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Bird, Storm cap long journey back to WNBA champion

FAIRFAX, Va. — A few years ago when point guard Sue Bird was considering where to spend the end of her WNBA career, some close to her suggested leaving Seattle. The Storm were in a rebuilding period, so why not seek another title elsewhere? Maybe back closer to her home in New York? Bird gave it some thought, but in every conversation, she found herself defending the Storm.

“Why can’t we do it here again?” she’d say.

Turns out, she was right. Bird and the Storm completed a sweep of Washington on Wednesday night, winning Game 3 of the WNBA Finals 98-82 and giving the oldest player in the league her third championship.

Add that to Bird’s two NCAA titles at UConn, four Olympic gold medals, three world championship golds and four EuroLeague championships. She will be 38 in October, but she has made time slow down. Her commitment to a rigidly monitored diet, exercise and rest has added years to a Hall of Fame career. Seasons that Bird, the Storm, the Seattle fan base and WNBA followers in general cherish.

“We didn’t have this target on our backs and this pressure looming all year,” Bird said of the 2018 journey. “We have just been figuring it out as we’ve gone. As it turns out, we’re pretty good. And here we are.”

Bird had 10 points and 10 assists Wednesday as Seattle became the sixth WNBA team to win three titles. Breanna Stewart led all scorers with 30 points, and Natasha Howard had 29 points and 14 rebounds. Stewart was named the WNBA Finals MVP after winning the same honor in the regular season.

“It doesn’t feel real yet, honestly,” Stewart said after the game. “What we did as a team for these past four months … we had a goal and that was to win a championship.

“Every one of us, 1 through 12, the coaching staff … helped us reach this point. We’re the champs!”

The Storm won their first WNBA title in 2004 under coach Anne Donovan, when Bird and center Lauren Jackson, both former No. 1 draft picks, were 23 years old. Their second championship came under coach Brian Agler in 2010, when Jackson had her last fully healthy season in the WNBA and won the last of her three MVP awards.

This title comes in Bird’s 16th season. Two recent No. 1 picks, Stewart and Jewell Loyd, are both 24. Coach Dan Hughes, 63, won his first WNBA title after 17 years in the league. He retired after the 2016 season in San Antonio. But when the Storm job came open after last season, Hughes knew it was a great chance to return to the WNBA.

Seattle hadn’t finished with a winning record since 2011, and it hadn’t won a playoff series since 2010. But a lot of good players were there — led by Bird, Stewart, Loyd and defensive stopper Alysha Clark — with more to be added. The Storm acquired post player Howard in a trade with Minnesota on Feb. 7, then drafted point guard Jordin Canada on April 12.

Canada, the Pac-12’s all-time assists leader while at UCLA, was an eager and effective understudy for Bird, averaging 5.7 points and 3.3 assists during the regular season.

Hughes had coached Howard’s father when Hughes was an assistant at Toledo, and he was confident she would flourish with the Storm. Howard won a title with the Lynx last season as a reserve, but she said the trade was good news.

“It was a blessing for me,” she said. “I was ready to have the opportunity that I got with Seattle.”

Howard averaged 13.2 points and 6.4 rebounds during the regular season, in which the Storm went 26-8 for the league’s best record.

“You can’t understate how much of an impact Natasha Howard has had on that team,” said the Mystics’ Mike Thibault, who coached in his third WNBA Finals and still seeks his first title. “Because she fit exactly what they needed for their style of play — a mobile post who could defend, run, rebound — that kind of completed the puzzle.

“And Dan was smart enough to come in and keep the good stuff the same, while simplifying some other things. He recognized what the team did well.”

After Hughes got the job, he watched every game of the 2017 season and took copious notes. He retained assistant Gary Kloppenburg, who had taken over last season as interim head coach when Jenny Boucek was let go, and he credits Kloppenburg’s influence on the Storm’s defensive success.

“It was about trying to understand how to grow what we had, nurture it, guide it,” Hughes said. “For me to come back, I wanted to be open to change. It’s easy to come in and say, ‘Here’s how we do things,’ based on what I’d always done. But I had to come in and learn about what they had and allow us to grow that.”

It helped, of course, that there were two young superstars in Loyd, who joined the Storm out of Notre Dame in 2015, and Stewart, who landed in Seattle in 2016 after winning four NCAA titles at UConn. Both won the Rookie of the Year Award, and now they have their first WNBA championship.

Stewart also won the season MVP award after averaging 21.8 points and 8.4 rebounds.

“I definitely knew I was going to prepare differently and try to make this the year I wanted it to be,” Stewart said of her mindset after the Storm went 15-19 and lost to Phoenix in the first round last season. “We got some key pieces added, which made a difference. But there was just the mental preparation of the core group coming back. We said, ‘We’re not satisfied with what we’ve done, so how can we make it better?’

“Going from a place like UConn, where women’s basketball is really appreciated, to Seattle, where we also have great fan support, that makes all the difference. The city has welcomed me with open arms since I’ve been there, and continues to show how much they appreciate us being there.”

There was a time, though, when the Storm’s continued presence in Seattle was uncertain. The Storm began as an expansion franchise in 2000 affiliated with the NBA’s SuperSonics. Disagreements between the city and team ownership about the renovation of KeyArena led to the sale of both clubs to Clay Bennett. In 2008, he moved the Sonics to Oklahoma City, where they became the Thunder, but sold the Storm to a local group called Force 10 Hoops.

Bird recalls finishing the 2007 season and wondering if she’d ever play in Seattle again. But the group of Seattle businesswomen — initially four, but now made up of Lisa Brummel, Ginny Gilder and Dawn Trudeau — assured that the Storm would stay put.

“They swooped in and saved the day to keep us here,” Bird said. “They’ve set the standard and the tone for what it is to own a professional franchise in this league. When you don’t have the backing of an NBA team, it changes things. And it can change them for the worse, but that hasn’t happened with our franchise.

“The relationships we’ve all formed with them have been great. They are the owners, but they are also sort of like family members you can go to if you need advice. And their journeys alone are fascinating. How they got to where they are, what they’ve done, is amazing.”

The admiration goes both ways. The owners and Storm general manager Alisha Valavanis are grateful that Bird has stayed aboard to captain the ship, even when things were rocky.

“When we bought the team, we really believed our fan base deserved it,” Brummel said. “We thought it would be fun and a good contribution to the city. It’s turned out to be so much more than that. Running a basketball team is hard — but for us, it’s been a joy. Despite the ups and downs, every time I go to KeyArena and see the crowd and the delight on their faces, it makes me feel special.

“It was a contribution back to the community. The players have gotten the benefit, we’ve gotten the benefit and hopefully Seattle has as well. And Sue has continued to improve herself in ways I don’t think anybody could have imagined. I pinch myself, being able to watch her every day. Not just her physical play on the court, but she is mentally so amazing. She just puts it all together in a way I don’t know that we’ll ever see again.”

Bird’s career was already at Hall of Fame level before this title, but it is a great bookend for a great player. To have championships 14 years apart says everything about Bird’s durability and resolve. She has been a consistent starter every year since 2002, save for when she sat out the 2013 season to recover from surgery.

There’s also the fact she played in the 2004 WNBA Finals and these Finals while wearing a mask due to a broken nose suffered earlier in the playoffs. The Long Islander who made Seattle her second home has firmly carved out her place on the city’s “Mount Rushmore” of sports stars. And considering the youth of the rest of the team and Bird’s age-defying ability, this might not be the last of her WNBA titles.

Bird averaged 10.1 points and 7.1 assists, second best in the WNBA, during the regular season. She had one of the best quarters of her career in a Game 5 victory over Phoenix in the semifinals, scoring 14 points in a season-saving 10 minutes of sports heroism.

“Coming into the season, we knew that we added a lot of talent,” Bird said. “But it was also, ‘We have a new coach, we’re learning a new system, we’re deeper this year.’ But there was no way to be sure that Natasha would play the way she has. Or that Jordin would do this as a rookie. Or that Stewie would have an MVP season. Or that Jewell would continue to get better.

“It wasn’t really until the last quarter of this season that we looked around and thought, ‘Oh, we’re pretty good. Maybe we could win it all.'”

Maybe became reality Wednesday, and at the heart of it once again was Bird.

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