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Indescribable, but told as it was

By Arnie Leshin 
Tom Montoya wasn’t going to San Antonio to high-five Sue Bird. He was going to the Longhorn City to check in with me and Ron Drake and knowledgeable hometown basketball fan Dominic at the Omni Hotel and drive our rent-a-car to the Alamodome.
There we would see this Bird and her undefeated University of Connecticut women’s basketball team play the Final Four in the 2001-02 windup. The rest of the cast Oklahoma, Duke and Tennessee.
Tasty buffet breakfast at the Omni, good tour of the Alamo City, neat historic time touring the Alamo where the Americans fought the Mexicans, and then heading downtown to the dazzling indoor-outdoor venue on the southeastern downtown of the city.
This was for the semifinal, 4th-seeded Oklahoma versus 2nd-seeded Duke and 6th-seeded Tennessee against the top-ranked Huskies and their cast of all-stars before a packed house. We followed the travel into the main gate where Drake was supposed to have our seats left at the will call by North Carolina head women’s coach Sylvia Hatchell.
He picked them up, shook his head, and looked sky night as he realized that’s where our seats were as he was told by an event staffer, up on top in the most upper deck, but not the highest, for we were “only” about three rows from the front railing where Drake was later trying to recruit a prospective high school basketball girl from Virginia.
Montoya? Well, he didn’t stay there long. He got up, excused himself, and shortly after waved up to us from the courtside floor. He said later that he didn’t want to come back to where we were and then have to sneak again past the ushers to get to his illegal downstairs locations. Dominic followed him down there, but never waved back.
Montoya didn’t even budge after Oklahoma handily got past Duke in the first semis. He wears eyeglasses so perhaps it was better for him to see the action down in front. But when UConn came charging out, he suddenly reached out and chose Bird, the All-America point guard who wore No. 10 under her warmups.
He reached out and she reached back, and presto, the high-five was official. He looked up to us and we acknowledged it was a done deal. Out came Tennessee and he did applaud, but he didn’t have any high-fives, he just was excited to make contact with Bird, the 5-foot-9 senior who set the tone for a team regarded as one of the best of all time.
And that she did. She put the Volunteers away early by converting on 12-of-12 free throws and depositing 16 points in the first half by shooting 70 percent and leaving legendary head coach Pat Summit’s team down 42-23 at the intermission. Bird wound up the Final Four with a record, perfect 20-of-20 foul shots.
Back to Montoya, when the teams came back out to the court, he again spotted Bird and passed his hand out to her for a repeat high-five. Bingo! After UConn finished the damage and headed to its locker room, he searched for us up and then downstairs until we all met at our parking spot.
Day two we had our buffet breakfast and I picked up the tab for Montoya because of his Bird high-five achievements. Then we headed for the championship game matching the Huskies and Sooners, and Montoya, after we stopped at the concession for some hot dogs and soda, checked out again to sneak into the courtside location, but first he hung out with us for the consolation game that Duke won over Tennessee, 86-71.
When he got below again, he called out to us that he was sitting down the aisle from Coach Brown of New Mexico, and Drake even called down to Coach Brown to no avail.
Now Montoya at the time was head girls basketball coach at St. Michael’s of Santa Fe and Drake in the same role at neighbor Santa Fe High, while I had been a sportswriter for so long, my background included covering recreational basketball, Little League, high school boys and girls hoops, men’s and women’s college ball, and professional ball as in the NBA and WNBA. If I missed anything, I usually do.
Here, after the 73-61 victory that brought its third Division I national championship, we watched the trophy presentation, the outstanding player award going to Bird and the remaining of the first five tournament players being UConn’s 6-2 seniors Swin Cash and Asjha Jones along with Oklahoma’s seniors Stacey Dales and Rosalind Ross. Dales has now been Sooners head coach since 2005.
Bird was born and raised in Syosset, Long Island, out in Suffolk County to the west of the borough of Queens. She was at Syosset High where they only had freshman, junior varsity and varsity basketball teams, but not much a threat to its district.
But she made the varsity right off the bat and told her parents she didn’t fit in, that she was much better than a team that was much older than her. So after her freshman and sophomore seasons, they decided on trying to get her enrolled in another school, a more dedicated one with a cast of better players from other areas, and they choose a private school, Christ the King Regional in Middle Village Queens.
Yes, a nice Jewish girl from a suburban area was going to play at Christ the King.  For two years her parents would drive her there and watch the games, watch her renewed happiness and success. When she got her driver’s license, she would play her two final seasons to big crowds that included many recruiters following the red, maroon and gold team that was 27-3 her junior year and the country’s No. 1 her senior year at 30-1.
The only problem was finding parking spaces, so trains and buses answered the call. But Bird said she enjoyed hanging out as close-by Arbys.
At Christ the King she averaged 12 points per game, brought down six rebounds, handed out 8 assists, and came away with five steals. She graduated with honors and was now in the hunt for a college.
With her parents helping with the decision, she choose Connecticut. There, it was joy at first sight, she was happy and very impressed by Geno Auriemma’s coaching, made the first team as a freshman, and the next three in star-studded lineups.
Auriemma was overjoyed with the way Bird orchestrated his offense, the way she would “literally” fly down the court, dish off the ball, swipe the ball, toss in jumpers, and provide leadership. She was team captain as a junior and senior. She’d have a mountain of fans, help to fill the home games and even brought visitors when playing out of town.
Auriemma, who by the way has already won a record 11 national championships, always praises her ability, that there’s nothing in her game that she hasn’t included, that she’s both a super player and teammate.
With the Huskies up in Storrs, she missed two seasons with a torn ACL, then scored in a variety of ways — outside shooting, perimeter excellence, defense, dishing out the ball, and all it took. She also had stellar teammates who appreciated the talent she brought. There, she wound up with 24 points per game, took down eight boards, came up with 10 assists a game that is still a national record, and was a nuisance on defense by adding five steals per contest.
Among a cast of superstars through the years in UConn, Bird was named Player of the Year in her senior season. On the 2001-02 unbeaten crew with Bird was Morgan Valley of Albuquerque who played high school ball at La Cueva, and often reported to friends how great that team was behind the play of Bird.
Yes, Bird gets praise and a trophy room that is filled to the brim. She has won those three NCAA championships under Auriemma. She has won four WNBA titles with the red, white and blue ball Seattle Storm, where she has decided to call it a career after 19 seasons with the franchise. She will put uniform No. 10 on top of all the other awards, various honors, reminders, and goodies she will save in a crowded trophy area.
“I made that decision,” she said after looking at my WNBA schedule for this season. I saw we were playing a game on Wednesday of that week in Connecticut, and after my last game in Seattle on Friday, that I’d play my final game in New York (at Barclay Center in Brooklyn) and I was looking forward to being there before my many fans and all my friends who have watched me play there. So that will be it, Sunday in New York, game time at noon.”
At Seattle on Friday is where she made this announcement. Diana Taurasi, her long-time teammate and friend who was a senior on the 2001-02 when it won the whole thing in San Antonio, plays for the Wednesday rival Phoenix Mercury, and when the crowd chanted, “One more year, one more year,” Taurasi joined in loudly for her partner in stardom. Then they hugged before they took the court.
Taurasi played alongside Bird in five Olympic championships, in 2004 in Tokyo, in 2006 in Athens, in 2008 in Beijing, in 2012 in London, and 2016 in Rio de Janeiro.
Said Taurasi: “Sue Bird’s place as a player anywhere she played is the envy of anyone in the sport.”
Taurasi said she has a WNBA game on Sunday night, but will try to be in Brooklyn for Bird’s noon game. Auriamma said he will definitely be there, so will many of her friends, family and former teammates. 
“So many people have watched me grow over these many years,” Bird said, “and I’m excited about all this, and it’s also bittersweet, but I’ve lived it and loved it.” , 
And let’s see, I won’t be able to make it there, but I’ll get in on TV and I cherish and remember all the times I reported UConn games and all the pleasant times I had interviewing the No. 10 versatile Sue Bird.  
Her original full name is Suzanne Brigit Bird. She is married to soccer star Megan Rapione, who led the way to the United States’ 2019 World Cup championship in France. She also caused a stir several times by objecting to our national anthem, turning away from it when it was played, and in the World Cup parade down the streets of New York City, led the team to the sidewalk for a national anthem rejection kick dance. Plus, she never hesitated to take a stand against it. 
But let’s all say it can be called water under the bridge, the only thing that matters is her and Bird get along fine and share their glory years. 
No, Tom Montoya hasn’t high-fived this Bird since San Antonio, but he remains a fan, and he cheers that fact that she stands for the national anthem, often sings the world, and favors the colors of red, white and blue.

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