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A woman with long curly hair in a green sweatshirt and brown pants sits next to a Black man with white pants and a tan jacket.

Cinema Café: A Conversation with Sue Bird and Jay Ellis

Sue Bird and Jay Ellis at Cinema Café at Filmmaker Lodge in Park City, Utah (Photo by Stephen Greathouse/ Shutterstock for Sundance Film Festival)

By Stephanie Ornelas 

“We’re in a moment. There’s a moment for women’s basketball right now, a moment for women’s sports. And my story falls in this unique place in that I’m wildly successful in my own field.” 

WNBA legend Sue Bird stopped by the Filmmaker Lodge at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival on January 19 to talk about the current state of women’s basketball and Sarah Dowland’s inspiring documentary Sue Bird: In the Clutch, which is centered on Bird’s career. Joined by the film’s executive director and actor Jay Ellis (Freaky Tales), the two discussed how sports, basketball specifically, is typically viewed through a man’s perspective. But sharing stories through independent films like Sue Bird: In the Clutch can help change that. 

As the year 2020 opened the door to more conversations surrounding civil rights, women’s rights, and gender equality, Bird began to notice a shift in visibility toward the WNBA. 

“People ask me to sign their skin and they’ll go get a tattoo,” says Bird. “So, obviously people know me, but [when it comes to] women’s sports, it’s a little bit of an uphill climb. But 2020 really marked a pivotal moment, and I just felt like it was really important to tell a story. We’re always talking about how we need more stories and in that moment, particularly my story.” 

An athlete himself, Ellis echoed Bird’s perspective, explaining, “We think we know basketball, but the reality of it is, we really kind of know it because of its proximity to men’s basketball. That’s really the lens in which we know it, so in my mind, having Sue tell her story was also an opportunity to tell this story of women’s basketball that we don’t get told from the women who actually play the game.” 

He continues, “This is an opportunity for us to show that this is its own thing and it’s huge and it’s wildly successful.” 

“A lot of times for women’s basketball specifically, it’s only been looked at through this male lens and that doesn’t fit,” Bird chimes in. “So of course, it’s not going to get the credit it deserves. But it takes people to see that and want to tell that story. Because we’ve been screaming through the rooftops, but it takes people to believe that.”  

Being an athlete involves highs and lows, wins and losses. The documentary shows candid footage of Bird reflecting during some of the most challenging games, and viewers can clearly see her hurt from a loss. When moderator and Sundance Film Festival programmer Stephanie Owens asks her to talk a little bit about being vulnerable and share those tough moments, Bird gives an inspiring response.   

“There’s so much to learn from those moments. When I think about the [loss] in college, I don’t know that the rest of my career plays out the way it does if that loss doesn’t happen. So even though you want to go back and you wish you could change something, the reality is, the rest of the story doesn’t play out that way if those losses don’t happen.”  

Looking back to when she felt she hit a “plateau” during her career in her mid-thirties, Bird remembers when she had to bring on a WNBA player Susan Borchardt to train her. 

“Had that not happened, I wouldn’t have hired Susan, I don’t think I would have played as long as I played, which means I don’t get two more WNBA championships, I don’t get two more gold medals. So, sometimes the bad has to happen in order for things to shift and change, and then it turns out good.”   
Sue Bird: In the Clutch will have its world premiere Sunday, January 21, at the Festival, with second screenings happening January 22–27 in Park City and Salt Lake City, Utah. Secure your tickets to the documentary today!