Sue Bird Will Pass The Torch, But To Whom?
There are days when point guard Sue Bird believes that she can play basketball for another 10 years. There are others when she wants to give it all up and move on to the next chapter of her life.
Bird, though, is not yet ready to walk away. She recently signed a multi-year contract with the Seattle Storm of the WNBA. And, at 35, she is preparing to lead USA Basketball in the Olympic Games this summer in Rio de Janeiro for the fourth time in her highly decorated career.
"I’m not going to lie … (Retirement) crosses my mind,’’ Bird said. "And I think that’s normal because physically it starts to take its toll. But I really just try to control what I can, which is take care of my body, eat the right foods at the right time and make sure that I’m in shape. I don’t have any plans of retiring any time soon.’’
Bird has been a mainstay with the USA National Team since joining the program shortly after playing her final game at UConn in April of 2002. She has since won three Olympic gold medals, three gold medals in FIBA World Championship play, one FIBA World Championship bronze medal and a FIBA Americas Championship gold medal.
Along with Teresa Edwards and Dawn Staley, Bird has ensured that USA Basketball has not had to worry about exploring different options at the point guard position. However, that time is drawing near. And USA head coach Geno Auriemma currently does not see a player ready to succeed Bird should this be the final time she competes in the Olympics.
"Right now there is no clear cut person that you would say that’s the next one,’’ Auriemma said. "It was easy when (Bird) was coming out because whoever they had – Teresa Edwards, Dawn Staley, that group – and Sue was coming out. They brought her over there, her and (Diana Taurasi), and said, 'OK, these are the next two.’ It’s not that easy right now to go, 'OK, here it is.’ Because if it was they’d be on the team this year. But in the next two years somebody’s going to have to emerge between now and the World Championship in 2018.’’
Bird (24-0), Edwards (31-1) and Staley (24-0) are a combined 79-1 with 10 gold medals all-time in 11 Olympic Games. The U.S. won bronze in 1992.
Edwards, along with Lisa Leslie, holds the U.S. Olympic record for games played with 32 (1984, 1988, 1992, 1996, 2000). Edwards is also the U.S. career leader in assists (143) and steals (59) at the Olympics.
Staley is tied for third in Olympic games played with 24 (1996, 2000, 2004). She is second all-time in assists (80) and eighth in steals (28).
Bird, too, has played in 24 games (2004, 2008, 2012) and is currently fourth in assists (58), 10 behind Sheryl Swoopes.
This is the lineage of greatness that players such as Skylar Diggins, Jewell Loyd, who is primarily a two-guard, Danielle Robinson and Courtney Vandersloot face as they attempt to position themselves to at some point take the reins for the USA.
"There are players that have some of the attributes,’’ Staley said. "I haven’t seen a complete one yet. And I think that’s a big question mark because every point guard that has been the leader for our USA Basketball team had someone that was their understudy. But Sue has done such a great job. And then with Lindsay Whalen, they’re both around the same age so it was hard to bring an understudy under their wing because they were just so solid at the position. So it’s crazy that we’re in this position. There’s some out there, though. They just need the experience. And, unfortunately, because Lindsay and because Sue did such a great job it’s hard to beat them out as a youngster.’’
Loyd, 22, Robinson, 26, and Vandersloot, 27, are all currently participating in the USA Women’s National Team’s three-day training camp at the Werth Family UConn Basketball Champions Center.
Diggins, 25, is recovering from a torn anterior cruciate ligament in her right knee and is not in camp. Neither is 23-year-old Dallas Wings teammate Odyssey Sims, who did not play overseas this season to instead allow a left knee injury to fully heal.
"It’s a duty of service,’’ Staley said. "You’re serving other people. It’s selflessness. It’s all the intangibles it takes for a team to be successful. And that’s hard because some of the younger point guards they’re more scoring point guards. And because they think being aggressive and getting their shot off and to get in the flow, they miss a step when it comes to being the fourth or fifth option on a USA Basketball National Team level. So it takes adjusting. It takes an adjustment for some of the younger players.’’
Robinson and Vandersloot are among four players in women’s college basketball history to total 2,000 points, 700 assists and 300 steals. 1976 Olympic silver medalist Nancy Lieberman and Staley are the others.
Robinson competed for the USA National Team during its 2015 European Tour, averaging 3.8 points and 2.5 assists in four games. Vandersloot averaged 4.8 points and 1.5 assists during the tour.
Both players are looking to make the U.S. Olympic Team for the first time.
"It’s great to have not only Sue here, but Way (Lindsay Whalen) here showing us the ropes, showing us how to the lead the team of all these talented players,’’ Robinson said. "But I’m coming in here confident, just soaking up as much as possible and just playing my game and knowing that I’m not going to be Sue Bird. I’m going to be Danielle Robinson. I can lead a team as well.’’
Bird said that she has been impressed with what she has seen from Vandersloot. The two spent a great deal of time together in Spain, Italy and the Czech Republic this fall, talking about the position and being a member of the National Team.
"Over the last year or so, I really feel like Courtney Vandersloot has done a great job,’’ Bird said. "She brings a really good mix of running a team and also being a threat and creating. And I think as the point guard on the National Team you have to have a really good balance of that because you’re surrounded by the best. So you really just want to make sure they’re doing the right thing at the right time, to have a really good feel for when you can just let them go and when it’s like, 'Alright, we need to run a play.’ So I really see her kind of stepping up into that role in the last year or so. And I know she wants it. I know she really wants it and I think she’s really focused on it.’’
Vandersloot admitted that her eyes are locked on Bird when she is on the court. She has taken mental notes of Bird’s on-court demeanor and the manner in which she continually impacts the game without necessarily having the ball in her hands all the time.
"There’s a lot of players out here that demand a lot of attention and her job is just really to control the team and keep everything under control,’’ Vandersloot said. "And that’s one thing that I’ve learned from her is to be able to kind of lead without the ball more than you would on other teams.’’
Potentially assuming the role of starting point guard for USA Basketball in the future is something that both Robinson and Vandersloot are targeting. Both players are confident in their ability. Both players seemed poised to accept the challenge if called upon.
"I would love to think that,’’ Vandersloot said. "It’s been real nice coming from Seattle watching Sue like just run this team and how much success she’s had and really just learn from her since I’ve been here since college. So I think this is a good opportunity for not just me but the other young point guards to step in and kind of fill those shoes.’’