Lake County native Kari Juszczyk remembers the first time she turned on ESPN to see Sue Bird playing basketball.
It was more than two decades ago, Bird slightly swimming in her jersey as she marshaled the University of Connecticut offense from the point. But it was an immediate connection for Juszczyk, who followed the point guard’s career 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’re still fighting to get equal pay and equal time for women. It’s just huge for us. It gives us all a chance that someday it’ll all be equal.”
A crowd of 9,314 fans gathered Tuesday at Wintrust to watch the Sky mark the final home stand of a dominant 25-9 season and say goodbye to one of the greatest players in the history of women’s basketball.
Bird announced her decision to retire midway through the 2022 season after 25 years as one of the game’s most dominant point guards. Storm and Connecticut jerseys dotted the stands, and fans greeted Bird with a standing ovation as she and fellow retiring teammate Briann January were honored before tip-off.
“It just doesn’t feel real,” Sky captain Courtney Vandersloot said. “You don’t know the WNBA without Sue in it. It’s bittersweet. She’s had an amazing career, we’ve had great matchups. … It’s cool to be part of this and be a part of her career, even just a small part, because she is one of the best to ever do it.”
To fans grasping for one last look at a generational talent, Tuesday offered one of the final guaranteed opportunities to see Bird in action.
Audrey Goodrich and her sister, Izabelle, were raised as Connecticut fans by their dad, 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 her retirement plans, their mother, Olive, bought tickets for the trio’s first WNBA game in the hopes of seeing Bird in person for the first — and final — time.
“She means so much, not only for the game of basketball, but just for young women in sports to grow up and see someone so dominant,” Audrey Goodrich said.
Elizabeth Exil already was planning a trip to Chicago for the National Association of Letter Carriers (NALC) convention, but she bought tickets to Tuesday’s game before booking her flight. The emotion of seeing one of Bird’s final games hit Exil when she entered the arena.
“Ever since I walked in here, I’ve been dumb excited almost to the point of tears,” Exil said. “To know that I’m probably never going to get this experience again because she’s retiring, it means a lot. It really does.”
Hannah Collins knew her odds of making the trek to a Storm game were slim — she spends most of the year at school in England, returning home to southern New Hampshire for only four weeks of summer break.
But Collins couldn’t stand the idea of missing the chance to see Bird in person. So she flew nearly 1,000 miles to Chicago for the closest game she could manage, arriving as early as possible to watch Bird warm up with her teammates.
Collins emphasized Bird’s advocacy for the LGBTQ community and equal rights in women’s sports as a 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 coach James Wade wasn’t immune to Bird’s stardom throughout the two decades of her career. He remembers feeling awestruck when he saw Bird walking the streets of New York two decades ago before he or his wife, French star Edwige Lawson, went up against Bird.
His path continued to cross with Bird throughout the following 20 years — as his wife’s teammate, his team’s opponent and most recently his own player during the 2022 All-Star Game.
Wade might take the most pride in guarding Bird as a practice player for the Storm, promising with a grin that he cherishes plenty of memories from his days attempting to pick her pocket during training sessions.
“When it’s done you hate that she’s not in the game, but you do enjoy not having to prepare for her,” Wade said. “She’s lived up to everything that the fans wanted her to be.”