The torch is passed at the culmination of the 2004 Olympics. Stuart Hannagan/Getty Images
Bird Steps to Forefront for USA
By the time the medal rounds of the 2004 Athens Olympics rolled around, Seattle Storm point guard Sue Bird had been reduced to the role of overqualified observer. With veterans Dawn Staley and Shannon Johnson running the point for the U.S. women, Bird did not play in the team's semifinal victory over Russia before getting on the floor for the final minute of a win over Australia in the gold-medal game. Not that Bird was complaining, mind you, having gotten to enjoy the Olympics and return with a gold medal. Beijing, however, promises to be very different.
"My role is different," said Bird before joining the U.S. National Team to train in Palo Alto. "I'll hopefully start and play a lot more minutes - although I think it's pretty easy to beat 30 seconds compared to my last Olympics, so I'll play a lot more minutes."
Swoopes, now Bird's backcourt-mate with the Storm, believes her young teammate is ready to lead the U.S. at the point.
"Sue's been there," Swoopes said. "Sue knows what it takes. When we were in Athens, Sue was one of the younger players and she was playing behind Dawn and she had other players that she could look up to and could kind of lead her. Now Sue is one of those leaders. She's been there; she knows what it's going to take."
Bird's debut as the starting point guard for the U.S. women came two years ago in the FIBA World Championships in Brazil. Bird played well in the tournament, leading all players with 41 assists and ranking fourth on the team in scoring at 7.7 points per game. However, the enduring memory from Brazil is of a 75-68 loss to Russia in the semifinals, dashing gold-medal hopes and ending the USA's 50-game winning streak in major international competition.
To successfully defend their gold medal, Bird and the U.S. women must overcome not only Russia but an Australian squad that took advantage of the USA's loss to win the World Championships.
"As a team, it's going to be a challenge," said Bird. "We got beat in the World Championships. Everybody's talking about every other country besides us. I'm excited for that. It's going to be very rewarding to hopefully be standing at the end with a gold medal around my neck."
If the U.S. does end up winning gold, Bird will surely be a key player. She goes into the Olympics playing some of the best basketball of her career. While Bird was mired in a shooting slump early in the season, she has been aggressive throughout the year, forcing opposing defenses to fear her as a scorer as well as a passer. Already, Bird is within two free-throw attempts of her best season since 2004, and her 13.5 points per game are her highest scoring average since her rookie campaign. Bird also leads the WNBA with 5.6 assists per game.
"I realized that this is a big year, for me and for the U.S. National Team," Bird told reporters in Beijing Thursday. "I really wanted to focus, to get back to the basics, which is as simple as shooting a little extra after practice. And just get my head right because I feel as if I’m a mental player more than (a) physical (one). I’m not the tallest, I’m probably not the quickest, but with my brain I can make my impact. I just wanted to focus on that and get back to how I was playing a couple of years ago."
During this week's pre-Olympic FIBA Diamond Ball Tournament, Bird maintained that level of play. She had 11 points on 5-of-6 shooting in a 71-67 win over Australia that could have been a preview of the eventual gold-medal game. On the strength of 8.0 points per game, 64.3 percent shooting and just three turnovers in 68 minutes, Bird was named to the All-Tournament Team.
Bird played 30 minutes against Australia, second amongst U.S. players after Taurasi, and that figures to continue throughout the Olympics. Though Kara Lawson, Cappie Pondexter and Katie Smith are capable of playing the position, Bird is the only true point guard on the USA's roster for Beijing. That makes her role as the team's on the floor paramount.
"She's done her work and she's prepared to take the torch on this team and lead them," Donovan told WNBA.com. "I'm very much relying on Sue."
There should be some chance for Bird to enjoy the Olympics as a fan. She hopes to get out on off days and see some of the other athletes compete in track and field, swimming or soccer. Undoubtedly, there will be indelible memories off the court.
"Last time, it was definitely Opening Ceremonies," she recalled. "Dawn was voted to carry the flag and lead our entire contingent into the stadium, and that was incredible. Even though we probably won't be in the front this time, it will be amazing - just meeting the other athletes, seeing the other events, the entire experience of it."
Ultimately, however, Bird has work to do. In her role as starting point guard, the Olympics won't be a success unless she helps lead the USA to a fourth consecutive gold medal.
"The first time, I was there for the experience," Bird said. "This time, I'm there for one reason and one reason only."