How UConn’s great Sue Bird took Coach HS on her ‘wonderful journey’


Bob Mackey coached teenage Sue Bird for two years at Christ the King High and even longer with the New York Liberty Belles AAU program, so he tapped into a healthy reservoir of on-court memories while watching Bird return to the sport in the quarter century since.

What comes to mind first, however, is a long, dark trip from Queens to Atlantic City, New Jersey, in the mid-1990s. Mackey was driving. The van was filled with teenage basketball players. All were sleeping. Except one.

“Sue was never boring,” Mackey said. “She was a live wire. It was raining. You cannot see. But Sue is awake, playing songs, and we’re doing musical trivia. She was just always, like, turned on. It was OK, no problem. She kept me awake the whole way. This kid was a non-stop burst of energy.

This kid would end up winning at every stage of basketball, all over the world, from her state high school title to two national championships at UConn, four titles with the Seattle Storm, five Olympic gold medals and the -of the.

Bird is now a 41-year-old woman completing her 18th and final season in the WNBA. His final game in Connecticut is Thursday at Mohegan Sun Arena, where the Storm will face the Connecticut Sun.

Mackey, a heavily involved assistant under Vincent Cannizzaro while Bird was at Christ The King in 1996-98, plans to attend, likely seeing her perform in person for the last time. Mackey became head coach of Christ The King – a legendary program that has produced so many top players, including Tina Charles and Chamique Holdsclaw – in 1999-00, the year Bird led UConn to a national title in second year.

“It’s been a wonderful journey that Sue has taken us all on,” said Mackey, who is the athletic director and still head coach of Christ The King. “She was a little girl. I saw her play in seventh grade and was floored. Then when she came on board with us, my god, what a treat. What a great representative of what women’s basketball in high school is supposed to be. She hasn’t changed. I know she’s a 41-year-old woman. But we’ll talk, and I still see the kid.

This is part of the magic of coaching. Do it long enough and you have access to evolution, players and people, even long after they’ve left your gym.

Bird is one of the world’s most recognizable voice actors today. She advanced an entire sport and, in addition to becoming one of the most successful Olympians in history, was the darling of several basketball markets: New York, Connecticut and Seattle.

These trips start early. Only a few really understand the first steps – family members, coaches, those in the inner circle.

“It came to me on Sunday,” UConn coach Geno Auriemma said. “Paige (Bueckers) was at the gym and I was talking to Paige about her workouts and her summer classes and where she was going on vacation. And I was like, man, you know how many conversations I had like that with kids when they were in high school or college? And now some of those kids are 40 years old and I haven’t necessarily lost track of them or contact with them.

“Some of them are better than others at keeping in touch, but it’s really a unique thing that you have if you’re a teacher or a coach. I’m sure you hear teachers talk about the kids they have. had in their classes over the years. It really is a once in a lifetime experience, and maybe that’s why people stay in this business for as long as they do and keep trying to keep their jobs as well as long as they can, because you experience this stuff.

Mackey spoke this week from a Poconos facility, where he ran a camp for about 400 players.

He first saw Bird play in seventh grade. He coached Bird during his junior and senior years, with Christ The King winning a New York State Championship that second season. And Mackey’s wife, Kelly, was a Bird’s teacher at Christ The King.

“So you sit there and go, wow, look at that,” Mackey said. “That was the fun part, and still is the fun part, of this whole thing. It was this carefree little girl pushing the ball around and racing around and flying up and down on the floor. Always play the same way.

“Let’s face it, the workouts have changed and they’re a lot harder and it’s a lot harder to get up the next day, but she’s really maintained her physique, her health, everything. It’s a testament to her drive to be the best. Sue is a competitor like no other.

Mackey said Bird has never lost a single sprint in two years of training. She was equally passionate about the team-based Q&A contests that took place on the road.

“The caliber of player and the caliber of person, Sue has made everyone better,” Mackey said. “She just pushed everyone to be better. Quiet, shy, extremely intelligent, and some things don’t change. But she’s become this beautiful woman and she’s still playing. This is the scary part. She still plays, and still plays very well.

Christ The King’s 1998 state championship team had a starting lineup consisting of all seniors.

Bird, the point guard, shared the backcourt with Mary Kacic, who played in Manhattan and is now the New Jersey Institute of Technology coach. Up front were Maria Edwards, who played in West Virginia; Kathryn Fowler, who was captain in Miami; and Gillian McGovern, who played at Scranton.

“Everybody kept playing in college,” Mackey said. “Sue just kept playing in a different stratosphere.”

Bird is the WNBA’s all-time leader in assists and games played. She won Olympic gold in 2004, ’08, ’12, ’16 and ’20, WNBA championships in 2004, ’10, ’18 and ’20. A 13-time All-Star, Bird announced in June that she would retire at the end of the season.

“She put it off for so long,” Auriemma said. “She’s not moving like she did 20 years ago. Which does? She always wins matches by controlling the game with her mind. She always wins games by making shots that few others can do in pressure situations. She throws passes that very few others can throw at the right time, to the right person.

Bird, who missed the 2013 and 2019 seasons with knee injuries, is averaging 7.9 points and 5.9 assists this season for the Storm (17-9).

During a visit to Connecticut a few years ago, Bird addressed her longevity and said she understands the retirement issues. She also wondered aloud, given advances in training and nutrition, why these conversations shouldn’t start in a player’s 40s instead of 30s.

Bird has meticulously taken care of her body over the years, allowing her to stay productive and lead the way for others.

Breanna Stewart, a four-time national champion at UConn and Bird’s teammate with the Storm, was in New York a recent offseason and needed a place to practice. Bird put Stewart in touch with Mackey, who arranged Stewart’s access to Christ The King gymnasium.

“So Stewie came in and just like Sue, she had a good hour and a half of stretching and warming up before she even started, and she was so particular with her warm up, what she was doing and her focus” , Mackey said. “Sue has been a big influence on many former and current teammates with her work ethic and preparation. Who to learn from better?

Bird will have left the game better than she found it.

“I think the knowledge of leaving when you can still pay, when you’re still a starter, when you’re still one of the best in the league at what you do and you win another gold medal, you come out on a high, coming out understanding the legacy and the footprints you leave behind,” Auriemma said.

“And then I have to imagine the next thing won’t involve coaching, but I can see her being involved in ownership groups or doing things that are maybe more impactful than just a WNBA team. Maybe on a bigger stage, whatever it is. She’s got a platform that’s not Connecticut scale, isn’t college basketball scale, and isn’t not on the scale of the WNBA. It now has a global platform. I can imagine it having that kind of impact to some degree, whatever it is.

Mackey and Auriemma got to know Sue Bird before she was Icon Sue Bird.

“They move on,” Mackey said. “Whether they keep playing like Sue or Tina or Chamique Holdsclaw, or pursue careers as doctors or lawyers, they all move on. But for a brief moment, for four years, that’s it. simply amazing, and with Sue I’ve been enjoying the ride for over 20 years.

[email protected]; @ManthonyHearst


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