When basketball legend Sue Bird decided to let a team of filmmakers capture her final season after playing 21 years in the WNBA, she wasn’t entirely sure what to expect from watching her career be contextualized on film, but it turned out to be wonderful.
“You play such a long time — so many different moments, so many different memories — and to have it now, in this one film, is amazing,” Bird said, visiting the Variety Studio presented by Audible at the Sundance Film Festival. “I think the hardest part throughout the process was showing those emotional moments.”
When she was on her own, the emotions flowed freely. “I’d be crying like a baby, like in the shower,” Bird admitted, laughing. “But then the minute I was in front of the cameras or in front of the crowd, the emotions didn’t always come,” she said, turning to the filmmakers seated alongside her. “I feel lucky that for years to come, I’ll have this. You guys did such a great job telling my story.”
It was “Insecure” and “Freaky Tales” star Jay Ellis who’d had the idea (along with his Black Bar Mitzvah producing partner Aaron Bergman) to approach Bird about capturing that final year of WNBA play. Ellis had been watching Bird’s star rise since high school (at Christ the King, which has long been a basketball powerhouse), then as a two-time NCAA champion at UCONN before getting drafted into the WNBA in 2002, where she won four titles and five Olympic gold medals.
“Seeing this amazing career and knowing that she had won these titles, and all these gold medals and had become — if I’m not mistaken — one of the two highest gold-winning team athletes of all time in the Olympics, we also knew that Sue had been playing for 19 years at this point, and that it might come to an end soon,” Ellis explained.
So he and Bergman reached out to sportscaster Ryan Ruocco to see if Bird might be interested in capturing what might be her final year in a documentary.
“We couldn’t ask her, ‘Are you going to retire? It’s your time.’ We couldn’t ask her that,” Ellis recalled, laughing. “But we said, ‘Hey, if you think you’re close to that or whenever you’re close to making that decision, we would love to be a part of documenting that, and also telling your whole story.”
Fortunately, Bird said yes. That’s when producers Sarah Dowland, who also directed the film, and Emily Chapman got on board.
“I look at this very much as a kind of coming-of-age story,” Dowland said. “Maybe that sort of seems weird to say about someone who’s had the career that Sue’s had, but it kind of is. And it’s a coming-of-age story for the W[NBA] too. And then when you keep widening that lens, I think that applies to where we are with girls and with women.”
Noted Chapman: “There were so many different themes that we could explore through Sue’s story … Being a woman in sports and how that’s changed in the last 20 years, being gay in sports, and being an icon for people who don’t have the voice and the platform that Sue has. We really wanted to work hard to focus on those things and kind of tease out through that year where we could pull her life’s work into the story and tie it up.”
In the documentary, Bird not only looks back on her career accomplishments, but she also gets candid about her personal journey, including her decision to publicly come out as gay in 2017, after being out for more than a decade to her family, friends and teammates.
“Where I sit now, I understand this is actually going to help people — like me just saying ‘I’m gay’ helps people. It helps them live their truth, maybe it helps them come out; maybe it helps them understand they’re not ready,” Bird said. “The best part was the minute I came out, I was like, ‘Oh, this actually is helping me.’ Like, this is nice for me to to just be honest, to live my truth. … It gave me a lot of peace.”
Last year, Bird and her fiancé, soccer icon Megan Rapinoe launched A Touch More, a media company focused on that centers the stories of revolutionaries who “move culture forward.” Throughout their careers — Bird retired in 2022 after a stellar 21-year WNBA career while Rapinoe retired from professional soccer last year as a two-time World Cup champion and Olympic gold medalist — the athletes have championed for more visibility and pay for women, and A Touch More is the latest way to foster change by elevating untold stories about underrepresented communities.
“We just understand the importance of having these stories told because whether it’s a ‘see it, be it’ moment for somebody — maybe they see something in themselves that they never would have thought possible — or it’s just stories that need to be told so we can expand our minds as a society, it is so important,” Bird explained. “[Megan and I] have had our stories told a lot and we’re really excited to kind of share that microphone. … I don’t say this lightly, and even though it’s a big statement, I think we’re going to help change the world by doing that.”