Sue Bird is returning to international basketball as ambassador for 2026 World Cup

FILE - Former Seattle Storm guard Sue Bird arrives during her jersey retirement ceremony following a WNBA basketball game between the Seattle Storm and the Washington Mystics, on June 11, 2023, in Seattle. Retired U.S. women's basketball player Sue Bird was introduced Friday Sept. 8, 2023 as the global ambassador for the 2026 Women's World Cup. Bird won nine Olympic and World Cup gold medals in a two-decade career with the U.S. women's program. (AP Photo/Lindsey Wasson, File) (Lindsey Wasson, Copyright 2023 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

MANILA – Sue Bird loves telling this story. She’s on a plane, flying home from the Athens Olympics, and a flight attendant approached to ask if the pilot could see her gold medal. The next thing Bird knew, the medal was being passed up and down the aisles so everyone could touch it.

She was an ambassador of the game on that flight. And now the title is official.

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FIBA formally introduced Bird, the now-retired U.S. great, on Friday as the global ambassador for the 2026 Women’s Basketball World Cup that will be played in Berlin. Bird takes the role from Pau Gasol, who served as ambassador for the 2022 women's tournament in Sydney.

“What’s really symbolic about that moment is when you’re representing your country, it’s not just you,” Bird said in Manila, where the men’s World Cup is wrapping up this weekend. “It’s not just a team or a city. It is the entire thing and it really hit me in that moment. And I was very fortunate to be in five World Cups to also that feeling with USA on my chest, a bunch of different qualifiers in between, and of course five Olympics. It’s really special. Never took that moment for granted. And now in this seat, I get to have impact a different way.”

Bird is a nine-time major international gold medalist — five in the Olympics, four in the World Cup, where she was also part of a bronze-medal effort in 2006 — over her two decades with the women’s national team, and was USA Basketball's women's athlete of the year in 2021.

That, of course, doesn’t include her four WNBA titles, her 13 WNBA All-Star selections, five EuroLeague titles, two NCAA championships at Connecticut, state and national championships at the high school level, being co-flagbearer for the U.S. at the Tokyo Olympics and countless other awards. It’s a certainty that the Basketball Hall of Fame will be calling in the next couple of years.

“She’s amazing,” Gasol said. “I couldn't think of, and I actually mean this, anyone better to be an ambassador for the game. Even though I’m passing the baton and the torch, I hope I can be there as well supporting Sue and FIBA in the tournament in 2026 in Berlin, I'm just excited. I’m excited that Sue cares and gets involved and she’s going to make a big difference. And I’m sure she’ll get others also to join her.”

Bird is the only player with four women's World Cup gold medals. The women's tournament is expanding, going from 12 teams last year to 16 for the 2026 edition, with FIBA saying growing the women's game on all levels — more women playing, more women coaching, more women in leadership roles — is among its top priorities.

“What was in the past a two-week tournament now is a two-year process of promotion of women’s basketball, a process that we believe will bring this game to the next level,” FIBA secretary general Andreas Zagklis said. “This is our humble but ambitious objective.”

Bird completed her international career at the Tokyo Games two years ago. She retired last year after her 18th season with the WNBA's Seattle Storm, the only team she ever played for in that league.

She said she felt like she “left it all” as a player, and now will try to emulate that approach as a former player.

“That's the point, right? That’s the point,” Bird said. “It’s to continue to promote, to grow, to elevate the game so there’s some little girl out there right now who maybe sees any of the teams, really — for me, it's the U.S. team — and can dream and can have that dream and then try to exceed it.”

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AP WNBA: https://apnews.com/hub/wnba-basketball