“What am I if I’m not a basketball player?” There are a lot of ways to describe basketball phenom Suzanne Brigit Bird. She’s a Long Island native, uniquely friendly, a humble activist, an out and proud fiancé, mentor, and overall inspiration. To those who know her best, she is simply Sue. However, for many of us in the know, Sue Bird is a titan in her chosen sport and a player many women and girls continue to look up to after retiring from basketball in 2022.
Such is the story of legendary WNBA guard Sue Bird, the subject of a new documentary that premiered at the Sundance Film Festival on Sunday. Directed by Sarah Dowland (“The Innocence Files”), “Sue Bird: In the Clutch” explores Sue’s rise in professional basketball from her high school days in New York, to her iconic run at the National Championships playing for the University of Connecticut, to her time playing in five separate Olympics. But, like any good sports documentary, the film is only as good as its subject and the hurdles they’ve had to overcome.
“Sue Bird: In the Clutch” is aptly named due to Sue’s consistent reputation as one of the most in-demand professional women’s basketball players. The first frames of the film show Sue wrestling with the idea of retiring, set to a heart-pounding score from composer Kotomi (“Love, Victor”). The documentary is a testament to a 21-year career playing a sport that has redefined how women and athleticism can, in fact, mix, despite apprehension from many who used to view the WNBA as a mere fad. Sue joined the league in the WNBA’s infancy, but became one of the most recognizable names in sports. Period.
Yet the film doesn’t just highlight Sue’s impressive skills on the court and her determination to hone said skills to perfection. It is a response to a growing trend of talking heads who have made it their mission to underplay professional women athletes and the contributions they’ve made. Interviews with former teammates, coaches and contemporaries like Stephen Curry, Diana Taurasi, Jordin Canada, and Lauren Jackson help to tell Sue’s story and the impact she’s had on women’s sports. Further interviews with Sue’s childhood friends, family and fiancé Megan Rapinoe assist in sculpting the type of person Sue is off the court.
Who Sue is matters, not only because she’s an engaging athlete to focus on, but because her story is unlike that of many sports documentaries. Sue isn’t necessarily an underdog, a theme that has defined most movies concentrating on sports figures. She’s often been great at what she does. She’s had success for most of her life despite her parents’ divorce and injuries that sidelined her college career for a short time. However, Sue has always picked herself up, dusted off negative press, and continued to focus on the task at hand: Win. She found supportive influences that guided her to become a fantastic player, mentor to younger teammates, and advocate for pay equity for women.
“Sue Bird: In the Clutch” doesn’t break new ground for sports documentaries, but its primary focus on women in sports helps to create a space where the film stands on its own two feet. An exploration into Sue and her teammates’ decision to play in Russia to supplement their income during the WNBA offseason in the mid-2000s introduces audiences to the inequality female athletes face in the United States. These happened to be some of the most talented players in sports yet were paid $40,000 a season and forced to market themselves as attractive objects of men’s affection who must demonstrate a glamorous lifestyle at all times.
Cut to the present day and Sue Bird is out of the closet, upfront about her relationship with outspoken soccer player Megan Rapinoe, and a true champion for what she believes to be right. Sue Bird changed all of this through her activism in helping to negotiate collective bargaining agreements with the WNBA and simply having the ability to be confident enough to be herself at all times. She didn’t grow up idolizing women because only men played sports on her television screen. Sue had to make room for herself and not be deterred from having an opinion that might challenge the status quo. In doing this, Sue accomplished her main goal of joining the U.S. Olympic team. She won gold at the Olympics a record five times.
Sue Bird’s inspiring basketball career and legendary tell-it-like-it-is approach have been well-documented as one of the most successful sports heroes of the past 25 years. “Sue Bird: In the Clutch” expands on the icon’s straight shooter mentality, peels back the layers of her identity as a woman and influential gay sports figure, and takes viewers through Number 10’s experiences in her personal and professional journey. It’s a testament to director Sarah Dowland’s energetic techniques that exponentially heighten Sue Bird’s historic run in basketball, alleviating any doubt that Sue’s story lives on- even in retirement.
“Sue Bird: In the Clutch” is a sales title at Sundance.