Joined at the Top of the Podium: Bird & Taurasi
Winning championships together has been a habit for Diana Taurasi (Phoenix Mercury) and Sue Bird (Seattle Storm) since they first cut down the nets together as University of Connecticut teammates after helping lead the Huskies to the 2002 NCAA Championship.
Bird left Connecticut with two NCAA titles and was drafted No. 1 overall by the Seattle Storm in the WNBA draft following that season. Taurasi, who was a sophomore that year, finished out her UConn career with two more titles before going No. 1 to the Phoenix Mercury in the 2004 draft.
Now the former Huskies have created a two-person, Hall-of-Fame caliber dynasty, that USA Basketball has never witnessed.
Bird and Taurasi have never played on the same WNBA team, but they’ve managed to rewrite history together over the years. The Bird-Taurasi duo has won five EuroLeague titles (2007-10, 2013), four Olympic gold medals (2004, 2008, 2012, 2016), two FIBA Women’s World Cup gold medals (2010, 2014) and a bronze in the 2006 World Cup. Bird also was a member of the 2002 World Cup gold-medal team.
Bird and Taurasi now are one victory away from winning another gold medal together after beating Belgium, 93-77, in the 2018 FIBA World Cup semifinal on Saturday evening in Tenerife, Spain. Taurasi, who was averaging 8.5 points for the tournament beforehand, led the USA with 26 points. She was just two points shy of her World Cup personal best of 28 points set in 2006.
The USA will play Australia at 3 p.m. EDT at Santiago Martin Arena in San Cristobal de La Laguna, Canary Islands. A victory would give the USA a 10th World Cup gold medal and a third consecutive championship for the first time in the 65-year history of the tournament. The Soviet Union won five straight from 1959 through 1975. The current streak of championships in 2010 and 2014 marks the fourth time the USA has won consecutive World Cup tournaments.
“When you get to this point and you have a chance at winning a gold medal, you know it’s an amazing opportunity, and it took a lot just to get here,” Bird said. “So you always want to capitalize on that. That’s how I think we’re all feeling. We know we came here for one reason, we’re right on the doorstep knocking and we just want to make the most of it.”
Bird’s fifth World Cup appearance is the most of any USA Basketball player, male or female. Taurasi is in her fourth tournament. Three men have won four World Cup medals -- Sergei Belov of the Soviet Union, Kresimir Cosic of Yugoslavia and Marques Wlamir of Brazil. But each of the men won two gold medals, one fewer than Bird.
Teresa Edwards is the only other USA Basketball player to have a combined eight medals in World Cup and Olympic competition. Earning a medal in this year’s World Cup would put Bird in a class of her own.
Her three World Cup gold medals and one bronze makes her the most decorated athlete in the men’s or women’s World Cup history. Taurasi, who has seven combined medals, has shared the court with Bird for nearly the entire ride.
“As you go through USA Basketball, a lot of players come and go,” Bird said. “But the ones that are in your generation and age group, it’s nice to continue to come back and get to play with them. For me, Diana is that person. Tamika Catchings was as well. It’s nice, there is a familiarity there.”
University of Connecticut coach Geno Auriemma coached Bird and Taurasi during their NCAA title runs, and directed them to Olympic gold medals in 2012 and 2016 and World Cup championships in 2010 and 2014.
Auriemma said the reason both have been able to sustain their success at the international level is because no one understands the game better than Bird and Taurasi. He is expected to be in the stands to watch his former players compete for Bird’s fourth and Taurasi’s third World Cup gold medals on Sunday night.
“It’s incredible for one player to do it, but it’s even more incredible for two of your players to do it,” Auriemma said. “You can’t even predict that two players that you had on the same team for two years in the same backcourt are still doing it today. Yeah, it makes me feel pretty proud.”
The connection between the 37-year-old Bird and 36-year-old Taurasi goes far beyond the chemistry on the basketball court. Family trips, catching up over dinner after the long WNBA season and the off-court memories shared during their UConn days have been a part of their nearly two-decade long friendship.
Taurasi said she cherishes every moment spent with Bird. The friendship may last for the rest of their lives, but they understand their playing days eventually will come to an end.
“Every time we step on the court together we appreciate it even more and more,” Taurasi said. “Now, in the latter part of our careers, we know that those opportunities will come less and less.”
Bird is coming off of winning her third WNBA title with the Storm after sweeping the Washington Mystics. Taurasi, who has three rings with the Mercury, lost to Bird and the Storm in a five-game semifinal series. Both Bird and Taurasi have played in hundreds of games across the WNBA, EuroLeague and international competition. Managing mental and physical fatigue is essential for veteran players working to extend their careers.
University of South Carolina and the USA Basketball National Team coach Dawn Staley said the lifestyle and diets of both players have allowed them to play at such a high level late in their careers.
“You’re looking at iconic figures in our sport,” Staley said. “We see what they do on the court, but the sacrifices they’ve added to their lifestyle should be commended, and it should be an example of what younger players should implement in their lives.”
Bird said she and Taurasi don’t talk much about this being their fourth and fifth World Cup appearance because they are too focused on the matter at hand. Australia is the only obstacle standing between another Bird and Taurasi championship celebration. Staley’s 103 career World Cup assists record for the USA also is in reach for Bird. She is one assist shy of Staley’s record after tying her single-game World Cup personal best of seven assists against Belgium.
“I think anytime you can break a record, it’s one of those things, I believe later when it’s all said and done, you’re retired, you look back and you kind of have a true appreciation,” Bird said. “This one is a little bit different in that it is someone like Dawn who’s holding it.”
Frank Bonner II is a contributor to USAB.com as part of the Sports Capital Journalism Program at IUPUI.