Sue Bird and Lauren Jackson are inextricably linked.
Forever, the duo that won two titles with the Seattle Storm will be both remembered and evaluated as a package deal. That’s a pretty far cry from when they first met.
“Honestly, I thought she was Adia [Barnes],” Jackson said at a media roundtable a few weeks ago.
Indeed, during their first practice together, a jet-lagged LJ kept her gaze on what she believed was the team’s second straight No. 1 pick, only to find she had been focused the savvy veteran, not the UConn product.
Of course, the misunderstanding was soon cleared up, and the two led Seattle to its first playoff appearance that year.
“On the court we clicked pretty much instantly,” Jackson said, “and then once we started getting that connection on the court, we began getting that connection off the court — but it took a little while to actually go to a bar together.”
Bird agreed that it wasn’t exactly an instantaneous connection, as a result of their personalities.
“We both have a shyness that we possess,” Bird said, “so the off the court took that first season, but then by the next season we were hanging out all the time.”
For longtime Storm fan Scott Engelhart, when Jackson arrived in the Emerald City to much hype, the shyness was apparent. But so was her ability to be a game changer the second she hit the floor.
“I think we all felt like we’re in good hands, only good things are going to happen, once we saw her play,” he said.
So while Seattle only improved four games in the win column in her first season, with the help of Bird in the years to come, the franchise could count itself as one of the league’s elite.
And at a time when the faces of the WNBA were homegrown college superstars — think Lisa Leslie, Sheryl Swoopes, and Tina Thompson, among others — it was one of the league’s first international superstars that was capturing hearts in Seattle, as the city’s lone Aussie bar, Kangaroo & Kiwi, became a hot spot for Storm fans.
As Bird and Jackson’s off-court friendship grew, so did their list of on court successes. Seattle would make the playoffs every season between 2004 and 2012, with a pair of championships.
That first title was no small feat for a team that failed to make the playoffs the season before. It only took a two-game improvement in the win column to earn the berth, as the Storm proceeded to sweep Minnesota before coming back from a one game deficit against both the Monarchs and the Sun to take home the title.
Suddenly, the players accustomed to a nightly crowd of several thousand were showing off a trophy in front of a sold-out Key Arena, with the indelible image of Bird and Jackson embracing as the clock struck zero in the deciding game three of the WNBA Finals.
“Without her, we would have never had those championships,” Engelhart said.
And individually, Jackson truly does sport a remarkable set of achievements for a career cut short by injuries: three MVP awards, seven All-Star selections, a three-time league scoring champion and one-time rebounding leader, a five-time all-league first team choice, and a pick for both the WNBA’s All-Decade and Top 15 teams. Her career averages? 19 points and eight rebounds per game, and that’s including several injury riddled years along the way when she was playing at less than 100 percent.
Those numbers and accolades don’t even truly cover it, but it does reflect just how big her impact was in a little over a decade stateside. Her parents do get some of the credit for the player she became: Both her mom Maree and dad Gary were basketball players, and both suited up for their respective Australian National Teams.
But ultimately what may not be captured in the gaudy statlines is her sheer dominance from one play to the next.
“There were moments, especially after the 2004 championship season when I would see her make some amazing shot, or an ‘and 1’ and think, what a privilege it is to be a witness to greatness,” said longtime season ticket holder Colleen Lincoln. “This must have been what it felt like to see Babe Ruth hit a home run. This must be how it felt to be a Cleveland Browns fan in the early ’60s, watching Jim Brown run.”
And what she did on the court reverberated through the fan base.
“The way she was on the floor, and the way that the team worked with her on the floor, that just super fierce competitiveness, and she just wouldn’t stop ever, that filtered into the fans,” Engelhart said. “Coming to a game now, compared to a game between 2004 and 2010, there’s a completely different personality of the fans, and I think the fans fed off what was happening with LJ and the team.”
Now, whenever basketball fans enter Key Arena, they can turn their heads skyward toward the rafters, and forever see the No. 15 standing watch.
Even if she’s not exactly opposed to that number seeing the court again.
“It is a pretty important number on a team, so I was surprised when they decided they were going to retire the number,” Jackson said. “It’s sad! People should wear No. 15. I couldn’t believe it that no one is going to where No. 15 again — I think people should wear it, if they want.”