For Sue Bird, playing in her fourth Olympics, the Games mean everything. For Breanna Stewart, her first Olympics experience is exciting. Both former UConn stars and Storm teammates, Bird and Stewart bring something unique to the U.S. team.
Breanna Stewart can tell you where she was, what she did, and how she felt when she got the call notifying her she made the 2016 U.S. Olympic women’s basketball team.
“You’re supposed to keep it under wraps, but the first thing I did was call my parents,” said the first-time Olympian of sharing the news while standing in the lobby of her Seattle apartment building. “My dad started crying on the phone.”
Sue Bird, a teammate of Stewart’s on the Storm roster and one of three captains on the team, fondly remembers that exuberance. The Rio Games in August are the point guard’s fourth Olympic Games.
Except it’s hard to tell. There aren’t many signs Bird has averaged 32.4 minutes per game for the Storm for 14 seasons. Or that she’s now 35, spending nearly two decades playing for USA Basketball.
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“The last year-and-a-half, the focus and work that I had to put in for this, is probably more than my entire career combined,” said Bird, her facial expression showing a glimpse of the toil that’s hard to detect when she darts around the basketball court, averaging a WNBA-leading 6.0 assists this season.
Bird gets irked when she hears people knocking on older players’ skills. During an NBA game on TNT last year, Charles Barkley interviewed an older player who was still trying to rehab from knee surgery to return for “one more good year.”
Bird vividly remembers Barkley’s blunt retort: “That’s not what happens when you’re older. You don’t have the ‘one more good year.’ This is probably it.”
Bird was just as defiant as the player Barkley was talking to.
She underwent right knee surgery in 2013 to remove a cyst, missing the WNBA season. Her return to the Storm produced the worst statistical seasons in her WNBA career (she shot below 40 percent from the field in 2014 and 2015). The Storm also didn’t reach the postseason both years, ending a then WNBA-record run of 10 consecutive playoff appearances.
“Even though Charles Barkley said it, I didn’t want my last years to be like that,” said Bird with no indication of retirement, except to say a fifth Olympics at age 39 is unlikely.
“I figured, this is what I wanted, these are my goals and everything I did have the Storm in mind, but the Olympics was at the forefront of it all. Everything,” she continued. “Because I know I have something left.”
It’s why she meticulously made a list of everything she could do — from nutrition to skill development to relaxation — to see what the result would be then.
“I just want to win,” Bird said.
“I guess it’s status. If I get announced for a corporate speaking engagement or an AAU team from Mercer Island – being in the WNBA is cool, being the No. 1 pick, people like that. Being an Olympic gold medalist? They go crazy for it.”
Bird’s USA Basketball run began when she was called to the Olympic Training Center in Colorado for a look-see with the national team.
The 5-foot-9 guard had just completed an undefeated senior season at UConn to win the 2002 NCAA championship. Later that April, she was the No. 1 overall pick in the WNBA draft to Seattle, eventually guiding the Storm to its first playoff appearance in franchise history.
By fall of 2002, Bird was anointed the next generation’s Olympic point guard to follow Hall of Famer Dawn Staley. The duo helped USA Basketball win gold at the 2002 FIBA World Championships.
From there, Bird won three Olympic gold medals, two WNBA championships and five EuroLeague titles. In the 2012 London Games, Bird led all guards in women’s basketball play with a 3.27 assist-to-turnover ratio.
USA Basketball (and the Storm, for that matter) hasn’t made a concentrated effort to find Bird a successor because she is so reliable and good. Two-time Olympian Lindsay Whalen, 34, is the other traditional point guard on the national team roster.
Bird’s value also shows itself in the realities of the national team’s truncated training schedules. With the WNBA’s summer schedule and the need for its athletes to play overseas during the winter months to sustain a living, the U.S. has a limited window in which to get ready for tournaments.
In its pursuit of a record sixth straight gold medal, USA Basketball will have had eight practice days leading to its Rio Olympics opener next Sunday against Senegal. The gold-medal game is Aug. 20.
Top Olympic competitors like Australia, Serbia and France have been together for months. Many international players even skipped the 2016 WNBA season to train with their national team.
“That’s where a point guard does come into play as being important,” Bird said. “Somebody who can run the show, get things going on the right page.”
Bird’s role won’t change in a major way, but she will also be tasked with getting the three first-time Olympians — WNBA all-stars Elena Delle Donne, Brittney Griner and Stewart — acclimated to the national team culture.
Stewart has a unique connection to Bird. Both are native New Yorkers, Stewart born upstate in Syracuse and Bird in Syosset on Long Island. Although a decade apart, both won multiple championships at UConn, currently play for the Storm and are now alongside each other in Rio.
Stewart, 21, is the youngest player on the Olympic team. She’s a 6-foot-4 forward with skills of a guard, who’s played with USA Basketball every summer since age 14.
“It’s one of the best things you can do,” Stewart said.
Bird laughs, knowing the gleeful sentiment.
“When you’re young like Stewie, you do think, ‘Yeah, this is going to happen all the time, see you in four years!’ ” Bird said. “You’re not fully aware of all that goes into making the Olympic team and all that can happen in between. I look back on it all and entering my fourth is pretty special. It’s been tough (but) I’ve been able to keep it going.”
|How Sue Bird and Breanna Stewart compare:|
|Syosset, N.Y.||Hometown||Syracuse, N.Y.|
|2002||National team call-up||2013|