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Bird Looks Forward to Olympic Challenge

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Kevin Pelton, | June 2, 2008
When USA Basketball announced the first nine core members of the USA's roster for the 2008 Beijing Olympics, that Sue Bird was amongst the group was no surprise. Bird was on the roster for the 2004 Athens Olympics during her third WNBA season and has been the top U.S. point guard over the last two years. Still, to have her selection officially confirmed and made public a couple weeks after she was initially told was still meaningful to her.

"It's exciting, it's an honor," Bird said. "Talking about it never gets old."

Bird and the other eight players named to the U.S. roster for the Olympics, along with USA Head Coach Anne Donovan, have a challenge in front of them. The U.S. heads to Beijing as the three-time defending Olympic gold medalists, but the rest of the world has rapidly been gaining ground. The USA took home bronze in the 2006 World Championships after Russia ended its 50-game unbeaten streak in major international tournaments in the semifinal round of the tournament. More recently, the U.S. Women lost twice in the Good Luck Beijing Tournament held in China in April, including a defeat at the hands of the hosts in the gold-medal game.

"I think we're going to be very tough to beat."
Aaron Last/Storm Photos
From Bird's perspective, the addition of young players like WNBA rookies Sylvia Fowles and Candace Parker balances a U.S. roster that also includes stalwarts Lisa Leslie (winner of three gold medals) and Katie Smith (a two-time gold medalists).

"I think we've got a good mix of players who have been there before and players who are young but bring a new energy," Bird said. "You look at Candace and Sylvia - they don't have the Olympic experience that some of the other players do, but the way they play - for Sylvia, just her physical stature. For Candace, her ability to fill up a boxscore from points to rebounds to assists to steals, blocked shots, you name it. They just bring so much to our team.

"I think we're going to be very tough to beat. That said, we definitely won't have the training time that the other teams do, so that will be the one thing we'll have to overcome."

USA Basketball gathered several times over the off-season, first qualifying for the Olympics in the 2007 FIBA Americas Championship before participating in the FIBA World League Tournament, conducting a tour with games against top NCAA teams, playing two exhibition games in Spain against top club teams and wrapping up with the Good Luck Beijing Tournament. However, the roster of players changed from one tournament to the next, and the 12 players who ultimately will make up the USA Olympic Team will be playing together as a group for the first time when the team gathers to train in August.

Bird played for the U.S. in the World League Tournament and the college tour as well as the FIBA Americas Championship, and found the experience valuable.

"I know that maybe the rosters we had weren't the exact team, but I really feel like whoever you're playing with, to get out there with that USA Basketball uniform on is good," said Bird. "There was a tournament in Russia (the World League Tournament) where it was pretty much the backcourt - me, Katie, Diana (Taurasi), Cappie (Pondexter) and Seimone (Augustus) were all there. I felt like we were really able to get some very valuable minutes together as a group in the backcourt, not to mention Kara Lawson got to play with us, all the post players that we had there got that experience. It's not the whole team, but the training can be useful."

During the college tour, Leslie made her return to the USA roster after sitting out the 2006 World Championships and the FIBA Americas Tournament. The addition of the veteran center could make a big difference for the U.S.

"Lisa's playing really well," Bird said. "I've seen them on TV a couple of times, L.A. She's someone who knows how to win - she's a winner. She knows how to get it done. She knows how to be a leader. She's been to the Olympics - this is her fourth now. She knows what to expect. It's going to be tremendously valuable for us to have her back - not just points and rebounds, though those things are good too, but her presence."

Bird herself now deserves to be considered one of the USA's veterans. After primarily watching behind more experienced point guards Dawn Staley and Shannon Johnson in the 2004 Olympics, Bird has now taken over as the starting point for the U.S. She consciously kept an eye on Staley and Johnson four years ago and soaked in the atmosphere of the Olympics, a learning process that has continued as a starter in the last two major international competitions.

"When I was there (in Athens), I wanted to learn, get as much experience as I could, knowing that hopefully in time I would get my chance," Bird explained. "I felt at the World Championships I learned a lot, in Chile I learned a lot. This Olympics, I'm very ready for the challenge."

As the point guard, Bird is naturally thrust into a leadership role with the U.S. team.

"No matter what team you're on, whether it's an Olympic team, WNBA team, CYO team, high school team, when you're the point guard you're always a leader in some regards," she said. "You have to be. You're the one who's the extension of the coach on the floor and has got to make sure everybody is on the same page. That's something I learned from watching Dawn, the way she interacted with her teammates."

Until the WNBA begins its month-long break for the Olympics - the Storm's final game before the break is July 27 against Sacramento at KeyArena - Bird will focus on the task ahead of her. However, as she looks ahead to this summer, she is ready for the competition that awaits her in Beijing.

"I feel prepared," said Bird. "I know the international game very well, I know the teams that we're going to be playing very well and I know my teammates as well. I'm just going to go out there and run the team and do the best I can at that position."