If you didn’t watch basketball on Tuesday night, you missed an iconic moment in the history of the sport.
Some games are easy to predict as instant classics, and a Game 5 conference championship final pitting some of the finest players in the game definitely fits into that category. But it was hard to predict that the outcome of the Storm vs. Mercury matchup would become quite as historic as it did.
The source of the game’s intensity came from Sue Bird, the oldest player in the league, who secured a comeback, a spot in the Finals and her legacy in the sport of basketball with a 14-point fourth quarter that dazzled players across the men’s and women’s leagues.
The beauty of the moment was cultivated by the purely literary qualities of the game. At its best, sport feels like a spectacle, like a miraculous story unfolding with all the drama of a movie or book. Announcers love to cry, “You couldn’t write a script like this…” as they marvel at a spectacular finish or feat.
This is, perhaps, the most tired cliche that exists in sport, and yet it’s true. Sports fans love sports for the story, for the drama. We love to bite our nails and get lost in the rush of thrill and anger and excitement that comes from every close game and upset.
Sure, we watch games out of dogged loyalty to our teams and unflagging commitment to our fantasy teams. But at its core, the love of sport comes from our fascination with the daily drama of the story unfolding between the lines of the field or court. And boy, did Tuesday night write one hell of a story.
The most beautiful part of watching the WNBA flourish has been the growth and deepening of storylines throughout the league. What Tuesday night’s game provided was a perfect intermingling of some of the best drama the WNBA has to offer.
The game boasted one of the league’s best rivalries — Sue Bird and Diana Taurasi, two of the most senior professionals in the league. They were teammates and champions at UConn, gold medalists on the U.S. Olympic team and best friends off the court. On the court, they’ve become fearsome rivals, and they clashed to force a winner-take-all Game 5.
These games were Taurasi’s speciality, a situation she had entered 13 times before and always emerged from with a victory. But Sue Bird is Sue Bird, one of the greatest of all time, and everyone watching knew she would bring a fight.
Of course, that isn’t enough of a storyline on its own. You have to add in two of the best centers to ever play the game — Breanna Stewart and Brittney Griner — at the height of their skill, battling to almost double-double finishes in the paint. And of course, you have to give the champion a handicap to create a true David and Goliath scene.
Because 14 points in one quarter might have been plenty. It would’ve been enough to dominate headlines, to force fans to turn on the TV for the final minutes, to send athletes across the country to Twitter to shout out Bird for her accomplishment. But maybe it wasn’t.
So of course, there was the mask.
If it wasn’t for the mask, there would’ve been no way to tell that Bird broke her nose fewer than 48 hours before the tip off. It wasn’t a first — Bird has broken her nose five times now over her expansive career as a point guard — and she shrugged off questions about the injury heading into the game.
And yet, there was something about the mask that made the scene that much more triumphant. As she launched back-to-back 3-pointers, as she dove for loose balls, as she hollered at referees and egged on her teammates, Bird’s injury highlighted the strength and grit that only the highest caliber of athletes can achieve.
So many times, when we talk about female athletes, we talk about them as a source of inspiration — they give strength to those who didn’t have it, to little girls watching them, to the dreams of other women who have been told they can’t measure up.
But Tuesday night shouldn’t be relegated this way. Bird wasn’t just an inspiration to little girls or female athletes. She was an inspiration. Period. Full stop. She played ball at a level that few can, and she played it with all of the skill and force that makes basketball such a fun sport to watch.
This, of course, is a source of hope for the future of the league — a game that transcends any gender barrier by producing athleticism so high in caliber that anyone can enjoy it, despite their bias or bigotry. But for now, let’s love it simply as a game, a game that reached the highest level the sport can offer, a game highlighting one of the best players to stand on a court.
Sue Bird, welcome to the club. You’re officially the G.O.A.T.
Julia Poe is a senior majoring in print and digital journalism. Her column, “Poe’s Perspective,” runs Thursdays.