U.S. Olympic Women’s Team Enjoys Golden Ending to Tokyo Games
Sue Bird and Diana Taurasi become the first five-time Olympic basketball gold medalists, Sylvia Fowles Earns Fourth Gold
It is hard to achieve once in sports, much less across decades at the highest level of international competition.
But for Sue Bird and Diana Taurasi, Sunday at the Tokyo Olympics marked a perfect ending to an unblemished career with the U.S. Olympic Women’s Basketball Team (6-0).
The dynamic backcourt duo made Olympic history by winning their fifth gold medal as the top-ranked Americans won their team-sport record-tying seventh straight gold with a 90-75 triumph over Japan (4-2) at the Saitama Super Arena in Saitama, Japan.
“No, not in my wildest dreams,” Bird said of if she ever thought of winning five gold medals. “That's what makes it even more special. I never thought it was a possibility.”
Added Taurasi: “We were just asked, ‘What did you think in 2004 when you won your first one?’ I thought that was our last one. Fast-forward 17 years and to be able to do this five times, I think it’s a testament to USA Basketball culture, the great players we played with, coaches and staff. There’s a lot of people to thank today.”
Brittney Griner is among those people. The 6-foot-8 post player scored 30 points — a record for an American in a gold-medal game — for the U.S., which exploited its size advantage time and again. The silver is the first medal Japan has won in five Olympic appearances.
“It means a lot to me,” Griner said of her second Olympic gold medal. “A lot of people have put in a lot of hard work and dedication to get here, to get us to seven. And just to be a part of that, I'm honored.”
In addition to winning gold for the ninth time in 11 Olympic trips, it was the 55th consecutive Olympic victory for the U.S., with 38 of those coming with Bird and Taurasi on the roster. Delayed a year by the COVID-19 pandemic, Bird, 40, has said Tokyo was her last Olympics, while Taurasi, 39, has not made it official but has dealt with injuries in recent years, including her hip in the Olympics.
Bird and Taurasi broke a tie with four-time gold medalists Teresa Edwards (1984-2000, one bronze), Lisa Leslie (1996-2008) and Tamika Catchings (2004-16) and joined Edwards as the only five-time Olympic medalists in Olympic basketball history regardless of gender. Sylvia Fowles, 35, who became part of the Olympic team in the cycle after Bird and Taurasi, joined the exclusive four-gold club.
“Somewhat the same,” Fowles said of how she views her most recent piece of history, “but humbling at the same time, just to see yourself go through that switch of being the youngest and turn into a veteran and having the younger players under you come in and having to talk more and all those good things. I can say it definitely has been a whirlwind.”
The U.S. matched the record of seven straight golds in any Olympic team sport set by U.S. Olympic Men’s Basketball Teams, a streak that started with the debut of the sport in 1936 through 1968.
It also was the swan song for Carol Callan, director of the USA Basketball Women’s National Team program since its inception in 1995. She is stepping down to focus on her role as president of FIBA Americas.
A’ja Wilson had 19 points, seven rebounds, five assists and a U.S. Olympic women’s single game record five blocked shots. The team swatted 12 for a new USA women’s single-game record for blocked shots. Breanna Stewart had 14 points, 14 rebounds and five assists for the Americans, whose roster consisted of six Olympic veterans and six first-timers. There also were five WNBA MVPs among the 12 players. With Bird and Taurasi leaving, Griner, Wilson and Stewart are likely to be among the new leaders of the team.
Dawn Staley, the first Black woman to be a U.S. Olympic Women’s Basketball head coach, has been part of six Olympic teams, including three as a player and two as an assistant coach. This was her first as head coach — and, she said, her last.
“I'm done as well,” Staley said somewhat jokingly yet seriously to Bird and Taurasi. “I don't know who else is going to sit on this podium in 2024. Without them, I’m not.”
Staley is 52-2 with seven gold medals as a USA Basketball head coach at any level and 112-6 with four more golds when you include her time as an assistant.
Sunday’s victory also gave USA Basketball a perfect 3-for-3 mark at the Tokyo Olympics. The women joined the men and the inaugural women’s 3x3 teams in winning gold medals. It is the seventh time the traditional men’s and women’s teams have won gold in the same Olympics.
Griner’s 30 points were the second-most in U.S. Olympic history, behind only the 35 by Leslie on July 31, 1996, against Japan. Leslie held the previous record with 29 points in the 1996 gold-medal game.
“I think it’s the character of USA Basketball,” said Griner, who was 14-of-18 in the game. “I think it’s character for each and every lady that comes here. We put the game before ourselves, and I think you see that in how we play and just how much time we give up. So, I think that’s what the key is, just selflessness.”
Wilson, who celebrated her 25th birthday Sunday with her first Olympic gold medal, was born just days after the Atlanta Olympics ended.
Bird scored the first two points of the game and the U.S. never trailed, hitting 9-of-11 shots to open up an 18-5 lead. Griner had 10 points in the first quarter, which ended on a Jewell Loyd 3-pointer for a 23-14 lead.
Griner added eight points in the second quarter, and the U.S. shot 62.9 percent (22-35 FGs) in the first half. It was a 50-39 U.S. advantage at intermission, with Japan’s 6-of-15 3-point shooting the only reason it was that close.
As hard as Japan fought, there was no way to overcome the Americans’ size without playing a near-perfect game. With as much at stake as there was, the U.S. wasn’t going to be denied.
“People just understanding their role, not taking things personal,” Fowles said of what makes this team successful. “I think we had to put a lot of egos to the side once we stepped in this thing, because we knew we had one goal and that was to win this Olympics. And I think everybody handled themselves well. Everybody put whatever they had to put to the side and just focused on Team USA, and I think we did that well.”