SAITAMA, Japan — It was the perfect moment. As Sue Bird was recalling the cockiness Diana Taurasi had when she arrived at the University of Connecticut decades ago, Taurasi was swigging champagne directly from the bottle.
If anything had changed in 21 years, it was impossible to tell.?
In public at least, Bird always says the right thing, and Taurasi, well, she can be a little sarcastic. On the court, according to Team USA coach Dawn Staley, Bird has more to say, but when Taurasi talks it’s always from the heart.
On Sunday, these two women won their fifth Olympic gold medal as the United States beat Japan 90-75, a testament to their greatness, leadership and longevity. And they did it together, something they've been doing for over two decades.
Bird was a junior at UConn when Taurasi arrived in 2000, and their first championship together came the next year, when the Huskies went 39-0 en route to the NCAA title. In the years since, they've played together professionally in Moscow and as members of Team USA stood atop the medal podium for the Olympics and world championships in Greece, China, the Czech Republic, the United Kingdom, Turkey, Brazil, Spain and now Japan.
There may not be a greater pair of teammates in sports.
"She had such a cocky confidence, like brash on the court," Bird said. "But on the court we've always vibed, from Day One. We complement each other really well, our personalities are such where there's a complement, our games are such that there's a complement, and then through the years that grew and continued to grow."
It stretches beyond an on-court relationship. They've become best friends.
"Over 20 years with this trust factor that goes beyond playing the game of basketball, and you don't get that with a lot of people in life, where you can trust someone with everything," Taurasi said. "I'm just happy I have someone like that."
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Bird may be 40 and Taurasi 39, but being on a fifth Olympic team wasn't just honoring two players who have given so much to USA Basketball and letting them have one last swan song. In the gold medal game, Taurasi played 30 of 40 minutes and Bird 23. They weren't the big scorers, but they didn't need to be.
They learned long ago that being part of a team that has now won seven straight Olympic tournaments requires checking your ego at the door.?
"What makes USA Basketball what it is is there are going to be times, whether I'm talking a game, I'm talking in a career, I'm talking within a game, where someone's going to have to carry you," Bird said, "and then there are times where you're going to have to help someone else, and that's what it's about.
"In '04 I was there to learn and take the torch from [head coach Dawn Staley] and carry it. And those older players taught us what it meant, and now for us, hopefully we left some sort of legacy with the younger players where they can now carry that torch. To be sitting here now, after going through 20 years of that, it's amazing."
But maintaining the global dominance of USA women's basketball comes with pressure.?
"I'm not gonna miss the stress," Bird said. "You go to sleep the night before a game and you're thinking, 'Oh God, what play should I call?' and thinking about what's gonna happen here and just — there are so many things that swirl in your head, and there's a relief that's going to happen for me, because with USA Basketball, we can't tell you, there is a lot of pressure. I don't think I'm going to miss that.
"And then in the same breath ... that's what makes it great."
So great are Taurasi and Bird that Staley said Sunday — seemingly joking at first, but then affirmed on follow-up — that she won't be head coach for the 2024 Olympics.?
"I'll say this too: I'm done as well," Staley said. "I don't know who else is going to sit on this podium in 2024. Without them, I'm not."
"This consumed us," Taurasi said. "It's not like we just came out here and put the jersey on, and we think we're gonna win.?
"I'm sure coach Staley too — this consumes us. We think about it every single minute of the day. Sue's thinking about plays, coach is thinking about substitutions, I'm thinking about drinking champagne. There's a lot that goes on."
And with that, the champagne bottle was at her feet, ready for another sip, for five gold medals and the job incomparably done.
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