Their friendship has spanned 18 years, half of their lives, during which they became two of the most popular and accomplished players in the history of women’s basketball.
By her sophomore year at Connecticut, Sue Bird was accustomed to guiding recruits around campus. The high schoolers she led on tours to the bookstore or cafeteria were often reserved — perhaps even intimidated — and unsure how they would fit into what was fast becoming the best women’s college basketball program in the country.
There was no such trepidation during Diana Taurasi’s first trip to Storrs, Connecticut. Shortly after their first meeting, Bird and Taurasi ended up at a club where Bird watched the prized recruit dance the robot and Crip-Walk across the room all night, basking in the limelight.
“She was a kid out of Cali, just super cocky — not in a bad way, just had a swag about her, very free,” Bird, 36, said during an interview at Madison Square Garden this month. “We’ve been through a lot together. Whether it’s deaths in the family — Dee just got married, I was able to be a part of that — big life moments, we’ve seen each other through. And it started in college.”
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Except for All-Star games, they have never played side-by-side in the WNBA, but they are almost certainly entering league history together this season.
Taurasi, 35, broke Tina Thompson’s WNBA career scoring record on Sunday by six points, reaching 7,494. At the same time, Bird is on pace to set the WNBA record for career assists — she is 119 behind Ticha Penicheiro’s mark of 2,599.
Their careers have been linked since 2000, when Taurasi enrolled at UConn during Bird’s junior year. Often, they are typecast — Taurasi as the brash Southern California girl with a knack for attracting controversy and Bird as the munificent point guard from Long Island with the girl-next-door vibe.
But Connecticut coach Geno Auriemma was quick to dismiss the notion his two former stars are all that different. “Sue’s kind of the same,” as the bold Taurasi, he said. “But she hides it better.”
During a recent three-way phone conversation, Bird and Taurasi spent much of the time unintentionally illuminating their similarities.
Both harbored soccer dreams before basketball. Another shared pastime is working in cahoots to pester Auriemma.
With such meshed personalities, cohesion came naturally on the court. Bird, who had already won a national title in the 2000 season, was the ideal pass-first point guard to complement Taurasi’s wondrous scoring acumen. Buoyed by a vaunted senior class that included Swin Cash, Asjha Jones and Tamika Williams, the Huskies went 39-0 during the 2002 season.
Along the way, opponents began proclaiming Bird and Taurasi as the best backcourt ever.
They were separated when the Storm made Bird the first pick of the 2002 WNBA draft, but they continued to thrive nonetheless. Taurasi commanded the UConn offense the same way Bird had and won two more national titles, the last in 2004. Bird won the first of her two WNBA titles while driven by a competitive temperament fostered by observing Taurasi in college.
“They’re the best I’ve ever been around,” Auriemma said.
The Mercury selected Taurasi first overall in 2004, nixing the opportunity for a reunion in the WNBA. But their relationship only grew stronger, fostered by the eight offseasons they spent playing together in Russia.
It was there, amid trips to Siberia and endless hours watching bootleg DVDs, that their 20s were molded. It shaped their views of the world.
“I think their friendship took on a whole other meaning,” Auriemma said, “to the point where I can feel safe in saying they’re each other’s best friends.”
As they spent almost half the year far from home, they missed a whole spectrum of life events, from births to deaths.
“We got to see the world, we’re put on some of the best teams in Europe, we made a lot of money, and then the flip side is it was 12 years of our parents getting older,” Taurasi said. She added: “Personal relationships become really hard when you’re away from home and long-distance. For all the amazing things we’ve got to do, there’s always the flip side of life kind of passed us by in other ways.”
Taurasi said she would not trade that experience for the world, but she would not have continued playing overseas early in her career if Bird had not been her teammate.
In 2015, Taurasi, already by then a three-time WNBA champion, sat out the WNBA season at the request of her Russian team, UMMC Ekaterinburg, which paid her about $1.4 million more than the Mercury.
Taurasi restarted her WNBA career last year. Last summer, she and Bird captured their fourth Olympic gold medals with the United States national team.
When asked the meaning of Taurasi taking the top scoring spot, Bird said: “There’s just no questions marks around who the best ever is.”
Posed with the same question on the significance of Bird approaching the record for assists, Taurasi first replied, “We’re old.”
Then she provided her real answer,on the receiving end of both passes and encouragement from Bird: “I think that shows you what kind of person she is, more than anything.”