Bird Has Become Veteran for USA Basketball

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Kevin Pelton, | August 17, 2009
When Seattle Storm guard Sue Bird was named Monday as one of eight players selected to the USA Basketball Women's Senior National Team for the 2009-2012 quadrennium, it made it official. Continuing the evolution of her international career, Bird is now part of the USA's old guard. Amongst the eight players who figure to make up the core of the U.S. teams in the 2010 FIBA World Championship and the 2012 Olympics, Bird and Tamika Catchings are the most experienced representing their country at the senior level. They have been part of the Senior National Team since 2002, winning a World Championship and two gold medals in that span.

"I think with time, the same way a player matures, my role with USA Basketball has done that as well," Bird said during a conference call Monday afternoon with four members of the team. "Early on, I was brought on I think to just learn. That was what my first World Championship experience felt like as well as my first Olympics. I got to learn from some great players - Dawn Staley, Sheryl Swoopes, Lisa Leslie. I can think back and remember times of them helping me, encouraging me, giving me advice. Now I feel like my role is to be that player for the younger kids and for those that are just joining the National Team program."

"I think with time, the same way a player matures, my role with USA Basketball has done that as well."
Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE/Getty Images
Amongst Bird's teammates in her first appearance for the Senior National Team in 2002, five are retired or no longer playing in the WNBA. One player, Jennifer Gillom, is now the head coach of the Minnesota Lynx. Leslie was the last link to the 1996 U.S. Olympic team that won gold in Atlanta and helped set the stage for women's basketball's rising popularity and the success of the WNBA, and she concluded her international career in Beijing by winning her fourth gold medal.

The departure of those veterans has left the leadership role to a new group, which includes Bird, Catchings and Diana Taurasi, the three players picked for the 2009-2012 National Team who have won multiple gold medals.

"I think this stuff just comes and goes in waves," explained Bird. "When I was 21 and on my first World Championship team, I was right out of college and everything was new and I had no idea what was going on, but I had those veterans to kind of lead me through.

"I think the best thing about the 2008 Olympics was just the mix we had. Obviously, it was Lisa's last year and she was by far the leader - she had been there, she had done it, she knew how to get the best out of her teammates and she played that way. We all saw that and we experienced it. I think for people like myself, Diana, Tamika Catchings, we have the experience - not only of winning but of losing. I think we can really use that now as we enter those leadership roles that Dawn, Sheryl, Lisa, Tina Thompson, they left."

As the U.S. prepares for the World Championship, which will be played next fall in the Czech Republic, a key part of that task will be translating the feeling of losing to Russia in the semifinals of the 2006 World Championships to players that were not on the team. That experience, the only loss for the USA in major international competition since 1994, remains a motivating factor for Bird as it was in last year's dominant sweep to Olympic gold.

"We lost in Brazil in 2006," she said, "and right now I think we're all very hungry to get that medal back."

The eight players selected to the National Team today were all part of the squad that won gold in Beijing, a testament to what they have accomplished wearing USA jerseys. However, more players will be added to the National Team pool for camps (starting with one this fall) and exhibition tours before the selection committee pares down to final rosters for the 2010 World Championships and, should the U.S. qualify, the 2012 Olympics. There is no guarantee that these eight players will be on those rosters. In the case of Bird, however, her experience makes it overwhelming likely Bird will be part of those teams.

For Bird, that will mean a reunion with her former UConn Head Coach Geno Auriemma, who was previously named the head coach of the U.S. Senior Women from 2009-2012.

"I am so looking forward to playing for Coach Auriemma again," said Bird. "I can definitely credit him for pretty much all the success I've had because of his what he's able to bring out of his players. He has such a unique ability of doing that. Him being named as coach, I couldn't think of anyone more deserving. I'm just really excited for the opportunity. I know it's going to be fun, I know we're going to work really hard and I know we're going to win. It's just going to be overall a wonderful experience and I'm looking forward to it."

As was the case playing for former Storm Head Coach Anne Donovan in the last quadrennium, Bird's relationship with and history playing for Auriemma will help her as well as her teammates.

"Obviously we're going to be the ones who are familiar with him, his style, possibly his gameplan and what he wants to accomplish on the court," she said. "We can kind of be a bridge. I know I felt that way with Anne Donovan as well. There are some things, whether it be as small as lingo or as big as how he might express himself at times, we can help other players. But I don't foresee there being much that needs to be done."