|At the final Olympic 2012|
MAKING HER MARK
After the Notre Dame loss, Sue told herself she never wanted to lose again as a Huskie. Incredibly, she didn’t. Sue was sensational in 2001-02, winning the Wade Trophy and Naismith Award as College Player of the Year. The three girls who came to Storrs as freshmen with her—Cash, Jones and Williams—all followed suit by making All-America and Dean’s List. Meanwhile, Taurasi showed signs that she might soon surpass all of them. The Huskies outscored their opponents by an average of 35 points a night, and out-rebounded them by 15. Their smallest margin of victory was nine, against Virginia Tech in a January contest.
It was in a practice after the Hokies game that the season went into high gear. Auriemma criticized Sue for not contending a shot. She did the unthinkable, and snapped back at her coach. He then ripped into his star, reducing her to tears. Auriemma's outburst was calculated. He had been waiting for Sue to show her emotions for more than three seasons. Now, he hoped, she would finally let it all hang out on the court.
The coach's strategy worked. With Sue running the offense, UConn put on a clinic of intelligent, unselfish basketball the rest of the way. The Huskies finished the regular season leading the nation in offense and defense—a mind-boggling accomplishment at any level of any sport
By the NCAA Tournament, no one could compete with UConn. With Sue finally shouldering more of the scoring load—she canned a career-high 26 points against Old Dominion in the East Regional Final—the team cruised to the Final Four. Their first opponent was Tennessee. Talented but young, the Lady Vols had received an 86-72 whipping at the hands of the Huskies earlier in the year. They were no match again, as UConn dismantled Tennessee, 79-56—one of the most lopsided scores ever between two top teams. So good were the Huskies that after the game, coach Summit visited them in the locker room to congratulate them.
UConn faced All-America Stacey Dales and Oklahoma in the final. Having already beaten the Sooners by 14 points three months earlier, the Huskies focused mainly on playing mistake-free basketball. When Oklahoma came out tough and shut down UConn’s perimeter game, Sue pounded the ball inside to her roommates. The Huskies raced to a 15-point lead in the second half, but the Sooners cut the margin to six with less than two minutes on the clock. With UConn needing a clutch bucket, Taurasi drove the lane, hit her shot and was fouled. She sank the free throw and the game was in the bag. UConn was a perfect 39-0 and national champions for the third time in eight seasons.
During the post-game celebration, Sue wept. Her teammates gave her the honor of the final snip when the net came down.
As soon as she graduated, Sue began to get offers for commercial endorsements. She signed a three-year deal with Nike and became a spokesperson for American Express. She fielded inquiries from soft drink, automotive, cosmetics and cellular communications companies, too. Also on Sue’s agenda was the WNBA draft, where she would likely be the top selection.
If ever a team deserved a number-one pick, it was the Storm. They had tied for the league low with 10 wins in 2001, and at just over 5,000 per game, no team drew fewer fans. GM and head coach Lin Dunn was tempted to let Sue fly on draft day, when she was overwhelmed by offers from the New York Liberty —who opened the bidding with a trio of veteran stars and the #14 pick—and the Washington Mystics, who were willing to deal the #3 and #4 picks to pair the UConn star with Chamique Holdsclaw, the league’s best young player. Dunn resisted and kept Sue for herself.
During training camp, Sue was given control of the offense. Dunn saw that she had the speed, smarts and court vision to adjust quickly to the pro game, and with 6-5 Aussie superstar Lauren Jackson as the team's go-to scorer, the Storm looked ready to turn things around
Seattle’s souvenir sales were in even better shape. After the Storm’s preseason opener, everything with Sue’s name and number on it had to be re-ordered. It wasn’t just teenagers buying the jerseys and other items. A lot of men were reaching into their wallets, too. Later in the campaign, a surge in ticket sales was also attributed to interest among male fans. The Storm even began advertising games on Seattle sports radio stations—where female listeners make up only a small percentage of the audience.
On the court, Sue had to get over her own case of hero-worship. Although she was clearly one of the league’s most talented players, she was in awe of the strength and experience of WNBA veterans. But in no time she accelerated her game, and picked up the entire team. With Jackson on the bench with a bad ankle to start the year, Sue took over and led the Storm to three wins after dropping their opener.
All season long, Storm fans screamed their approval with every pull-up jumper and no-look pass from Sue. And they were right to scream. Until Sue came along, the WNBA did not have an A-level point guard who could also score 20 a night. Just as important, she was raising the level of play of her teammates, which was just what the Storm had banked on.
By mid-season, Sue was completely acclimated to the pace of the pro game. She was picking apart defenses, thinking a pass ahead of her opponents and controlling the flow of games. To no one's surprise, she was voted to the West starting squad for the 2002 WNBA All-Star Game.
After the break, the Storm concentrated on making the playoffs. Entering the campaign's final month, they needed a big finish to reach their goal. With Sue leading the way, Seattle took seven of its last 10 games to go 17-15 and snag a postseason spot. The run ended, however, when the club fell to the Lisa Leslie and the Los Angeles Sparks.
Sue still looked back at the year with pride. Starting all 32 games for the Storm, she averaged 14.4 ppg, and registered a career-high 33 points in an August game against the Portland Fire. Sue placed among the WNBA’s top ten in 11 statistical categories, including free throw percentage (first at 91.1%) and assists (second with 6.0). For her efforts, she earned First-Team All-WNBA honors.
Thanks to Sue, the Storm and their fans had good reason to be optimistic going into 2003. With two elite-level stars and a strong nucleus of young players, they possessed the talent to compete with the league's best teams. Seattle also embraced a new look at the top—Hall of Famer Anne Donovan was in as coach, replacing Dunn, who resigned after the ’02 season. A dominant force in the paint during her college playing days, Donovan promised to help everyone on the Storm’s frontline sharpen their games.
In order to overcome LA and the Houston Comets, Seattle needed to develop a third scorer to back up Sue and Jackson. Where those points would come from was the real question. Candidates included Kate Starbird, Sandy Brondello, Alisa Burras and Korean star Jung Sun-Min, the Storm’s first-round pick in the '03 draft.
Sue’s campaign was a rollercoaster ride. She went for a season-high 22 points in the second game of the year, a painful 77-74 loss to the Sparks. From there, she failed to reach double-digits in her next three contests, but the Storm logged a trio of victories. She soon regained her scoring touch, while also bolstering other parts of her game. Five times Sue dished out at least 10 assists, and her rebounding average was up by a board a night.
In the standings, Seattle began to establish itself as a real contender in the West, though Los Angeles remained the class of the division. Still, with Jackson among the league’s most dangerous scorers and Brondello becoming a solid offensive option behind Sue, the Storm gatherted strength and looked to be a factor come playoff time.
But things unraveled near the end of the year. Despite ending at 18-16, the best record in franchise history, Seattle was bumped from the post-season picture.
Sue, who battled a sore knee down the stretch, put up good numbers, but didn't push the Storm to the next level. Second in the league in passing (6.5 apg), she became just the third player in WNBA history to record 200 assists in a season. She also raised her shooting percentage to 42.1%, and converted 88.4% from the free-throw line. Sue and Jackson were named All-WNBA first team, her second straight first-team selection.
As the 2004 season opened, Sue and the Storm were making fans believe that they were ready to turn in the tide completely. Seattle jump-started the campaign with a 88-85 win over Minnesota in the opener, including 31 points from Jackson, 18 from Betty Lennox (acquired by in the off-season) and 17 from Sue. Days later, the Storm broke down the Sparks in a convincing 93-67 victory.
Sue was happy to be handling the ball and running the floor again in '04. Storm supporters were just as happy to have an additional 12 years of WNBA experience on hand to back her up in the form of Lennox, Janell Burse and Sheri Sam. Also on the plus side, Sue was playing with considerably less pain, which was apparent on the defensive end.
Donovan planned to rest Sue more often—as long as the team could make due without her. That was welcome news, since Sue was slated to suit up for the U.S. women in Greece in August. (To accommodate the Games, the league took a month-long break.)
In Athens, Sue was not as much of a factor as she was with the Storm. This was due, at least in part, to the quality of her U.S. teammates. Veteran players like Dawn Staley, Sheryl Swoopes and Lisa Leslie helped lead the way for the women, along with rising WNBA star Diana Taurasi. From their first game, a 99-47 rout of New Zealand, the Americans looked unstoppable. The U.S. women won every game except one by double digits, and cruised to a perfect 8-0 record in the Olympics.
Their efforts culminated in a victory over Australia to win gold. Bird’s playing time decreased after the first few games, and she didn’t set foot on the court at all in the gold medal matchup. The surplus of superstars on the U.S. team limited her contribution to just under three points and about one rebound and one assist per game. Still, Bird returned to the United States an Olympic champion. She was also ready to continue her success with the Storm.
The thought of Sue dribbling down the court with a couple of finishers in front of her during the postseason had Seattle fans excited, and rightfully so. The Storm ended the '04 campaign second in the West, five games behind L.A., but primed for a playoff run.
They opened against Minnesota, and disposed of the Lynx in two games. Jackson topped the team in scoring both wins, while Sue was conspicuously quiet. In her defense, a broken nose in her team's second win limited her to just three minutes of action.
Jackson carried Seattle again in the next round. The Storm dropped its first game to the Sacramento Monarchs in OT, and then swept the next two to move onto the Finals. Jackson averaged 27 points and more than 10 boards per contest. Sue picked up her play, including a 10-point, 14-assist performance in the the clincher, just 24 hours after having surgery on her nose.
Seattle faced Connecticut for the championship. The Sun boasted a well-balanced attack, with Lindsay Whalen and hometown favorite Nykesha Sales leading the way. Connecticut took Game One of the best-of-three on its home floor, but the Storm remained confident with the series headed back west for the final two contests.
Game Two was a nailbiter that Seattle gutted out, 67-65. Sue combined with Jackson for 25 points, but the real story was the unheralded Lennox, who exploded for 27. The decider started the same way, with both teams shooting well in the first half and matching each other basket for basket. Lennox was feeling it again, so Donovan made sure she got plenty of good looks. In the second half, Seattle surged to a double-digit bulge, and then coasted home for the victory. Sue enjoyed her best all-around game of the Finals, scoring eight points with six assists and five rebounds.
A gold medal and WNBA title in the course of two months isn't a bad haul. And while the next Summer Games are four years off, Sue and the Storm have a great chance of repeating. Indeed, as the Comets and Sparks begin to age, the West may soon belong to Seattle. They’ve got the coach, the talent, and a point guard who can’t stand to lose.
SUE THE PLAYER
Sue’s offensive game flows from her ability to hit pull-up jumpers. When defenders guard her tight, a devilish crossover dribble creates enough space to get the shot away cleanly.
The book on Sue has always been to deny her the ball. This, of course, is easier said than done, especially when plays are running interference to get her open. In the WNBA, defenders have tried to rough her up and muscle her out of her rhythm, with varying degrees of effectiveness.
Getting inside Sue’s head is not easy, either. She heard her share of trash talk in college and is more or less immune to it. (Sue is always messing with her ponytail, so some opponents try to psych her out by saying it doesn’t look right.) The only thing that really gets her down is coming up short in key situations. She was, is and will probably always be a notorious sore loser.
How good can Sue be? Five years from now, it is possible she might be the best player in WNBA history. There's also a chance she won’t be playing ball at all. She has never fully embraced the game, so it doesn't have a tight grip on her. Ask her what she liked most about college hoops, and she'll talk about the off-the-court closeness and camaraderie. That doesn’t exist in pro hoops, no matter what the league would like you to think. Unless she finds something to hold her heart, Sue might find her destiny elsewhere.