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Episode Transcript

Today’s bonus episode is an encore presentation of a conversation I had with basketball star Sue Bird back in January 2021, as we cycle through ten of my all time favorite episodes. This particular episode was done really early in the show’s life. It was only our 12th episode. My producer at that time — not Morgan, she came on board a little later — thought it was important that we expand the set of guests I was talking to. Most of the guests up to that point had either been people I already knew or people who study things I knew a lot about. So I grudgingly said OK to having Sue Bird on the show, despite the fact that every single conversation I’d ever tried to have with a professional athlete had been disastrous. I was dreading this conversation, but Sue won me over within seconds. Her answers were so thoughtful and honest; her voice so friendly and enthusiastic. We ended up having a remarkably wide-ranging conversation. It was really fun for me now, two-and-a-half years later, to go back and have the chance to listen to that conversation.

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Some people collect comic books or sports paraphernalia or old vinyl records. Well, my guest today, Sue Bird, she collects championships. She has four W.N.B.A. championships, five Euroleague basketball championships, two N.C.A.A. championships, four International Basketball Federation World Cups, and four Olympic gold medals. And at the age of 40, she’s still going strong, leading the Seattle Storm to the W.N.B.A. title this fall and looking to collect her fifth Olympic gold, if and when the Tokyo Olympics take place. Sue Bird is busy off the court as well. She recently helped negotiate a landmark collective bargaining agreement for the WNBA players, and she and soccer star Megan Rapinoe got engaged last October.

BIRD: We need to expect to be paid well. We need to expect to have opportunity, because when you expect it, that can change how you’re viewed and how women are viewed.

Welcome to People I (Mostly) Admire, with Steve Levitt.

So this will be my first time interviewing an athlete, and I really wonder how it will go. I think this podcast works best when my guests are highly reflective and willing and able to self-analyze. And in my limited personal experience with professional athletes, those are not very common traits. So I’ve never met Sue Bird — people who know her say she’s smart, thoughtful, generous, and open. Well, I guess I’m about to find out.

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Steven LEVITT: Sue, you turned out to be one of the greatest basketball players of all time. But I’m curious, when did you realize how good you would be? Did you already know that in high school?

Sue BIRD: Yeah, I think I started to understand in high school how things could turn out — even as early as middle school, to be honest. Colleges start recruiting you then, sending you letters, and that’s when your eyes kind of get a little bit wider.   Never would I have imagined sitting here now with all the accolades and championships, but you definitely start to get a glimpse.

LEVITT: One of the most overwhelming biases we see in psychology is towards overconfidence. And so, if you ask high-school basketball players what their chances are of playing in the N.B.A., they have some outlandishly high number relative to what’s real. But I kind of get the sense that you knew you were good. But you, unlike probably so many other recruits, didn’t seem as overwhelmed with overconfidence as most people are. 

BIRD: I would agree.

LEVITT: Do you think that’s been helpful to you or hindered you in your career and life? 

BIRD: Probably both. It definitely stems from my dad. My dad is just known for his brutal honesty. And from a very young age, I was very realistic. Like, if I played a game, I could go home at night and be like, “I did not play well.” And if I played well, I could go home at night and be like, “Wow, I played really well.” And to your point, I think it helped me because I think I was always trying to prove something. I was always trying to prove I belong. I mean, honestly, even to this day, I still feel like I have to prove something. Now, could I make the argument that if I was a little bit more confident, maybe even overconfident, could I have done more? Yeah, you could probably make that argument. Some of that delusion would have been nice, but I can’t complain. 

LEVITT: There’s been some interesting research that suggests that where overconfidence can actually be helpful is in the domain of believing that you’re a really good learner. And that’s a really important distinction. So, like, if you’re a parent, it turns out you don’t want to tell your kids they’re great at a sport. Instead, you want to tell them, “Hey, maybe you’re not that good yet, but you’re the kind of kid who, if you try hard, will turn out to be great.” But let me ask you about your practice. It’s said that Gretzky and that Michael Jordan and LeBron James are all incredibly hard practicers. Does that describe you as well? 

BIRD: I would say I am a smart practicer.  

LEVITT: What does that mean? 

BIRD: If you’re going to play a sport at an elite level, everybody’s going hard. Like, everybody got there for a reason. They all work really hard. Yeah, some maybe more than others. But then, hey, some are more talented than others. So, for the most part, it all kind of evens out in its own way. But for me, I’m basically just not wasting energy in places where it doesn’t need to be wasted. 

LEVITT: What does that mean, specifically?

BIRD: Let’s rewind. If I’m early in my career, you have to take the time to get on the court and perfect the things that you’re good at. For me, I’m a 5’9″ point guard. I’m not physically dominating anybody. But I saw the skills that I had that I knew I needed to be great at and I mastered them. For me, it was being as consistent as humanly possible with my shooting. So now — what I’m about to say is very much about my age — you know, I’ve had, I can’t even tell you, six, I think, knee surgeries on one of my knees, so, I have to, you know be very careful and mindful of what I’m doing with my knee. In terms of my off-season training, I’m only on the basketball court two times a week, if that. I get my conditioning in the pool. I get it on a spin bike. I also just watch games, you know. I tune into men’s games. I tune into women’s games. I see how players play. And I steal. Hell, yeah — I’m stealing all the moves. There’s a move right now, actually, that Isaiah Thomas has that I think I could fit in my game. I find other ways to get my body ready for basketball without having the actual pounding of being on a court. So, if you can be smart about it, you’re going to have a longer career.

LEVITT: I wasn’t planning on talking about my own incredibly shabby basketball career, but I was a point guard too. And my biggest problem was the court was complete chaos. There were too many people moving too quickly in every direction. I never knew what was going on. I’m guessing for you that’s not a problem, that everything is very orderly for you on the court. 

BIRD: It is. I just always had a really good feel for the court, a really good feel of, you know, when to make the pass, for just understanding where my teammates need to be in regards to spacing for them, for me. It actually has slowed down as I’ve gotten older. And it’s just experience. I’ve seen everything there is to see. I can predict. I can kind of wait and, you know, seek things out that I think might happen.

LEVITT: And shooting — do you need to practice to be a good shooter?

BIRD: I think at this point, any basketball player who’s gotten this far, your shooting is your shooting. But it’s not necessarily about good or bad. It’s about being in rhythm. So, you’re just trying to have that good feeling about what you’re doing. 

LEVITT: I’ve always been surprised that I think basketball is all done by feel — shooting — that you just look at the rim and you know how far away it is and how hard to shoot, whereas it strikes me that it is really just a physics problem in the end. And if you had a way of maybe quantifying it, it could be helpful. But that’s crazy, right?

BIRD: I don’t know. I mean, the times where I’m, like, messing around with my nieces and we’re in a random park or in their driveway and there’s no lines, I definitely feel like a little more lost than I should. Because when there’s lines on the court, you know exactly where you are. You know how much effort is needed, how much you need to bend your legs, whatever it is. But when there’s no lines, eventually you get it — don’t get me wrong, it’s not like you’re throwing up airballs left and right — but it is a little weird at first. 

LEVITT: In essence, your brain has solved this physics problem in an implicit way because you are using, subtly or subconsciously, your surroundings that actually define it. That’s interesting. Does that make shooting easier on your home court because you have more of these cues that are not just the lines, but other things about the way in which the stadium is built? 

BIRD: I 100 percent think that’s true. I’m very aware of my surroundings. I will also say that the fans give you the home-court advantage. But even without that, it’s very true. There’s a comfort. You’ve been in this building so many times and you just kind of know it. 

LEVITT: So by people cheering for you, that makes you — what? 

BIRD: It’s something about the emotion that the fans inject into the game. And, you know, this summer we all had to play in a bubble. No fans, nothing. And it took the emotion out of the game. It just wasn’t the same. Those emotions — that roller coaster, the swings — it just didn’t exist. I should say, I missed it because it wasn’t there, and it was something I noticed. And I think in both the N.B.A. bubble and the W.N.B.A. bubble, the shooting percentages were higher. And I don’t think it was like, 10 percent higher or anything crazy, but enough. Because honestly, just one percent can make a huge difference. That’s maybe one, two shots a game. 

LEVITT: So, the fans make it harder? 

BIRD: I think it goes both ways. So, on the road, it’s probably like 70-30, it’s harder. They’re making it harder. At home, it’s probably 90-10 they’re making it easier, but that 10 percent is when you’re home and you’re a good shooter. And anyone who has watched, you know, J.J. Redick — one of the best shooters of all time — catches the ball in rhythm, the whole crowd is going to go — like, that anticipation of him hitting a three. And as a player, you feel it. You can hear it. You can sense it. And I think it can impact players.

LEVITT: So, when you shoot in practice, from the 3-point line — nobody guarding you — what percentage of the time do you think you make the shot? 

BIRD: So if I’m shooting 10 shots from five different spots behind the 3-point line, I’m trying to make seven out of 10 from every spot. But in the game, if you made four out of 10, that’s a great night. You just shot 40 percent. 

LEVITT: And the difference is that people are guarding you, obviously. Is there another difference besides that? 

BIRD: Probably what we’re talking about, just like the environment. Are we in the playoffs? Is it a big shot? Is it the first quarter? Is the fourth quarter? How are they guarding you? There’s so much happening. 

LEVITT: Wait. Are you really telling me that pressure gets to you? It sounds like you’re saying pressure gets to you in a weird way, which I really am surprised to hear you say.

BIRD: I think pressure affects everybody. It just affects some people differently. 

LEVITT: But I would think that in order to be the player you are, you would have to be a person who actually gets better under pressure rather than worse.

BIRD: Well, so now we’re kind of getting into this world of the clutch gene. And, you know, some people are more “clutch” than others, statistically, but not enough where you would base any kind of personnel decision. You wouldn’t take a guy on your team or a woman on your team just for that reason. But obviously, there are people who are known for hitting big shots or known for playing well in big games. That exists for sure. But there are people that don’t do well, that kind of give into it, and it affects them too much. 

LEVITT: So I had a student who wrote a paper about free-throw shooting. And believe it or not, it turns out that at the end of a game, if the game is on the line, that the N.B.A. shooters do worse from the free-throw line than they do at other parts of the game. It seems on average, the pressure adversely affects them. But that was totally absent in the W.N.B.A., which was so interesting to me — it’s really, I think, the opposite of public perception about men and women — that women seem to have ice water in their veins and the men in the N.B.A. really, really didn’t. 

BIRD: That’s really interesting. The only other thing I was going to add is I think we frame it the wrong way. It’s not that you’re going to make nine out of 10. It’s that you might make three out of 10, but somebody else is making zero. It’s not who’s most successful. It’s like who’s the most successful of the least successful.

LEVITT: So, you’re really saying there are people who cannot maintain the level when the pressure gets really high and then there are people who maintain it. But it’s not like there’s a whole lot of folks who get better when the pressure’s on. And that’s exactly what this academic paper showed, that it wasn’t that there were a set of people who were clutch in the sense they were even better at the end. It was just the difference between maintaining versus losing. 

BIRD: Getting worse. Exactly. Exactly.

LEVITT: So, let’s talk more about free throws, because it’s really interesting to me — so, you’re a great free-throw shooter. Your lifetime free-throw percentage is over 85 percent, which if you look at every player who’s ever played in the N.B.A., that would put you in the top 2 percent of all the N.B.A. shooters. But in general, the W.N.B.A. has a higher free-throw percentage made than the N.B.A. Do you have an explanation for why that is? 

BIRD: I don’t. The only difference is the size of the ball. Everything else is the same — rim, same height. Distance is the same. 

LEVITT: And the ball’s one inch smaller, right? The circumference is one inch smaller. 

BIRD: Yeah. The irony of that is it’s harder to shoot with a woman’s ball. It actually is. It’s like the smaller the ball goes — it’s harder to shoot with a tennis ball. It’s just harder. Men’s balls are — obviously, they’re a little bigger. And they have a little more weight to them. It’s actually an easier ball to shoot. 

LEVITT: Interesting. Have you ever done any experimentation with that? Do shoot a men’s ball with any regularity?

BIRD: Yeah — yeah. So, we used to have to play with that size ball for the Olympics. So, my first Olympics was played with a guy’s ball. So, there was, like, a period of time there where I was training with it pretty regularly. And it takes a minute. But once you get adjusted, I didn’t even notice it. And I don’t know if I shot better or worse, but I felt fine, which I know whenever — this is classic — when you go play pickup, and God forbid a guy’s player has to play with a women’s ball. They throw a fit. They can’t handle it. They don’t want to do it. “Oh, I missed that shot. Oh, it’s the ball. It’s the ball.” So there you go. 

LEVITT: So it is interesting that the men’s game and the women’s game is — the rules are essentially the same, except for the size of the ball and the 3-point line at the pro level. Has there ever been any discussion of lowering the rim in women’s basketball? It doesn’t seem like a crazy idea to me. 

BIRD: Yeah, I mean, I think it’s a crazy idea, and I’ll tell you why. First of all, here’s the issue, how would a woman, a girl, find anywhere to play? You would never be able to find places to play if the rim was at nine feet. Every park, the rim is 10 feet. And I’m telling you now, nobody’s making a court just for a little girl. Like, it’s — that’s not the world we live in, sadly. So, logistically, it would just be really difficult to pull it off. And I get the arguments. But then, simultaneously, I don’t. So, if the argument is that we would be dunking, if you lower it one foot, it doesn’t mean everybody all of a sudden is dunking. It just doesn’t. So what are we talking about here? Is it just entertainment value? Because I think our game is fine the way it is. And my second argument is always, well, why don’t the men raise their rim? Maybe that’s the problem.

LEVITT: Yeah, I don’t know, my own impression is that the rim is just too damn high for regular people. And it was kind of arbitrary. I don’t know how it got to be 10 feet. You know, that might have just been the height of the ledge that Naismith had in his gym at the Y.M.C.A. a million years ago.

BIRD: But we’re already shooting better from the free-throw line than the men. So, why do we have to lower it?

LEVITT: Yeah. No, it’s true. I think another good example is, in golf, the hole is just too small. So, again, it was some accident of history that the hole was really small. And when you make the hole twice as big, the game is much faster. People are much happier. But it’s very difficult to make that change. 

BIRD: So, you would rather watch Tiger Woods play with a bigger hole? Isn’t that what makes professional sports what it is, that they’re doing it at the level of difficulty they’re doing it? 

LEVITT: So that’s a great question about Tiger Woods. I’m not sure if I’d enjoy it more or less if I watched him play with a bigger hole. But one thing I know for sure is that when I play golf, it would be much more fun if the whole were bigger. And the same with basketball. We used to play on this eight-foot hoop that was at the local elementary school. It was so much more fun because I could pretend that was really good, even though I really wasn’t very good at all. So maybe I should take back what I said. It’s not that the W.N.B.A. should be playing on nine-foot rims, it’s that all the parks should have eight-foot rims, because then all the people like me who play in parks could fantasize about how great we are playing basketball, even though we’re not so good. 

BIRD: That makes sense. That makes sense.

LEVITT So something crazy’s going on at the University of Connecticut. Starting in the year 2000, the UConn women’s team under coach Geno Auriemma won 10 national championships over the next 17 years. No men’s team over that same time period won more than three championships. So what in the world explains this complete dominance that UConn has? And why can’t other programs capture that? 

BIRD: So, some of it is as simple as they were more talented. They had a lot of the talent. And that is a huge part of the story.

LEVITT: But how do they get the talent?

BIRD: Well, that’s the recruiting aspect of it. 

LEVITT: So you would say the first piece is just Coach Auriemma is just like a better recruiter than anybody else on the planet. He recruited you. What did he do that was so special? 

BIRD: So sometimes you go to these schools on these trips and it’s like they’re whining and dining you. “Oh, hey, here’s our arena.” And you walk in, and all of a sudden, the lights go out. There’s a spotlight on you. They hand you a jersey. They’re like, “This could be you, you know, starting guard for the, you know, X, Y, and Z team.” Teams do this. This is like a thing. And Coach Auriemma — there — there were no bells and whistles. He’s kind of just like, “What’s up? This is who I am. This is who we are. We think you’d fit. Hope you like it here.” And that’s how he was with me. It wasn’t, like, take it or leave it, but it was just very matter of fact. And I was drawn in by that. Like, I loved that. 

LEVITT: And why do you think there isn’t the equivalent of that in the men’s game? I mean, there was in U.C.L.A. with John Wooden decades ago, but there really hasn’t been dominance in the same way. 

BIRD: Yeah, they leave early to go to the N.B.A., so we were fortunate enough to play there for four years. There’s chemistry. There’s cohesiveness. 

LEVITT: Yeah, that’s interesting. I did the tally on your college career, excluding your freshman year when you were hurt, you won 107 games and you lost four. Was that boring?

BIRD: No. The minute you step on that campus, you’re just drinking the UConn Kool-Aid. Now, I look at it, and I’m like, “Oh, my God, how do they not get bored? They’re winning by 30.” But when you’re there, you don’t feel that way because you’re just expected to play at a certain level. And in order to play at that level, you can’t have a day off. 

LEVITT: So, how about the Olympics? You have four Olympic gold medals. My guess is that the average margin of victory in your games in the Olympics has been roughly 40 points. Is that boring?

BIRD: So, that’s different because it’s not a season. It’s a two-week tournament. The Olympics happens midway through our W.N.B.A. season. So we literally get together like a week before, maybe two weeks. And that’s it. We might have some training camps throughout the year, but that’s it. And all these other teams are practicing for months and months. And we’re just winging it. So, even though we’re more talented, we’re not quite a team. So, in those two weeks, yes, we’re beating teams by 40, but those games are all like stepping stones and practices for us to hopefully be peaking at the end. Because when you get to the medal rounds, those games are no joke. You can lose those games easy. So, we’re so on it and so focused in the early parts of the Olympics that it’s never boring. Because the score doesn’t really matter to us. We’re not playing for the score. We’re playing so we’re peaking at the right time. 

You’re listening to People I (Mostly) Admire, with Steve Levitt, and his conversation with basketball star Sue Bird. After this short break, they’ll return to talk about the economics of professional basketball.

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So far, I’m really enjoying this conversation. I hadn’t actually intended to spend so much time talking about the playing of basketball, but I just found what she said really interesting. Now, though, I’d like to steer the conversation more towards the economics of professional basketball. And I suspect that’s a subject she knows a lot about because she’s been deeply involved in negotiating the collective bargaining agreement between the W.N.B.A. players and management. Also, I’m hoping to get into some more personal topics, like why she decided to be very public about freezing her eggs, about coming out, and what’s it like to pose nude for the cover of ESPN Magazine?

LEVITT: Do you still like playing basketball or did it become a job at some point?

BIRD: I definitely still like it. Thank God. Or else I’d be in trouble. I’d be miserable. But how I look at it is changing. The joy is still there, but it’s taking on a new form. I don’t get excited for my own play as much as I get excited for our team’s play. I almost look at it like a coach.

LEVITT: Would you play it for free? 

BIRD: I mean, you could argue I did for like twenty years. And that’s — and I’m not even being— I played overseas and that’s where we make our money. The W.N.B.A. — so, we have a new C.B.A., which is a collective bargaining agreement — but I was in a position where I was on a max contract virtually my entire career. And the way the financials worked, if cost of living goes up, I don’t know, 5 percent, my W.N.B.A. contract was maxed out, so only went up 1 percent. So, after 15-plus years of that, technically, you lose money. 

LEVITT: I see. So, your nominal wage was going up 1 percent a year, but because of inflation, your real wage was steadily being eroded over time until your standard of living had been materially reduced. 

BIRD: Yep, which is not the case anymore, which is amazing. We’ve made crazy strides in that way. But — yeah. So, to answer your question, I kind of did. But no, now, I don’t think I would. 

LEVITT: I’d love to talk about the economics of professional basketball for a while. And let me start with some data from 2019. So, the numbers are pretty surprising to me. So the average player in the N.B.A. made $8.3 million in 2019, which is, I got to say, way higher than I would have expected. And in the W.N.B.A., the average was $80,000. So, that’s 1/100th the salary in the W.N.B.A. on average than in the N.B.A. The minimum salary in the N.B.A. is about $900,000, and the minimum salary in the W.N.B.A. is $42,000. Is that frustrating? 

BIRD: Yes and no. Actually, if you look at 2020, our minimum is now higher. So, we just did a new C.B.A. So, we’re going to be trending in the right direction in terms of growth. But the number you just said was the number for many, many years. I mean, male athletes, female athletes — we all put in the same amount of work, I don’t care what anybody says, we’re all putting in the same amount of work. So, is it a hard pill to swallow, knowing that somebody else’s work is being rewarded? At times. But I live in reality. I understand business and economics. We’re looked at in one of two ways. Some people look at us as like charity. Like, “Oh, we’ll help them out,” in a charitable sense, not in, like, this business investment way. And if they do look at us as an investment, immediately, it’s talked about how we don’t make money. And I just don’t believe that when men’s sports were getting started — and even now, I think people look at men’s sports and immediately see potential, even if it doesn’t exist. But they’re willing to invest in the potential, whereas we are never — we haven’t been invested in our potential. “You guys don’t make money.” And it’s like, 50 years ago, I don’t think the N.B.A. did either. But people were willing to make that investment and get behind it and grow it. That’s where my issues lie. 

LEVITT: It is surprising, if you look back at the history, how many franchises in the N.B.A.’s history or in the N.H.L. were going in and out of business all the time. I think we forget that. But let me go back to data for a second, because I think this is really interesting. And I had never thought about it until I — I thought about talking to you. So, the numbers I gave before about the N.B.A., the average salary is $8.3 million, and the W.N.B.A., the average salary was $80K. This was in 2019. So, then there’s the G League, which is the feeder league for the N.B.A. So, these are players who are essentially as good as the bench players in the N.B.A. And their salaries are $35,000 per year. So, what’s really surprising to me as an economist is it’s really hard to understand why the 12th men in the N.B.A. are getting paid $1 million or $2 million, whereas there’s a totally perfect substitute for them. There’s hundreds of guys who are basically as good as they are who are playing in the G League or elsewhere, who are getting paid nothing. And usually in that case, the wages would be driven way down. And I guess the answer probably lies in that there’s a collective bargaining agreement — which is really, really generous to the people at the bottom — in the N.B.A. that’s getting in the way of market forces. Okay. But the other thing that I think is really surprising is not that LeBron James gets paid $40 million a year. It’s why do Sue Bird and Candace Parker get paid so little? To me, that’s really a puzzle. I think the honest answer is that if economics were allowed to really work, you would be paid five times as much as you are. And it’s really that economic forces are being muted by union bargaining, which is leading your wage to be way below your market wage. 

BIRD: Are you saying that a top player in the W.N.B.A. should be getting more of the pie, so to speak? 

LEVITT: So, “should” is a difficult word for an economist. Like, I’m saying if there was no union, then the top players would be paid much more. And I have a hunch that’s exactly why when you played for Moscow Dynamo — I’m guessing you got paid, what, five or 10 times as much? And there was no union, right? 

BIRD: No union over there. No. 

LEVITT: And the market was allowed to work. And superstars were paid because superstars had a lot of value. 

BIRD: So, it’s very interesting you bring this up, because I keep bringing up this new C.B.A. And I’m on the executive committee. And my whole argument was you have to pay the superstars. Like, you have to pay the top players. And not because you don’t want to pay the bottom players, but because, A, they deserve it. And B, it’s going to then create like a merit system. Because as a player, I told you earlier, I was maxed out. So, to break it down very quickly, what was happening was the salary cap was increasing at a faster rate than the max salary was. So the salary cap was going up, but the max salary wasn’t at the same rate. So there would be extra money, so to speak, because you can only pay your best player so much. It was, like, if you were a top player, no matter what you did, you were just going to make this one sum of money. There was a minimum in the salary cap that teams had to spend. So, the money was going to other players. So, I thought that it needed to be like a merit for those max salaries. And it worked because the max salary went from $117,000 to $215,000. And now, it’ll only be like maybe one max player a team or maybe two if you want to pay other people less or have more rookie-scale contracts or whatever the case. And if you go and look at other leagues, LeBron James makes 25 percent of his team’s cap. But we were at 10, 11 percent. And so, luckily, we revamped it. So, we bumped that up to, like, 15 or 16 now.

LEVITT: So, you’re the beneficiary of this change. Is it hard to be both the voice arguing for it and the one who’s going to benefit from it? 

BIRD: So players were all on board. Everybody was like, “Yup, that’s true, the best players should get the most money.” There were obviously some who were concerned with rookies. It could end someone’s career, because rookies come in, they get a three- or four-year deal — it’s already slated. Once you jump up to that fifth year of service, and now your contract jumps up, it’s like a mathematical problem. And if a team just can’t afford you then you might lose your job. So, that was a concern, but it was kind of, like, every ship rose in this new model. The better players, their ship rose a little bit more. And the second thing was, even though I would be a beneficiary of it, I’m old. So, I was like, “Guys, I might get one year of this, maybe two years of this. But this isn’t about me.” And I think people trusted me. I wasn’t saying it so I could get money in my pocket. I was saying it because I really believed in it for the growth of our league. By increasing salaries, I think W.N.B.A. players will start to take a little bit more ownership of this league. And when you have that, when you have player buy-in, good things generally happen. 

LEVITT: Yeah. I think a lot of people don’t know that almost everybody in the W.N.B.A. has two jobs, one playing in the U.S. and then one playing abroad, and that the salaries abroad are much, much higher. Are there not players who say, “Why do I bother with the W.N.B.A. part of it? I could just take a bunch of months off and just collect the big European salary and dump the W.N.B.A. completely”?

BIRD: Yeah, I mean, so players have done it, but it’s usually the top players who have done it. As someone who lived this and had the opportunity to take W.N.B.A. seasons off — listen, the W.N.B.A. hasn’t paid us that much, but it’s still a good chunk of change considering all your endorsements. A majority of your endorsements are going to be directly connected to your play in the W.N.B.A. Nike is not going to sign you unless you’re playing in the W.N.B.A. And things like your 401K, your health insurance. And if you’re American, you’re playing in front of your family and friends.

LEVITT: You’re eating American food instead of Russian food. 

BIRD: Hey, I like Russian food. But — yeah. So, it’s just not as easy as you think. 

LEVITT: The one thing maybe of all the things I’m almost most curious to ask you about — is about injuries. Because in most people’s lives — like, in my life, it would be really unusual for me to, say, fall and hit my head and not be able to think straight for a year and miss out on a year of what I do. But I wonder if you could just paint a vivid picture of what it’s like to be injured?

BIRD: Yeah, so I have an interesting relationship with injuries because I’ve had major injuries. I’ve literally had — six, seven, eight — I’ve had 11 surgeries total and eight of them were on my — eight or nine, I can’t even — I lose count— were on my lower extremities. So, my left knee, like I mentioned, and then I’ve had both my left and my right hip — I’ve had them surgically repaired. All my injuries have been moments of huge question marks. If I take you back to my freshman year. I’m like just at Connecticut. I’ve only played in eight games, so my career hasn’t even really started. And then, boom, I tear my A.C.L.

LEVITT: Wait, was this in a game? 

BIRD: No, it was in practice. 

LEVITT: Okay. And then, what happened? Like, do you remember what you were doing? 

BIRD: Oh, yeah. I could give you a play-by-play for, like, every injury. So, basically, I came down and I did a jump stop, which just means you’re kind of landing on both feet to then jump up and shoot it. And it felt like the top part of my leg — like my quad, if you will, — almost fell off the bottom part of my leg, only to come right back. And the pain actually wasn’t that crazy for me. Some people don’t even know they tore their A.C.L. and some people are, like, screaming in agony. I was kind of in the middle. But I knew something happened. And so, when I screamed, it was out of fear. That was like, “Holy crap. I’m pretty sure I just did something really bad. What does this mean?” And that’s really where all my emotion was coming from. Like, “Oh, no. Am I ever going to be able to play the way I want, the way I did?” I was really lucky that there was another player on the team, Shea Ralph, who had gone through an A.C.L. rehab. So, she was there with me step by step, reassuring me, giving me tips and pointers and what to worry about, what not to worry about. But every time you have a major injury as an athlete, you have no idea what’s going to happen to your livelihood. And — and a quick story, bringing back my dad again, who’s Mr. Brutally Honest — I was probably like 27-ish. And I had an apartment, and I wanted to get a bigger one. And I was looking at, you know, really nice places that had views. And my dad was like, “Listen, you know you can afford this, but if you get injured and you never play again, I wouldn’t advise you on getting this apartment.” I was like, “What?” But that right there, that is the plight of an athlete. 

LEVITT: So, you’ve been very public about freezing your eggs, even making a series of videos about the process. That was really, I think, a huge public service, because many people are unaware of just how much more difficult it becomes to conceive once you’re in your late-30s and early-40s. And also, I suspect many people are completely unaware that egg freezing technology exists. 

BIRD: That was one of the driving forces for doing it. For me, my body is my career. So, that does make it a little unique. But I think, any woman who has a career, having a family is a stressor. You know, married or not, just knowing that your ovaries are on this clock, can be a huge stress in your life. I wanted to help be a part of the conversation that was going to normalize it, maybe it would be weird if you didn’t freeze your eggs in 20 years. There was actually a reporter, a male reporter, for the W.N.B.A. He covers us. And — and he was like, “Wow, I’ve learned so much.” And that’s the point, you know? 

LEVITT: Yeah, that’s great. Historically, you haven’t been excessively open about your personal life, although it seems like you’ve shared more in recent years. Was that a conscious decision on your part or just something that happened as a result of your relationship with Megan Rapinoe, who’s one of the most famous and recognizable athletes in America these days?

BIRD: No, I think it’s something that happened. But there’s really something nice about living authentically. And that’s not to say it’s perfect, not by any means, but being able to talk about things that I see are important, it really helps me as well. And it’s definitely connected to my relationship with Megan. She lives her life that way. And I always joked with Megan that I was going to be gay by association anyway because she’s so open. So, that’s when, you know, coming out had to happen. And once that door blew open, it just blew open in so many ways for me. 

LEVITT: It seemed like there was an extremely positive reaction to your coming out. Is that true? Did you expect otherwise? 

BIRD: I actually didn’t expect otherwise. It’s still like a little nerve-wracking, but to your point, no, it was all positive.

LEVITT: And what was it like for you being on the cover of ESPN’s Body Issue? 

BIRD: I mean, the only nerves I had was — and I think everybody has this — you’re just waiting to see what it’s going to look like. So, there’s some anxiousness there. But otherwise, it was awesome. I have zero issue being naked in front of people. And I think it’s just from years of being in locker rooms. I’m sure for others it’s bizarre. But I’m showering in front of people all the time. It’s just a part of my life. And that’s how I felt on set. It felt like we were there to take pictures. And everybody was, you know, totally tasteful about it and was doing their job. And we got great pictures. And we’re the first gay couple. It means something now. And I know in 10, 20, 30 years it’ll even have greater meaning. 

LEVITT: So, thanks to Megan, who refused an invitation to White House around the time of the 2019 World Cup, you’ve had a front row seat watching what it’s like to fight very publicly with the President of the United States. And it seems to me from a distance that would be really fun, but maybe when you’re in it, it’s not as much fun as it looks.

BIRD: Well, there are some enjoyable moments. The scary part was just, I mean, look at our country. It’s a country divided. And so, you get a lot of hate, mostly on social media. And as we know, social media is a beast. So, there was a lot coming at her for sure, a little bit towards me. And that was kind of the scary part. Just, okay, do we need protection? But the rest of it, looking back — I mean, it’s actually — it’s crazy. I’m like, “Did that happen? Did we live that?”

LEVITT: I always like to close by asking my guests to give some advice. What kind of advice would you give to young women who are facing the challenge of how much to invest into something that they love, even though almost for sure it won’t turn out to be their career? Obviously, you’ve been successful, but 99 out of 100 maybe won’t be as successful.  

BIRD: Hmm. So, if we’re talking about sports, all the lessons that I’ve learned from playing sports have shaped who I am as a person. So, if you are passionate about sports and you’re in sports, you’re going to learn so much. Actually it was Mark Jones who said this — he’s an ESPN commentator — he was like, “Wow, if the world operated the way a lot of these locker rooms operate, we’d probably be in a better place,” because they’re generally harmonious. We’re respectful of other people, even if we’re different. And it’s not something like the color of your skin. It’s not that we don’t see it. We see it. We’re just very respectful of it. So, you know, there’s things from sports that you’re going to learn that have nothing to do with how successful you are. So, that would be my advice, to stay with it. I also really like to tell younger women a few things. One, your reputation is all you have. So, take care of it. And the other thing is to expect. I think growing up, I was just happy to get what I got. And I think that’s an issue with women. We need to expect to be paid well. We need to expect to have opportunity, because when you expect it, that can change how you’re viewed and how women are viewed.

Wow, Sue Bird is one of the most likable people I have met in a long, long time. But I have to say, talking to her brings back so many bad memories from my own basketball career. And it’s not that I was terrible at basketball. I was actually pretty good. Already in my sophomore year, I was seeing some varsity time and by my senior year I was a starting point guard on my high school team. But there was only one problem: I hated everything about basketball. I hated practice — I hated games. But I stuck with it and I thought, you’ll look back when you’re older and you’ll have such fond memories of playing basketball. Well, the fact is, I don’t have any good memories of playing basketball, only trauma and agony. So here’s my advice to anybody engaged in any activity, whatever the age, no matter how good you are at it. If you hate something, you should quit.

Next week we’ll be back with a brand new episode featuring Thomas Hildebrandt. He’s a cutting edge veterinarian, spearheading the effort to save the northern white rhino from extinction. I found the science they’re bringing to bear on this problem to be amazingly interesting. I suspect you will also.

HILDEBRANDT: So the mammoth is selling much better than the northern white rhino.  I would put it a little bit side by side by flying to the moon, because the mammoth is a very attractive animal from the appearance — what you can’t really say to a rhino, at least for many people, and that is the selling point.

As always, thanks for listening and we’ll see you back soon.

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People I (Mostly) Admire is part of the Freakonomics Radio Network, which also includes Freakonomics Radio, No Stupid Questions, and The Economics of Everyday Things. All our shows are produced by Stitcher and Renbud Radio. This episode was produced by Matt Hickey and engineered by Dan Dzula. Our theme music was composed by Luis Guerra. We can be reached at, that’s Thanks for listening.

LEVITT: I have nightmares, I would say, once a month of me being awful on a basketball court.  

BIRD: Oh, wow. Sports can do it to you.

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  • Sue Bird, former professional basketball player.



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