Consistency Is Key To Sue Bird’s Longevity
Following the heels of her first NCAA title with the University of Connecticut in 2000, Sue Bird donned her first USA Basketball jersey as a member of the USA R. William Jones Cup Team.
While she started all four games and dished out 4.3 assists a game to lead the USA to a gold medal in Taipei, Taiwan, nobody could have predicted that her USA Basketball career would eventually include three U.S. Olympic Teams and a record-breaking four USA World Championship teams.
The Syosset, New York, native returned to USA Basketball later that summer as a member of the USA Select Team that played an exhibition game in Hawaii against the 2000 U.S. Olympic Team. Facing off against future Hall of Famer and current USA assistant coach Dawn Staley, Bird saw firsthand what it took to get to the next level and earn a spot on the USA National Team.
“What I remember about that experience was that it was hard, you know?” Bird said. “They were really good. We were all excited as college kids to have that chance to play against the USA Senior National Team. They were on their way to their Olympics, so it was a good experience.”
She spent the next two years improving her game under the tutelage of Geno Auriemma, who also was an assistant on the 2000 Olympic Team and has been the head coach of the USA National Team since 2009.
“During my senior year he approached me and said, ‘Look, if you really want to be the point guard, you have a chance,” Bird recalled. “But, you’ve got to make sure you keep getting better and take care of stuff and you have a chance to be on the Olympic team.’ Coming from somebody who had just experienced that with the Olympic team, it kind of opened my eyes that if I really wanted to do this, I’d better get focused.”
“She obviously played a little USA Basketball and had some success,” said Auriemma. “The older she got, the more you could see that she could see things and she could do things. I wanted her to have that as a goal. I wanted her to think of herself as being able to someday be on the Olympic team.
“I remember during her senior year telling her that, ‘if this is something you want to do, you have to step it up a little bit, make some changes, be more assertive, take on more responsibility.’ Then her entire senior year it was evident that she was far and away the best guard in the country.”
Bird’s dedication to her craft got her noticed by the USA Basketball selection committee and days after winning her second NCAA Championship, she flew to Colorado Springs, Colorado, to vie for a spot on the 2002 USA World Championship Team. She impressed USA head coach Van Chancellor and the committee, and five months later Bird was playing an understudy role to Staley and Shannon ‘Pee Wee’ Johnson as the U.S. rolled to a perfect 9-0 record and gold medal at the World Championship in China.
“I really didn’t know anything about the international game at that point,” said Bird, who played limited minutes that year, but soaked up everything she could from Staley. “I had never played, aside from the Jones Cup, I had never played overseas. I had never really experienced that. From a point guard standpoint, I learned what you need to do in the international game with USA Basketball, playing alongside the best players and also wearing the USA jersey and having that bull’s eye on your back. Just the way she conducted herself, she was ready for every game. No matter what. She always was telling people where to go and what to do, because even though these players were great, they still need leadership and they still need help. I think by nature of our position, it usually comes from the point guard. So, I really watched Dawn, and of course she was in my ear a little bit as well. But really I learned just from watching her more than anything else, and I was able to learn what it meant to be a point guard for the national team.”
“I’m not surprised that she was on the World Championship Team in 2002,” Auriemma said. “That kind of got her off and running, and from there, she’s been incredibly consistent for all those years. In this day and age it’s not easy to do, but it kind of fits her personality. She’s pretty consistent. You don’t ever know how it’s going to turn out, but it’s turned out perfect for her.”
Bird continued to soak up the knowledge of her older teammates and earned a spot on the 2004 U.S. Olympic Team, where played as a backup to Staley for the final time en route to her first Olympic gold medal. She then stepped into the position that had been held by Staley and before her, five-time Olympian Teresa Edwards, as the floor general for the USA National Team.
Within USA Basketball, Bird remained a steady force at point during 2006 and 2010 FIBA World Championships and 2008 and 2012 Olympic Games. When she wasn’t winning gold medals, as well as a bronze in 2006, Bird continued to hone her game while winning a pair of WNBA titles and five EuroLeague championships.
“Anytime you play the position, you almost lead by example,” Staley said about having Bird as her understudy. “Sue and I had a pretty good relationship where she listened. She didn’t do a whole lot of talking. She kind of observed and took things in, much like when the baton was passed to me. You just kind of look; I looked at T (Teresa Edwards) and saw some of the things that she did, how she operated in managing the basketball team and managing personalities. You see Sue, and she’s pretty much the same. She doesn’t have any useless movements on the floor. She doesn’t uselessly talk. Whatever she says really has meaning, and I think her teammates really respect her for that.”
“Sue is just solid,” added Staley. “She knows how to manage a game. She knows how to get the best out of each player. She doesn’t ruffle feathers. I think that’s what all of her teammates respect about her. She’s always been consistent and the same. When you’re that predictable as a leader, they know how to follow. They know that she’s no nonsense. She’s all about business. That’s the approach from practices, throughout the games to off the court.”
Her teammates over the past 15 years have included multi-Olympic and FIBA World Championship gold medalists, future Naismith and U.S. Olympic Hall of Famers, NCAA champions, as well as EuroLeague and WNBA winners. In addition to Staley, the list includes athletes such as current USA teammates Maya Moore and Diana Taurasi, as well as gold medalists Tamika Catchings, Jen Gillom, Lisa Leslie, Katie Smith, Sheryl Swoopes and Tina Thompson.
The medals and accolades these athletes achieved in their respective careers are virtually endless.
Yet, none of them have done what Bird will accomplish when she steps onto the court to face China at Abdi Pecki Arena in Istanbul on Saturday, Sept. 27.
When the ball is tossed in the air to tip-off the USA’s 2014 FIBA World Championship campaign, Bird will become the first U.S. athlete in history to play in four World Championships.
“When you get towards the end of your career, or on the other side of it, you start hearing about stuff like games played or World Championships, or in the WNBA it’s number of assists for me or number of points for somebody else,” Bird reflected. “I really think it speaks to a consistency, luck in some ways, to stay healthy and be able to compete at that level. It also speaks to the individual as well that they were able to stay at a high level for an extended period of time and continue to add to their game and get better. It’s definitely an honor. I’m sure I’ll look back on it later, but right now I didn’t even know. It’s kind of surreal in a way. I’m sure I’ll look back on this, and it’ll be a pretty cool milestone for me.”
In the history of the FIBA World Championship, which has been held 16 times since 1953, only 11 athletes have competed in four or more Worlds. Eight of those athletes are tied with a record five appearances at the event. So, would Bird want to return for a fifth appearance in 2018?
“That’s funny,” she laughed. “I’ll be like 100 years old!”
Take a Stroll with Sue Bird Down Memory Lane in her Favorite Moments from the Past Three Worlds
China in 2002 (9-0, gold medal)
DVDs (laughing). There were a lot of DVD markets at that point. I don’t even think they exist anymore from what I hear. We were always on the DVD hunt. That and going to McDonald’s. A lot.
On the court, I remember playing against all these different teams. For me, it was my first time. But what really sticks out is that Russia game in the final. It was a close game, and to win that, that was one of the first times in a final that it was really close, in my USA Basketball experience. You didn’t know the outcome. With a minute left you still didn’t know the outcome. So, that was pretty cool to win in that way, in that manner.
Brazil in 2006 (8-1, bronze medal)
Well, there’s only one thing to remember from Brazil, and that’s losing. It sucked at the time. We were all very disappointed because throughout the whole tournament it wasn’t like we were playing bad. We were playing really well. We were pretty much winning games handedly, easily. It was just that one night. But, especially for Dee (Taurasi) and I, and Tamika Catchings as well, we were kind of youngish, but oldish. We had experience, but it was really our first time as starters, as leaders. I think it showed us that all it takes is one night. One bad night. Since then, it really motivated us and propelled us to where we are right now. And maybe without that loss, we don’t win gold in Beijing. We don’t go on to win gold in Czech Republic or in London. You never know.
Czech Republic (9-0, gold medal)
That was great. On and off the floor, that was just a fun trip. What I remember about that is Czech getting to the finals, and the crowd being crazy in that game. Their president was there. They were just happy to be there. For us, it was still business as usual. But the environment itself was really special. It was fun. It was a lot of fun to play in that arena that night.