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Bird Front and Center for USA Olympic Team

Kevin Pelton, StormBasketball.com | July 24, 2012

Sue Bird remembers a moment of brief terror. It was 2004, her first Olympics, and Bird was in her words "the backup to the backup." She was prepared to soak in the excitement of the gold-medal game against Australia when starter Dawn Staley picked up two early fouls. With reserve Shannon Johnson feeling ill, Bird confronted the possibility of being forced into action with gold on the line.

"There was this part of me that was like, 'Oh, man. I haven't played in like five games and I could have to go in for the gold-medal game,'" Bird recalled recently. "Otherwise, I just had the luxury of learning and enjoying the experience."

Ultimately, Staley avoided further fouls and Johnson was able to play through her sickness, meaning Bird did not get on the court until the USA was running out its win over Australia. Eight years later, as Bird prepares for her third Olympics, her role is entirely different. She has already won a second gold medal, in 2008, as a starter. Now, with the veterans who helped start America's dominance of the international basketball landscape in 1996 in Atlanta retired, Bird finds herself one of the most experienced members of the team headed to London.

Sue Bird during the 2008 Olympics.
Garrett Ellwood/NBAE/Getty Images

Bird's experience at the last two Olympics can help her younger teammates know what to expect.

Along with fellow starters Tamika Catchings and Diana Taurasi, Bird is one of three USA players going for her third gold medal. Bird and Catchings boast the longest tenure with the national team, going back to the 2002 FIBA World Championship a decade ago. That, along with her role as starting point guard, makes Bird a leader.

"I think it's just kind of a natural progression," she said. "You become one of the older players and you feel like you might need to take on more of a leadership role. I think just by nature of my position, my role is similar to 2008. It hasn't changed too, too much, but as an older player I do feel some responsibility to help with a tidbit here or there to younger players who are experiencing it for the first time."

USA Head Coach Geno Auriemma has counted on Bird, Catchings and Taurasi in leadership roles.

"As you start looking at your team and you look at the core, your foundation of the team, Sue, Diana and Tamika are really at the core," Auriemma said in March when the first 11 players of the USA roster were selected. "They are the backbone of the team. They are the ones who have been there the longest. They have gone through it from their youngest days when they were rookies, trying to make their way in USA Basketball at the Olympic level to now they're the seasoned veterans.

"We're going to rely an awful lot on them for their leadership and their experience. They're three of the most competitive human beings I've ever met. I feel really, really good about those three."

Bird's relationship with Auriemma, dating back to their two championships at the University of Connecticut, adds to her comfort level. The USA Olympic team features six former Huskies in all - Bird, Taurasi, Swin Cash, Tina Charles, Asjha Jones and Maya Moore. Bird played with Cash, Jones and Taurasi, and practiced with Charles and Moore when they were in college and she returned to campus for visits. On a team that doesn't have the luxury of months of training before the Olympics because the U.S. players are busy with the WNBA, those bonds are an asset.

"I'm very comfortable playing for (Geno), very familiar with his style," Bird said. "I understand him as a coach and what he wants from his players. I think a lot of people talk about, 'Oh, there's six UConn players,' but we can help that chemistry move even quicker because we are familiar with him."

Before gathering for training camp on July 14, the 12-player Olympic roster had been together for just one weekend in Seattle in May - time for a practice, an exhibition win over China at KeyArena and a scrimmage against Canada. However, everyone on the roster has experience representing the USA in major competitions. 10 of the 12 players were part of the team that won the FIBA World Championship in the Czech Republic under Auriemma two years ago. Seimone Augustus and Candace Parker, who were battling injuries, were not part of that group, but both won gold medals in 2008 in Beijing with Bird and three other members of the 2012 team.

In the midst of preparing for the Olympics, Bird returned home following the death of her mother's long-time partner Dennis Burden, a stepfather figure to her. She missed two USA exhibitions before returning to the team last weekend for the final two tune-ups in Turkey with a heavy heart. Bird told the Associated Press that she never considered missing the Olympics.

"If I had a penny for every time somebody at the wake or funeral said to me Dennis wants you to go win a gold medal ... ," Bird said. "I know I was where I was supposed to be the last week and I feel like I'm where I'm supposed to be now."

While other teams may have spent more time together leading up to the Olympics, the USA can rely on a dazzling array of talent. The Olympic roster includes three WNBA MVPs and eight of the 10 members of last year's All-WNBA Teams. Three members of the All-WNBA First Team will come off the bench for Auriemma.

"When you look, top to bottom, there's really no weakness," said Bird. "I think we're very deep and that's going to play to our advantage, hopefully. While these other teams have that chemistry, we literally go 12 deep. So that can definitely help us."

"Having her as our starting point guard is something other countries do not have."
- Meadors

Of course, Bird herself is a big part of that talent advantage. Auriemma and USA Assistant Coach Marynell Meadors both recently called Bird the best point guard in the world. While countries like rival Australia can come close to matching the U.S. in the frontcourt, the team's depth at the point with Bird and Lindsay Whalen is a major strength.

"Having her as our starting point guard is something other countries do not have," said Meadors, also the head coach of the Atlanta Dream.

In international play, Bird is more than happy to function primarily as a distributor, setting up the stars around her in the USA lineup. In 2008, Bird averaged just 3.0 points per game, but the success of the American attack as a whole was a better indication of her value to the team. Gold medals will be the lasting symbol of Bird's important role for USA Basketball. If the USA triumphs in London as expected, Bird (and Catchings and Taurasi) will join five other American women with at least three gold medals: Teresa Edwards and Lisa Leslie (four apiece), Staley, Storm teammate Katie Smith and Sheryl Swoopes.

When she joined the national team, Bird looked up to those legends. Now she finds herself in a similar position.

"You just get older and it kind of comes with the territory," she said. "With those guys, it was probably the same thing. You start out as a younger player and work your way up. Time kind of takes care of that for you."

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