Lake County native Kari Juszczyk remembers the first time she turned on ESPN to watch Sue Bird play basketball.
It was more than two decades ago, Bird swam lightly in his jersey as he led the University of Connecticut’s offense from the spot. But it was an immediate connection for Juszczyk, who followed the point guard’s run from Connecticut to the Seattle Storm to the front row of Tuesday’s Chicago Sky game at Wintrust Arena.
“She paved the way for us,” Juszczyk said. “We are still fighting to get equal pay and equal time for women. It’s huge for us. She gives us all the chance that one day everything will be the same.”
A crowd of 9,314 fans gathered at Wintrust on Tuesday to watch Sky score the final home stand of a dominant 25-9 season and bid farewell to one of the greatest players in women’s basketball history.
Bird announced his decision to retire midway through the 2022 season after 25 years as one of the most dominant point guards in the game. Storm and Connecticut jerseys dotted the stands, and fans greeted Bird with a standing ovation as she and her retiring teammate, Briann January, were honored before kickoff.
“It just doesn’t feel real,” Sky captain Courtney Vandersloot said. “You don’t know the WNBA without Sue in it. she’s bittersweet she’s had an amazing career, we’ve had some great matchups. … It’s great to be a part of this and to be a part of her career, even if she’s a small part, because she’s one of the best to do it.”
For fans looking for one last look at a generational talent, Tuesday offered one of the last guaranteed chances to see Bird in action.
Audrey Goodrich and her sister, Izabelle, were raised as Connecticut fans by their father, a proud Husky alumnus. Throughout Audrey and Izabelle’s childhood, Bird’s ability to win was a constant: two NCAA titles, four WNBA championships, five Olympic gold medals.
When Bird announced his retirement plans, his mother, Olive, bought tickets to the trio’s first WNBA game in hopes of seeing Bird in person for the first and last time.
“She means a lot, not just to the game of basketball, but to young women in sports growing up and seeing someone so dominant,” Audrey Goodrich said.
Elizabeth Exil was already planning a trip to Chicago for the National Association of Letter Carriers (NALC) convention, but she bought tickets for Tuesday’s game before booking her flight. The excitement of seeing one of Bird’s final games hit Exil as she entered the arena.
“Ever since I walked in here, I’ve been speechless excited almost to the point of tears,” Exil said. “Knowing that I will probably never have this experience again because she is retiring means a lot. She really does it.”
Hannah Collins knew her chances of making the trip to a Storm game were slim: She spends most of the year at school in England and returns home to southern New Hampshire for just four weeks of summer vacation.
But Collins couldn’t bear the thought of missing the opportunity to see Bird in person. So he flew nearly 1,000 miles to Chicago for the closest game he could manage, arriving as early as possible to watch Bird warm up with his teammates.
Collins emphasized Bird’s advocacy for the LGBTQ community and equal rights in women’s sports as key to her impact.
“It’s everything she stands for on and off the court,” Collins said. “The way she uses her voice, it gives us something to look up to.”
Sky manager James Wade was not immune to Bird’s stardom during the two decades of his career. He remembers being in awe when he saw Bird walking the streets of New York two decades ago before he or his wife, French star Edwige Lawson, confronted Bird.
His path continued to cross with Bird for the next 20 years, as his wife’s teammate, his team’s opponent and, most recently, his own player during the 2022 All-Star Game.
Wade could take more pride in protecting Bird as a practice player for the Storm, promising with a smile that holds many memories of his days trying to pickpocket her during practice sessions.
“When it’s over, you hate that she’s not in the game, but you enjoy not having to prepare for her,” Wade said. “She has lived up to everything the fans wanted her to be.”