By Jim Reilly, WNBA.com
Sue Bird is back on board to point the way to an unprecedented fifth straight gold medal for the U.S. Women's National Basketball Team.
The 31-year-old point guard for the WNBA's Seattle Storm was temporarily away from the squad during exhibition games last week due to the untimely death of her stepfather, but Bird jetted out to Istanbul to rejoin her teammates for a pair of tune-up matches against Croatia and Turkey -- both victories -- and is now slated to lead the team from the point guard position when the London Olympic Games tip-off this weekend.
"In a way, this is kind of my normal routine, being with a team, being around these guys," said Bird after playing 19 minutes, scoring eight points and dishing out five assists in a 109-55 victory over Croatia. "It feels real good to get back to that. It was obviously also really good to be home with my family and my mom last week."
U.S. Head Coach Geno Auriemma, who coached Bird to two National Championships at the University of Connecticut, has been effusive in his praise of Bird in interviews leading up to the Olympics.
"She's not just the best point guard in America right now, Sue is the best point guard in the world right now," said Auriemma. "She's a tremendous ballhandler and passer. She just sees the game, she understands it and she understands people. She knows what she has to do to get other teammates to play their best. She's a great leader. She has a tremendous amount of credibility. And she knows what it takes to win."
While Bird should slot right back into the lineup in time for the U.S. Team's first Olympic game on Saturday, July 28 against the same Croatian team they faced in Istanbul, the depth of the U.S. roster was highlighted during her absence, when Minnesota Lynx point guard Lindsay Whalen earned Player of the Game honors for her efforts in the July 16 exhibition victory over Brazil.
"When Lindsay has the ball and she's dribbling it, it's like she's always looking to move the chains. When she's pushing the ball up the floor, there are a lot of people getting out of her way,” said Auriemma. "I wasn't sure whether or not she would have the respect of all of these great players because she's not Sue. She's not Diana [Taurasi]. She's not Tamika [Catchings]. She doesn't have that kind of reputation. But she's earned the respect of every one of these players and everyone on the coaching staff, for sure."
An eight-year veteran of the WNBA, Whalen is competing for her first gold medal this summer in London, while Bird, along with fellow tri-captains Diana Taurasi and Tamika Catchings, is shooting for her third consecutive gold, having secured the coveted hardware in Athens 2004 and Beijing 2008.
"It never gets old, representing your country. It's an honor every team you're selected and while the experiences of Athens and Beijing were tremendous, it's down to business now, which is winning the gold medal in 2012," said Bird when asked to compare her past Olympic success to this year's attempt. "We know the target is on our back this year, because of the success of past teams. This year's team is extremely talented, just as talented as the other Olympic teams I've played on. And with that talent, this team is very unselfish -- nobody cares about stats -- and very committed to one thing, winning the gold."
One challenge the U.S. Team must face is the comparatively small window of preparation. Other teams, including Australia and Brazil, have had virtually their full squads together training for the London Olympic Games for the past two months, while the U.S. Team had two practice sessions in Seattle in May and didn't meet up again until July 14 in Washington D.C.
Bird acknowledged the disparity but was resolute in her thinking that it cannot be used an excuse.
"It is what it is, the scheduling is out of our control," said Bird. "It was a challenge in 2004 and a challenge in 2008 and again this year. With the talent we have, nobody will be feeling sorry for us. We'll just need to focus on what we need to do leading up to the Games and come together as a team and outplay our opponents. Simple as that."