SAITAMA, JAPAN — Seattle Storm guard Sue Bird became the oldest basketball player in the 85-year history of the sport at the Olympic Games to win gold.
The 40-year-old veteran, playing in her 157th game for the United States, also captured her fifth Olympic championship, tying her for most all-time with American teammate Diana Taurasi.
A starter in Team USA’s 90-75 win over host nation Japan on Sunday, Bird finished with seven points, three rebounds and three assists in 25 minutes. The U.S. women tied a record for team sports by securing their seventh consecutive gold medal.
“I couldn’t have asked for a better ending,” Bird said. “I feel so proud to wear this uniform as long as I have.”
Bird was one of three Storm players competing for the Americans in Sunday’s game. Power forward Breanna Stewart stuffed the stat sheet with 12 points, 14 rebounds, five assists, four steals and three blocks, and guard Jewell Loyd tallied three points, an assist and a steal.
The U.S. took advantage of a tremendous height advantage over Japan, outscoring the host nation 58-40 in the paint and blocking 12 shots. The game was never really close — the Americans raced ahead to a 18-5 lead six minutes into the opening quarter and never looked back. Leading by as much as 25 points in the fourth quarter, the Americans were still ahead by 20 with just over a minute left.
“We wanted to make sure we set the tone early,” Stewart said. “We know how Japan wanted to play and really try to get them out of their comfort zone.”
Brittney Griner led all scorers with 30 points and fellow U.S. center A’ja Wilson added 19 points. Maki Takada led Japan with 17 points on 7-for-13 shooting and Nako Motohashi made four of her five shots behind the arc to finish with 16 points in just 19 minutes.
Stewart, a two-time WNBA Finals MVP with the Storm, was arguably the most impactful player on the loaded U.S. squad in Tokyo. The versatile 6-foot-4 forward grabbed 10 rebounds per game and was a consistent force on both sides of the ball. After scoring just nine points in the Americans’ pool play opener against Nigeria, the 26-year-old Stewart responded with games of 15 and 17 points.
Her best outing before Sunday’s gold-medal game came in a crucial quarterfinals match against Australia, which beat the U.S. earlier last month during an exhibition game in Las Vegas. Stewart had a team-high 23 points in just 23 minutes go with a pair of blocks and a steal in that game, leading the Americans to a 73-56 rout on August 4. The Olympics, unlike the semiannual basketball World Cup, does not give out an MVP award.
Loyd, the Storm’s first overall selection in the 2015 WNBA draft, had an up-and-down ride on the court during her debut Olympics. She averaged 23 minutes and just over seven points per game in pool play wins over Nigeria, Japan and France. But she struggled to find her shot in the final three games and committed a team-high eight turnovers during that span. Loyd saw her playing time reduced to a tournament-low 11 minutes in the final.
“I’m just honored to be a part of this,” Loyd said. “To have a role in a gold-medal team and representing your country is something most girls can only dream of.”
Bird, a 12-time WNBA all-star and holder of numerous league records including assists and games played, confirmed last month that Tokyo will be her last time competing in the Olympics. She started all six contests for the U.S. and averaged 5.5 points on 45% shooting from behind the arc to go with 5.8 assists, 2.5 rebounds and 1.5 steals in 25 minutes per game. She finished her record 157-game international career averaging five points, 3.7 assists, 2.2 rebounds and 1.1 steals per contest.
Bird seems to always have an infectious smile on her face, but the one at the end of Sunday’s final was glowing even by her lofty standards. She shared an embrace with Taurasi, her Olympic teammate since 2004, then another with fiancé and OL Reign captain Megan Rapinoe, who sneaked into the Saitama Super Arena with a media credential to join one of the largest crowds at the COVID-restricted Tokyo Olympics.
Members of the U.S. men’s basketball team sat together with coach Gregg Popovich to cheer on the women, and hundreds of Olympic volunteers also dotted the massive indoor venue. The cheering coming from the stands was the closest resemblance of what would normally be a packed arena during the 16 days of competition in Japan.
Asked what she would miss about the Olympics, Bird said the camaraderie she developed on bus rides with her teammates and the inside jokes that spawned over the years would be “impossible to replace.”
But she won’t miss the stress of being a leader on the world’s top-ranked international squad. Bird admitted the pressure she felt to win gold every four years became mentally taxing.
“This consumes us,” she said. “We don’t just come out here and put the jersey on and think we’re going to win. We think about this every single minute of the day.
“It’s always difficult to win a gold medal, but this year was even harder given all of the adversity we went through here,” she added. “I couldn’t be more happy.”