We see Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan in a very official way most days, but we thought it would be fun to take her back to her roots on a basketball court. Long before Durkan was Seattle's first female mayor in nearly 100 years, she was Coach Durkan for a 1980s girls team in Alaska.
Her staff even gave her the nickname "Yukon Jen."
So when we called the mayor's office to see if she'd be up for a friendly game of horse, she agreed only if she could challenge one of her heroes, WBNA and Seattle Storm star Sue Bird.
We saw it as an opportunity to sit down with two of Seattle's most influential women in shaping the area's sports landscape. Durkan vows to bring back the Seattle Sonics while advocating for a future NHL team. Bird is revered as the most decorated athlete in the city.
Both talked about women in sports, Seattle's fan base, and how they want to inspire a younger generation.
The interview was a win-win, and the game of horse (or STORM as we called it) also ended up being a slam dunk.
Michelle Li: Thank you guys so much for coming together for us, because it’s hard to get you together in a room. Have you met before?
Mayor Jenny Durkan: No, this is the first time!
Sue Bird: No – first time!
Li [to Durkan]: Are you in awe of Sue?
Li: Because originally I asked the mayor, I said, "Let’s play basketball" and she was like, "I want to play with Sue Bird."
Bird: Clearly not intimidated then.
Durkan: Well, you know, you’ve got to have heroes in life, right?
Li: Yeah, is she [Sue] your hero?
Durkan: You know, she’s one of them.
(The mayor then recalls an exchange with a group of students at the Queen Anne Community Center minutes before the interview and how pre-K students were slightly more excited to see Bird than her.)
Li [to Bird]: How does that make you feel?
Bird: It’s nice. Especially when it’s little kids because I think as a professional female athlete you want to show the young generations what’s possible – again, just as a female. So for little kids to even know the name, know the WNBA and things like that, it’s really nice.
Li [to Bird]: Do you feel like you are a role model to kids, boys and girls?
Bird: Absolutely. You know we can talk about little girls, of course, because I’m a female playing in the WNBA, and that’s something for little girls to strive for. But it’s more so important for little boys to see that there are strong females, to have a role model in that way. It’s got different meaning on each side – equally important.
Durkan: Yeah, I agree. When I was growing up there was no WNBA. And today for little girls and little boys to see that women can be professional athletes, it’s just for girls, it says, "I can do anything," and for boys it shows the girls can do anything, too. And I think at the end of the day that’s the best solution for having a better society.
Li [to Durkan]: I do want to read something, because you were actually the first woman to deliver a State of the City address in Seattle and in your remarks you address young girls in particularly. You said, "I want you to know you are strong, you are smart, you deserve every chance to chase your dreams – whatever those dreams may be – to launch the next great Seattle start up, to play for the Seattle Storm, maybe to grow up to be the mayor of Seattle or the President of United States. So first off, that’s very inspirational, but what do you think are some of the hurdles that particularly young girls face today?
Durkan: You know, I think there are a range of hurdles. I think one is being able to see themselves doing things. And if you look, it took 92 years for another woman mayor of Seattle, which is an amazing statistic if you think about it. So, you need little girls to know that they can be anything they want to be. And knowing that, they can imagine themselves somewhere doing something, whatever it is, and so they’ll strive for it. And so that’s the whole thing. Sometimes they won’t make it. You know, not everyone can be a WNBA player, but they can dream about whatever they want to do.
Bird: And I think on top of that, it’s a question of confidence. You know, I think a lot of young girls, when they do set out to try to be a WNBA player or maybe the mayor, they might get knocked down along the way. And there are some things in our society now that kind of put that on little girls, but they need to understand that with every time you get knocked down – and I think as an athlete you really see this –with every opportunity you get to prove people wrong, you build your confidence even more. So you have to look at it not as a challenge but as an opportunity.
Li: Did you feel like you had a lot of opportunities then?
Bird: [laughs] Yeah. You know, I think they came in the form of things that were out of my hands, like injuries. You know sometimes you get hurt, and sometimes that’s an opportunity as an athlete to really bounce back and build character. Actually when I was growing up, there wasn’t a WNBA either. When I was growing up there weren't even, at times, girls sports available. So I had to play on a boys soccer team. I think in the moment my parents did a great job of kind of letting me be me and figure it out and not worry. And I look back on my teammates, the other boys in my grade, and they did a great job of accepting me. But there were definitely times where we played against other teams, and they weren’t so cool about it. And you might hear a parent or coach say something about a girl playing on the boys team. That wasn’t always great. So yeah, throughout it, I don't know if I knew in the moment kind of what was happening, because I was a kid, but looking back on it I definitely view that as a major opportunity that I was able to kind of attack. It gave me more confidence.
Durkan: Part of succeeding is failing, and that’s the thing that every girl and every boy needs to know. You’re going to try something, and it's not going to work maybe the first, the second, the third time, but if you do it that fifth time it might work. Or you get hurt, you just learn to play through things, how to do the next thing...so I think that sports can help build confidence and really develop kids in a way that other endeavors don’t. We are in our minds too much. We’re on screens too much. To get out and do a sport is great for kids.
Li: Do you think Seattle is a great sports town and why? And what needs to change to make it better?
Bird: I think it’s great. I mean there’s always room for improvement obviously. I’m not sure what the amount of fans we average, but you can always add a little more to that. But I think overall, it’s a tremendous sports town. You see it in the way they support their teams. I’m from New York originally and obviously I’ve bounced around the world because of basketball, and I’ve seen different kind of fan bases. There’s something unique about this one. It’s more of a community than a fan base, and when you’re in it, I mean you’re a lifer. And I think the way people rally around these teams, whether it’s the Seahawks, the Storm, the Reign, the Sounders, you name it. People rally, and it goes beyond the sport. There’s a passion there. And I think that’s what separates the Seattle fan base from others.
Durkan: Seattle is the best sports city. And once you're ours, you're ours forever. Look, Ichiro is back. Everyone thinks of Ichiro as a Mariner – he never played for anyone else that we know of. So I think that Seattle has the best fan base. And the thing that will make it better is that we’re going to get more people in the stadium to see the Storm into the arena, and we’re going to get the Sonics back, and [with] Ichiro, we’re going to get a World Series.
Li: How confident are you that we’re gonna get the Sonics back?
Durkan: Very confident.
Bird: I feel good about it. I don't see why not.
Li: You are so influential in the landscape of sports and sports history. You have the power to change so much of the landscape here.
Durkan: I will tell you that I have spoken with the people at the NBA, and one of the things that is going to get the Sonics back here is how great the Storm is. They’ve seen the Storm develop, they’ve seen the kind of players we have like Sue and others, and see the fan base here. They know that the NBA already has a home here, and so building on that is what’s really going to help us get that team.
Li: Do you feel like you are glass ceiling breakers, that you are history makers? Do you feel that about yourselves?
Bird: I don’t know. As a WNBA player, I feel like almost similar to what I was saying saying about being that kid on that boys team. I didn’t know it in the moment. I wasn’t thinking about it. I was just kind of doing what I love, kind of trying to do it the right way. You know, looking back I was obviously building character and confidence and all of those good things. And I almost feel like it’s the same now. I’m just trying to do the best I can and be myself as much as possible. And I don’t necessarily think about leaving a legacy. We have a lot of young players on our team now, and I just try to make sure they understand what it means to be a professional athlete, to be a member of a community of a great sports city, to be a member of the Storm. And I feel like if I pass that on, then it will just kind of naturally break some ceilings and do some great things and maybe make some history. But I think when you’re in the moment, you don’t necessarily realize what’s happening until after the fact.
Durkan: When you’re doing it you just do the best you can. I think that’s also the message to girls and boys out there. Do it because you love it. Do it as best as you can. You know, me looking back now and realizing going into City Hall...they still have the chair that the last woman mayor sat in, and it’s been empty for 92 years. I mean that’s how many generations of young girls? So, I think that we are making history as we speak, and I think the real great thing is you can look forward and you see the Me Too Movement, you see all these things, and you know that 10 and 15 years from now, hopefully, there’ll be no kid out there – girl or boy, race, whatever – that doesn’t think they can be anything they want to be.
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