Brian Agler can attest: Sue Bird is the best of her kind
The mutual trust between the coach and his floor leader is, quietly, a major factor in the Storm's transformation from playoff contender to untouchable champion.
Seattle Times staff columnist
Sue Bird rolled her eyes. She was forced to listen to her coach praise her again.
"I want to say one more thing," Storm coach Brian Agler offered without provocation, and he's not a loose-lipped kind of guy. "Sue, to me, flies under the radar of getting exposure. She does her job on the floor better than anybody."
Agler continued, and Bird fidgeted with each kind word. It's the only time all season she has looked uncomfortable. A classic point guard, she's much better at making others look good.
This was more than an obligatory offering of credit amid championship bliss, however. Of all the reasons to appreciate the Storm — three-time MVP Lauren Jackson's versatility, Swin Cash's tenacity, Tanisha Wright's defense and on and on — Bird's intelligence, leadership and skill are most essential to this team. And the mutual trust between coach and floor leader is, quietly, a major factor in this franchise's transformation from playoff contender to untouchable champion.
Their chemistry is subtle. It's as sly as Bird covering Agler's microphone when she talks to him during nationally televised games. It's as simple as Agler waiting for Bird, with a basketball in hand during pregame warmups, and having a quick exchange before she shoots. In those moments, nearly unnoticeable, the two are looking out for each other, respecting each other and showing they understand each other.
On the surface, they are so different. Agler is the sometimes-introverted taskmaster who works so hard he has bags under his eyes. Bird is a conscientious, bubbly WNBA superstar who speaks like a television analyst. But in the heat of a basketball game, they are practically kindred spirits.
"I think Brian and I complement each other well," Bird said earlier this season. "I think, over three years, I've come to understand what he wants and how I can make that happen on the court."
Said Agler: "She's a very low-maintenance person, but she's a very high-maintenance player."
Agler is a former point guard. His son, Bryce, is a freshman point guard at The College of Wooster. His daughter, Taylor, is a well-regarded point guard at Oletangy Orange High School in Ohio.
Agler lives the position. He teaches how to play point guard with great nuance, but he's also very opinionated and demanding. It can be difficult for some lead guards. Former Storm guard Shannon "Pee Wee" Johnson used to joke about Agler's coaching back when she was a young player on Agler's Columbus Quest. In the defunct American Basketball League, Johnson and Agler won back-to-back championships together in the late 1990s, but even though they always got along, Johnson once admitted that it took a while for her to truly embrace his teachings.
There was a transition period for Bird, too, but you'd never know it. In 2008, Agler's first year, Bird averaged 14.1 points, the second-highest total of her career, and wound up carrying the offense after Jackson succumbed to an ankle injury. Last season, she averaged 5.8 assists, her best output since 2005.
This season, Bird averaged 11.1 points and 5.8 assists and became the best clutch player in the league. But as is always the case with Bird, her numbers don't truly measure her impact.
Under Agler, Bird has become a more impactful defensive player. She runs the offense so well that the Storm can play efficient basketball at any tempo. But Bird saved her best play for the postseason. The Storm couldn't have swept through seven playoff games without her ability to make the right play almost all the time.
Early in the Storm's playoff run, Agler invited basketball legend Bill Russell to speak to the team. Russell, who won 11 championships with the Celtics, talked about preparation, team chemistry and the psychology of winning and left an impression that stayed with the Storm throughout its title hunt. Before Russell came, Agler did some research on the greatest winner in pro sports history, and it made him think of Bird.
"Of the 13 years he played in the NBA, he was only first team All-NBA (three times)," Agler said. "He was on the second team several times, but at the end of his career, because of his impact on winning, he was known and may be still known as the greatest player ever to play. And that's going to be Sue Bird because she impacts winning, and she's such a good person."
Bird smiled nervously.
Bird now has created her own triple-double. She has two NCAA titles, two Olympic gold medals and two WNBA championships. And she's only 29.
Six years ago, after the Storm's first title, she had completed a summer in which she had added a gold medal and a WNBA trophy to go with her college titles. She almost took it for granted. Now she knows to appreciate every triumph.
"I learned it's not that easy," Bird said. "It's always harder the second time."
It's more rewarding, too.
And this won't be the last time you hear of Bird's winning savvy. If the Storm keeps its roster together, this group could win multiple championships.
Bird had better get used to hearing Agler gush about her.
Jerry Brewer: 206-464-2277 or email@example.com; Twitter: @Jerry_Brewer
About Jerry Brewer
Jerry Brewer offers a unique perspective on the world of sports.
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