Bird, Taurasi begin one more tour of duty
There's no reason to think Sue Bird and Diana Taurasi won't play basketball together forever. After all, they already have.
Bird, 39, and Taurasi, 37, are paired together like Penn and Teller, like ham and cheese, like pen and paper.
They've been together since 2000-01 at Connecticut, when Bird was an increasingly savvy junior point guard and Taurasi was a promising freshman shooting guard. Both will be first ballot Hall-of-Famers after they retire. Bird, voted one of the top 20 players in WNBA history, has been a member of four gold medal teams in the Olympic Games and the World Cup. Taurasi, a nine-time WNBA All-Star, has four golds at the Olympics and three at the World Cup.
The duo first paired internationally on the 2004 U.S. Olympic team that won gold in Athens. They never were teammates in the WNBA — Bird has played 16 seasons with the Seattle Storm, Taurasi 15 campaigns with the Phoenix Mercury — but were together for seven years playing professionally overseas.
In reality, this is almost surely the last go-round for Bird and Taurasi, the cagey veterans on the U.S. national team that will play against Oregon State in Corvallis at 7 p.m. Monday and against Oregon in Eugene at 4 p.m. Saturday as part of a four-game exhibition tour against college teams.
The tour also stops at Texas A&M on Thursday night as the U.S. team begins early preparation for the Olympic Games in Tokyo next summer.
Bird and Taurasi are coming off injuries — Bird from May knee surgery and Taurasi from an April surgery to correct a disc protrusion. Each played in Team USA's 95-80 victory at Stanford on Saturday. Starting in the backcourt together, Bird had seven points and eight assists in 26 minutes while Taurasi contributed six points and three assists in 17 minutes.
The knee "is doing well," said Bird, who hadn't played a game since the 2018 World Cup, before the Stanford game. "Rehab can be a little bit of a grind. You have to have patience. When you're on the other side of it, everything is better. It's exciting to be back out there."
Taurasi is on a minutes restriction as she recovers from the back surgery.
"It's feeling better," she said. "I've turned the corner a little bit. Hopefully, on this trip it will get better day by day. I'm optimistic, but we're going to be smart about it, too."
In the Associated Press preseason college poll, Oregon is ranked No. 1, Stanford No. 3, Texas A&M No. 6 and Oregon State No. 7.
"These are all very competitive teams, so this will be good for us," Bird said. "This is the time for our younger players to get national team experience, and these college exhibitions are a good chance for us to be seen by a variety of fan bases."
The U.S. national team players don't want to lose against a college team, though the real goal is to run the consecutive streak for Olympic championships to seven in Tokyo.
"The pressure is to win gold medals," Bird said. "Nobody wants to be on the team that loses, to fail to carry on the tradition. That's what motivates us.
"That's what great about these exhibition games. It gives you a taste of what it's going to be like. People will be excited to see is, but they'll be rooting for their college teams. It's fun and it will help prepare us for Tokyo. We've had just one practice together (before the Stanford game), so we'll learn something about ourselves."
The college opposition will get the best the U.S. team has to offer.
"That's the one thing we're conscious about," Taurasi said. "We go into any competition with the mentality that we have to play harder and better than anyone else. That mind-set is the consequence of always being the top dog. We go into every tournament wanting to prove ourselves. We never settle."
Bird and Taurasi expect to get a test when they visit Corvallis and Eugene.
"With Oregon, I'm sure they feel like they had a disappointing loss in the Final Four last year," Bird said. "Coming off of that, they're really motivated. But it's tough when you're No. 1. You have a target on your back. It's an experience they've never had.
"With Oregon State, Scott (Rueck) always had his team incredibly prepared. They're going to be even better than last year. (Destiny) Slocum has another year under her belt, and there's a lot of other talent on that team. Both teams are primed to have a good season."
Bird chuckled, adding, "I'm just hoping they take it easy on us."
Bird is looking forward to going against Oregon senior Sabrina Ionescu, the 2018-19 National Player of the Year.
"The word on the street is she will be the No. 1 pick in the WNBA draft," Bird said. "What I like about her game is she can make plays. She sees the floor so well. She gets her teammates involved and she can score. At the next level, you have to be able to do both and have an impact on the game. You get both of those things from Sabrina. She's a terrific player and a very competitive kid."
Added Taurasi: "They're both programs that have done an amazing job the last couple of years, putting themselve in the top five and into national championship contention. It's remarkable what they've been able to do. We're excited to play them. This trip for us is about chemistry and playing time, and we get to do that against some of the best teams in the country."
The U.S. team is without some of its best players, including Elena Delle Donne, who is out with back injury, and Breanna Stewart, recovering from Achilles tendon surgery.
"But our national team is always incredibly talented," Bird said. "People say we could field a second team (in international competition) and win a gold and silver medal. When someone goes down, it gives some others an opportunity. These exhibition games are great for us and for our younger players, to get a taste of it and show what they can do."
Winning four gold medals at the Olympics has stoked Bird's fire to get a fifth.
"It's been crazy," she said. "Each of the four has its own story line. To play in the Olympics was really exciting to me growing up. It was the end all/be all for me — to win gold. That was how I evaluated what it meant to make it.
"With each Olympics, my role changed, and I became a more experienced player, a veteran. But it's all the same in one respect. The chance to represent the country, to be selected as one of the top 12 in the U.S. considering how much talent we have — it's special to be amongst that group."
Bird and Taurasi cherish that they have been able to enjoy the ride together.
"We have a chemistry on the floor, and we're close friends off the floor," Bird said. "It's the best of both worlds. When we're out there, it's easy to play with one another, we're so familiar with each other's games. It's been great to have these experiences and be able to go through it all with a friend. There are lots of happy memories."
"You don't get to do this very often in life — share your career with one of your best friends," Taurasi said. "We've been able to do it every level. I like to think that not only do we make each other better better players, but also better people."
Bird and Taurasi expect to play next season in the WNBA. They both realize Tokyo almost surely will be their swan song in Olympic competition.
"I'm realistic," Taurasi said. "I'll be 38 in June. I've had a good run. I'm looking forward to making sure these next couple of months to get my body right so I'm able to enjoy getting one last run."
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