The goal: to get two Seattle legends, Storm Guard Sue Bird and Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson, into conversation without a break. No publicists or producers pushing an agenda or script, just # 10 and # 3 hacking it up. Your word to us to discuss the game, heritage and leadership during a health pandemic and amid social unrest. The result is a poignant glimpse into two of the sport’s greatest minds and how they plan to leave their Games and Seattle better than they did before they arrived.
This conversation has been edited and compressed for the sake of clarity.
Influence beyond the game
Sue Bird: I appreciate a really good game customization. Tell me when you wore my jersey [recently].
Russell Wilson: How can I not, Sue? You are all the champions that emerge from the championship. You have changed the game in so many different ways, not just for women but men as well, how you dominate the game. How to dominate professionalism and how to make a difference every day. My little sister Anna Wilson loves you. She is a point driver herself at Stanford. I’ve been at the top of all the games, and what I love most about you is, if you think about it … you play quarterback out there. Even if I don’t have the handle the way you have it.
And to be honest, the meaning of your jersey is way bigger than me, way bigger than just the relationship between you and me. It really is the importance you have had to women’s sports and women around the world. It definitely affected my own family, my sister, too. She is a young American girl who has a dream. I have a daughter named Sienna and hopefully one day she can be like you.
And when I can be like Sue Bird, I know I’m doing something right.
Bird: Funny you should say that. Because when I was in college, my coach [Geno Auriemma at UConn] would talk about being a quarterback on the floor. To be that person who resembles the voice in the crowd, but also has to do everyone else’s work. Because you have to predict, you have to see things. You have to monitor situations. You have to help your teammates. When I see you play it’s very similar I like a piece playing, and you already know, “Oh, if this guy moves just 1 inch to the left, I have him.” And that’s how I feel on the basketball court. To see you or to hear you talk about these things, I feel the same way. Seeing you rock my jersey – I mean, the foreplay of all foreplay suits me. I guess you had that thing backwards. Not many people know, but they do [WNBA] Numbers are not on the front [of the jerseys].
Wilson: The funny thing is that I said, “OK. I’ll wear this backwards so you can see the front. You have to see Bird. You have to see # 10. You have to rock the number.” And the funny thing was, I left the house and [my wife] Ciara, she hugs me and kisses me, and when I go out she says, “One thing very quickly.” I said what’s up “She says,” You’d better not lose in that jersey. “
Respect each other’s process
Wilson: You have influenced my family and me in many different ways. I wish I could take a look at how you get ready. Could you show me what this looks like?
Bird: We play games. There is no magic potion. But it’s also the time and commitment that it takes. I think a lot of people miss the boat on it. Because I can sit here and tell you, “I’m watching a movie.” And I do. I watch a lot of film. Not on me. I should probably take more care of myself. But more about how our team works. How other teams will play against us and where I can gain that one moment of advantage.
While basketball is a 40-minute game, it’s really only about stealing three possessions. And then boom, you could win by six. Whenever I watch [film]I see teams protect us and then I try to pick one, two, maybe three things that make me think, “At any moment, I’ll be able to steal possession from these three things.” Usually it comes in the form that you’re moving a screen here or getting a mismatch there. But when I go to a game I definitely have a written list of things from that preparation. And then I do the shootaround on game day, exactly when we’re going through – I hammer it into my teammates’ heads. For example, “Folks, when I say this, that … you know, that’s why we’re doing this.” So you can be on the [same] Side like me. I’m sure you know it’s like you’re not on the same page – if you are thinking one thing and your teammate is thinking another, you can’t connect that way – then it’s probably not going to work go. What about you?
Wilson: You mentioned these moments exist – I call them GAP games, game changing games. There are these game changing games in every game; There are those moments in time that you can capture and you can either capture or lose, let them slip. To find those GAP games and know when they’re going to happen and visualize them before they even happen, to let your teammates know, “Hey guys, this is going to happen, be ready for this, be ready for it, take that this is going to happen. “All that dialogue and focus during the week make it very special.
I think that’s the part I’m crazy for, the mentality part of everything.
Team chemistry creates these moments
Bird: My favorite part is the moment I have her. You have prepared for something. They kind of knew it could happen. It happens, your team has been executed and you say, “Got ’em!” Because you know that for the other team that is the dagger in their hearts for them. Then you feed this. And my other favorite thing is – and tell me if this happens to you – if your teammates start doing it, they could come over and whisper, “Hey, I think this, this and that. We probably could take advantage of that. “And I say,” You’re right, we could. Great idea! ” You know this is the best part.
Wilson: DK [Metcalf] and Tyler [Lockett] do [that]. And DK is young. He comes on the sidelines, in the group, or whatever it is, and Tyler always has. Tyler was such an incredible talent. If I’m the point guard, he’s the shooting guard. He knows how to get over it. He knows how to create a space and it was amazing to work with people like that.
Who was one of your favorite teammates – in terms of this process of being able to watch the game better than anyone?
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 way. With the two of us in the background, you have two thinkers. You have two players who are point guards and shooting guards. You have two players who can do both.
We play very well together. And then, in Seattle, we’re fresh from a championship. So I could list them. But I’d say Stewie (Breanna Stewart), Jewell Loyd, and Alysha Clark, and it goes beyond that. But we have such good chemistry with these three. So much is unsaid what is beautiful.
Legacy isn’t everything.
Bird: You’ve been playing for nine seasons. How has the game changed for you on and off the field? But what does it mean to be a black quarterback off the field these days?
Wilson: When I got into the league, I just really wanted to know my place because I’m trying to learn how to get a job. I’m a third string quarterback. I have to study the stone. It was like: You become a named starter in your rookie year, and you go into your sophomore year and win the Super Bowl. You’re in your third year and you get to the Super Bowl, but you don’t win. And you win one of those playoff games. Next, you’ll be four or five years old. Then I realized that I had to invest and make sure I was investing in others and their game growth. I always talk about this concept – the why of football. Why are we doing this
You always had to know why.
And then you will get the full information about the game. For me, it wasn’t just the why of football, I want to play this game for over 20 years. I started to immerse myself in my entire performance world, expand it and invest in it. That way I could feel fresh. I was able to feel great every day because I knew this job was a 365 day job.
In a way, when you play quarterback here, you’re the CEO of a company and it’s a billion dollar business. You need to understand that this is a great responsibility and opportunity to make an impact. For myself outside of the field, I’ve always wanted to spend a lot of time in the church – my work with Seattle Children’s Hospital and so many things there. We built this [Why Not You] Basis for it. That was definitely amazing just to really make a difference and give the kids a why-not-you attitude.
But with everything that’s going on in America right now, with social implications. I just think about everything that’s going on with COVID and racist and all the social injustices and everything. I was lucky enough to be able to bring things together easily.
For me as a quarterback. There weren’t too many African American quarterbacks, especially starters. And now the game has changed a lot. Before me, there was only one other black quarterback who won 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 here. We have to move on, and I’ve always seen that in you. I know that you have helped the world in so many ways, from everything you have done with women’s rights and equality, and how you have stood up for your teammates, your friends, and even people like me. You have stood up for many things. I’ve always admired that. Can you talk to me about it
Bird: I think it’s twofold. I think, like you, just to be a woman in sports. It’s … almost in a way, we shouldn’t be here.
The more we are here and the more we succeed and the more people can see this, the more you pave the way for others. Only by being excellent at what you do and playing that position the way you do it will you pave the way. And I feel the same way. Just because I’m a woman in this country trying to put professional sport on the map does I pave the way for younger players. But it goes a little further because I feel like a white gamer, and even as a gay woman, I get it – especially as a gay woman – when people have my back who are not gay. It just speaks so much louder as I stand out there screaming for gay rights. That’s just the reality.
The word ally gets thrown around a lot. And being a white athlete with the WNBA this summer talking about Black Lives Matter. I knew that was important. I also knew there were times when I just had to listen and learn. But in the moments when I needed to speak up, I knew that my role as someone who wasn’t black was really important.
I’ve just learned so much from going through the past summer and the impact we can all have as an athlete, and then the impact I can have as an athlete. And it’s almost like once you get a taste of the change you can possibly make, you just don’t want to stop. You want to go on. You want to continue to pave the way and be a part of it. This is legacy.
I would love to hear from you. I am curious when you hear the word legacy, what do you think of?
Wilson: First of all, I think of all the things that you have just said. About 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 little amazing you and Megan [Rapinoe, Bird’s fiancée].
And being the greatest point guard in the game. And to be white and to stand up for the life and minorities of blacks as a whole was amazing to see. Their effect is real and is definitely noticed and understood. This is important.
Bird: Thank you.
Wilson: I thank you for that. But it’s a legacy – it means what have you done, what are your awards? And how many touchdowns can you throw and how many assists do you have? How many buckets do you get and how many points did you get in total? All of these different things. How many championships have you won?
This idea of legacy to me is really who you are changing. It is who you change.
Every time you enter a room, when you enter a place, you are better off leaving than when you arrived. And I think that’s important to the legacy. And I think it’s really important to everyone [person] to understand that we all have different meanings. However, we all have meaning. And there is something that you can always leave. There is always a place of impact for you.
I always tell my kids this, but the reality is – we all have an area of influence. Whether it’s someone who has 20 million followers and someone has won so many championships or who doesn’t have a lot and is trying to figure out what to do next. So if someone is sadly on their deathbed with cancer, the reality is that that person still has meaning. How do we challenge and encourage and love and build this meaning and let them know?
That’s why I set up the foundation. I think there is always an impression of impact. And for me, you know, for my legacy, where I am today, nine years later, it’s like I’m just getting started. But how many years have you been playing again?
Bird: Oh don’t ask me that. Uh, high teens. Tall teenagers.
Wilson: If I got into the high teens – I think to myself, if I can leave my legacy behind – I would be one of the best to have ever played this game. That’s why I get up every morning to work hard. But hopefully I can leave a legacy that I have given people hope that they can surpass any of their dreams they have ever had. Hopefully I’ll leave a glimpse of love and joy.
I always go to the stadium and say, “Man, this boy will see me play once in his life. Hopefully he’ll remember it forever.” And so hopefully that will be part of my legacy. I also think of my children. I think of my sons [Future Jr. and Win] and my daughter. I think about who they are and I pray they take risks. I pray they are taking the same risk and more risk than I could ever take.
We get successful and happy and whatever. You can have finances. Your children may think they don’t have to work hard, or there is no risk, or, “I’m fine.” And I want to make sure my kids know they have to try. You have to do it every day. You need to bring passion into everything you do, take risks, take on challenges, be an overcomer, be a winner and have this mentality every day.
If I can leave you with it, others will leave you with it, and for me and my wife Ciara we are blessed to be able to do so [work in] Sport and music. Two of the most fun things in the world. But in order to put these things together and to clash these things with our children and do it every day, hopefully we can influence them.
If I had something on my tombstone and thought about it, it was that I served. I served. And that’s what Legacy is all about. It’s about others.
The best of Seattle
Wilson: You have been doing this for so many years and influencing me and my sister and so many other people. I walk the streets with your jersey, wear number 10 and so on. But what does the legacy look like for you?
Bird: First, let me say that although I am also a professional athlete in the city of Seattle, I am a fan to both you and Ciara your entire family. I am watching you. I see you play all the time. I’m a fan. And because I’m in the community, I know the work you’ve done and the effects are already being felt. You still have a long way to go to catch me in years, but that only means more years to continue with what you’ve done both on and off the field. It was fun to watch and even have this conversation.
Regarding the legacy, I agree. It’s like we’re trapped in the points and the rebounds or the touchdowns and the championships and what that legacy means. But like I said, they’re probably just asking you if you’ve done some things right. If you’ve already won some things. So this part is already done. You know, I used to raise Diana. She always says: “It’s already written.” I already did it.
And it continues today as women’s basketball. It’s what I can do. How can I take advantage of this moment when I am still playing, when my years, experience and level of play have collided in this way? Where I have that voice and it’s loud and I want to make sure I’m using it properly. I think a lot of younger players listen to me because I’ve played for so long.
And things like our new collective agreement, how we came 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 in 10 years – where I’m retired somewhere on the beach and I know there’s someone just getting into the league who has that opportunity, be it from a money standpoint or from the platform, and I have helped grow when i was there. And you said it. You want to leave places better than when you arrived.
Wilson: That is amazing. And I have to get this formula for high teens, you know.
Bird: We’re not going to talk about 20 yet. We just call it high teens.
Wilson: Sue, I have a question for you. And I know that you are creative. You’re a point guard and I’m a quarterback here. So we have to put this team together. We have to have a Mount Rushmore from Seattle athletes. So who do we want there?
Bird: No. 1, I choose you. That’s what I’m saying.
Wilson: No. 1, Sue Bird. And I’ll put your head right in the middle too, right in the middle of the whole thing.
Bird: You’re my # 1. So we said it. Um, all right, cool. So it’s our turn. And after that it gets difficult. I think I have to go with “The Glove” Gary Payton.
Wilson: Surely a good one.
Bird: Can we bring the Sonics back? That would be great
Wilson: I have to put on gloves. And of course we have to put swingman Ken Griffey Jr. in there.
Bird: Naturally. I mean, listen, we’re here right now. That was my four from the start.
Wilson: Well. We build. All right, we’re good. We have our Mount Rushmore.
Bird: To adjust. It is clear.
Wilson: We have to do this more often. I love this conversation. I love your knowledge and what you bring with you. I would like to thank Ciara and myself as well as my daughter Sienna and my family. My whole family including my sister Anna we love you and all the things you could do. Not just for Seattle, but also for women around the world and for men.
Bird: Thank you for sharing. The feeling is mutual. And a short, little story. You were a great motivator in the past summer [WNBA] Bladder. When we were in our own little bubble, we were with IMG [Academy in Bradenton, Florida]As everyone knows, the jersey hangs up in the waiting room.
Wilson: Oh yes that’s true.
Bird: Literally every workout we did, whatever it was, there was you.
Wilson: I am always with you.
Bird: I think Seattle is pretty lucky.