Teammates at UConn and with Team USA and rivals in the WNBA, the two guards have become the gold standard at their position -- in wildly contrasting styles.
The evolutionary track of WNBA guards will someday stem from the league’s all-time leaders in points and assists.
There’s the Diana Taurasi model: flamboyant, dominant and entertaining. An insatiable quick-strike scorer with incredible range whose intense will to win is fueled and sometimes undermined by her volatile temperament.
And there’s the Sue Bird model: smaller, cerebral and savvy. A consummate playmaker who looks as if she floats when she runs around giants on the court and delivers pinpoint passes with uncanny aplomb and acumen.
Like most comparisons, contrasting Taurasi and Bird is an oversimplification of the best and worst of their attributes.
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But there’s no disputing their impact on women’s basketball since teaming up at the University of Connecticut and leading the Huskies to a 39-0 record en route to the 2002 NCAA championship.
“I’ve always said that year in 2002, that was the best backcourt in the history of women’s college basketball, pro basketball, any kind of basketball,” UConn coach Geno Auriemma said last year. “Time will prove that. … You’ll never find that ever again.”
It’s why Auriemma is savoring this WNBA semifinals between Bird’s top-seeded Storm and Taurasi’s No. 5 Phoenix Mercury, in which his former players have been the chief architects of a pair of thrilling contests.
True to form, Taurasi has been unstoppable while draining 4 of 9 three-pointers for 25 points in Game 1.
And the 6-foot Mercury guard put on an incredible show in Game 2 on Tuesday, highlighted by her 28-point performance that included a 14-point outburst in the fourth quarter and a dramatic three-pointer with 3.6 seconds to force overtime.
Though subtle, Bird has been equally brilliant to lead Seattle to a pair of identical 91-87 wins and a 2-0 lead in the best-of-five series that shifts to Phoenix on Friday.
The 5-10 Storm guard tallied 10 points and 10 assists in Game 1 before exploding in Game 2 for 19 points, including the go-ahead basket with 1 minute, 3 seconds left in overtime.
“I wish we’d had a chance to see them on a regular basis when they were younger, playing in the finals, playing for it all, the way we got a chance to see Magic and Larry Bird,” Auriemma told The New York Times.
Including Tuesday’s game, Taurasi and Bird have faced each other 10 times in the WNBA playoffs, and their personal series is tied 5-5.
Taurasi averages 20.7 points and 3.4 assists in those contests; Bird’s numbers are 14.1 points and 5.7 assists.
Taurasi’s Mercury beat Bird’s Storm in the 2007, 2011 and 2017 playoffs, while the Storm won the teams’ postseason matchup in 2010.
Despite a bitter basketball rivalry between the teams, Taurasi and Bird met for dinner each night after both games and chatted like lifelong friends.
“Do you think I want to see Sue after a tough game?” Taurasi said, smiling. “But I do, though. We’ve gone beyond that.
“Basketball started the friendship and it kept the friendship going, but now we’re so past that now. We don’t even talk about basketball now.”
Now in the twilight of their Hall of Fame-bound careers, Bird, who turns 38 in October, and the 36-year-old Taurasi are still playing at a high level and remarkably show no signs of slowing down.
And their 19-year-old friendship has endured.
“Whatever career you’re in, whether it’s business or sports, it’s hard to keep friendships alive,” Taurasi said. “It’s hard to keep them thriving and remain interested in each other’s lives when you have so much going on personally.”
Bird added: “We’ve been through a lot together. We’ve seen each through deaths in our families and just a lot of personal growth. We’ve seen each other succeed. We’ve seen each other fail. We’ve been a part of those successes together and apart.
“We’ve even caused some of those failures. She’s beaten our team in the playoffs. We’ve beaten them in the playoffs. We’ve kind of seen it all, and that’s what makes it special.”
As Team USA members, they’ve won four Olympic gold medals and two FIBA World Championships. They lived together for four years in Moscow while playing for team Spartak in Russia. And they’ve paired together in eight WNBA All-Star Games.
“My circle is pretty tight,” Bird said. “I have a couple of close friends, and she’s one of them. She probably knows me in ways that other friends don’t; that’s because we spent so much time together. We’ve literally seen each other go through a lot, because when you’re overseas and even on those USA Basketball trips, you’re together. With that you get to know somebody on a deep level.”
Bird wants to set the record straight about her best friend Taurasi, who is sometimes depicted as a temperamental hothead. Taurasi led the WNBA with eight technical fouls in the regular season and collected a technical in Game 1.
“You might not tell from the way she plays on the court, but there is the soft side that Dee has,” Bird said. “I see it in how she is with her family and friends and the people she cares about. She’d do anything for them. No questions asked.”
Motherhood has also brought new perspective to Taurasi, whose wife Penny Taylor gave birth to their son Leo on March 1.
“Being a mom makes me prioritize the game of basketball for what it is – a game,” Taurasi said. “For so long I was so addicted to it and it would get me really high or really low. Now I know that once I walk off the court, I can’t control that anymore and I have other things I have to focus on and give my attention and love to.”
“One of the great things about Dee is she’s always going to be who she is and she doesn’t care what anyone thinks about that,” Bird said. “That’s empowering. She’s fearless in many ways off and on the court.”
And some reputations are difficult to shake even if they’re deserved. For instance, Bird and Taurasi say they’ve been typecast by the public and media to fit a narrative that’s not always accurate.
“It’s like Sue is the Girl-Next-Door introvert and I’m the crazy aunt,” Taurasi said, laughing. “But it’s funny because when people really get to know us Sue is not the girl next door and I’m less the crazy aunt that you’d think.”