build up that significance and let them know that?
That’s why I created the foundation. I think that there’s always a glimpse of impact. And for me, you know, for my legacy, where I am today, nine years in, it’s like I’m just getting started. But how many years have you played again?
Bird: Oh, don’t ask me that. Uh, high teens. High teens.
Wilson: If I can get into the high teens — I think for me, if I can leave my legacy — I would be one of the greatest ever to play this game. That’s why I get up every morning to work hard. But, hopefully, I can leave a legacy that I gave people hope that they could surpass any of their dreams that they’ve ever had. Hopefully, I leave a glimpse of love and joy.
I always walk into the stadium, and I say, “Man, this kid gets to see me play one time in his life. Hopefully, this will be something that he’ll forever remember.” And so, hopefully, that will be part of my legacy. I think about my kids too. I think about my sons [Future Jr. and Win] and my daughter. I think about who they are, and I pray that they take risks. I pray they take the same risk and even more risk than I was even able to take.
We become successful and fortunate and whatever. You may have finances. Your kids may think that they don’t have to work hard, or maybe there’s not a risk to take or, “I’m OK.” And I want to make sure my kids know they’ve got to go for it. They got to go for it every day. They got to bring passion to whatever they do, take risks, take challenges, be an overcomer, be a winner, and have that mentality every day.
If I can leave them with that, they’ll leave others with that, and for me and my wife, Ciara, we’re blessed to be able to [work in] sports and music. Two of the most entertaining things in the world. But to put those things together and collide those things together with our kids and do it every day, hopefully, we can impact them.
If I had anything on my tombstone, thinking about it, is that I served. I served. And that’s what legacy is about. It’s about others.
Wilson, seen here with wife Ciara, joined forces with soccer star Megan Rapinoe and Bird this summer to remotely host the 2020 ESPYS, which celebrated heroism and humanitarian aid — one year after the four attended the 2019 award show in person. Rich Fury/Getty Images
Wilson: You’ve done this for so many years and impacted me and my sister and so many other people. I’m walking the streets wearing your jersey, wearing No. 10 and all that. But what does legacy look like to you?
Bird: First, let me say that both for you and Ciara, your whole family, even though I am also a professional athlete in the city of Seattle, I’m a fan. I watch you guys. I watch you play all the time. I’m a fan. And because I’m in the community, I know the work that you guys have done, and the impact is already felt. You do have a long way to go to catch me in years, but that just means more years to continue what you’ve been doing both on and off the field. It’s been fun to watch and even just to have this conversation.
On the conversation of legacy, I agree. It’s like we get caught up in the points and the rebounds or the touchdowns and the championships, and kind of what that legacy means. But, as I said, they’re probably only asking you that if you’ve done some things right. If you’ve already won some things. So that part’s already taken care of. You know, I brought up Diana earlier. She always says, like, “it’s already written.” Like, I’ve already done it.
And it goes further than women’s basketball today. It’s about what I can do. How can I use this moment where I’m still playing, where my years and my experience and my level of play have collided in this way? Where I have this voice, and it’s loud, and I want to make sure I’m using it in the right ways. I think many younger players listen to me because I’ve been playing for so long.
And things like our new collective bargaining agreement, with how we’ve come together to stand for things that go beyond basketball, that’s where I want my legacy to lie. That’s where I want to be 10 years from now — where I’m retired somewhere on a beach, and I know that there’s somebody who’s just coming into the league who has this opportunity, whether it’s from a money standpoint or the platform, and I helped that grow when I was there. And you said it. You want to leave places better than when you got there.
Wilson: That’s amazing. And I need to get this formula for high teens, you know.
Bird: We won’t talk about 20 yet. We’ll just call it high teens.
Wilson: Sue, I’ve got a question for you. And I know you’re creative. You’re a point guard, and I’m a quarterback over here. So we’ve got to build this team together, all right. We got to have a Mount Rushmore of Seattle athletes. So, who do we want on there?
Bird: No. 1, I’m picking you. That’s what I’m saying.
Wilson: No. 1, Sue Bird. And I’m putting your head right in the middle, too, right in the middle of the whole thing.
Bird: You’re my No. 1. So there, we said it. Um, all right, cool. So, we’re on it. And then after that, it does get tough. I think I’m going to have to go with “The Glove” Gary Payton.
Wilson: A good one, for sure.
Bird: Can we bring the Sonics back? That’d be nice.
Wilson: Gotta put Glove on there. And, of course, we gotta put the Swingman, Ken Griffey Jr., in there.
Bird: Of course. I mean, listen, we’re here right now. Those were my four from the start.
Wilson: All right. We’re building. All right, so we’re good. We got our Mount Rushmore.
Bird: Set. It’s set.
Wilson: We got to do this more often. I love this conversation. I love your knowledge and what you bring. I want to thank you from Ciara and me and from my daughter, Sienna, and my family. My whole family, including my sister, Anna, we love you and all the things you’ve been able to do. Not just for Seattle but for women around the world and for men too.
Bird: Thank you for sharing that. The feeling is mutual. And one quick, little story. You were a huge motivation this past summer, in the [WNBA] bubble. When we were in our own little bubble, we were at IMG [Academy in Bradenton, Florida], as everybody knows, and in the waiting room, they have your jersey hanging up.
Wilson: Oh yeah, that’s true.
Bird: Literally every workout we were doing, whatever it was, there you were.
Wilson: I’m always there with you.
Bird: I think Seattle’s pretty lucky.