Storm star Sue Bird says she spent a few weeks last year contemplating retirement, but Phoenix Mercury guard Diana Taurasi always believed her best friend was going to come back for at least one more year.
Taurasi had a feeling after the Mercury eliminated the Storm with an 85-80 overtime win the second round of the WNBA playoffs.
After the game, the lifelong frenemies and former teammates met at half court to exchange jerseys. And the ever-stoic Bird got emotional and choked up during an interview on the court when the Angel of the Winds Arena crowd chanted: “One more year” while Taurasi flapped her arms and encouraged the fans to get louder.
“It’s funny, the minute we exchanged jerseys I knew she was going to play again,” Taurasi said. “I just knew she was going to. The way that year finished for her and for them, I think she knew that if she came back then she had another great opportunity to win a championship, and that’s what Sue is about.
“Obviously, with Stewie (Breanna Stewart) coming back and Jewell (Loyd) coming back and the new building, then things started building. And once that energy builds, I knew she was going to come back, and I’m glad she did.”
Bird and Taurasi renew their 18-year-old WNBA rivalry when the Storm (1-2) face the Phoenix Mercury (1-1) at noon Saturday at Climate Pledge Arena.
It’s a quick rematch of their most recent encounter Wednesday, in which Phoenix had no trouble routing the short-handed Storm 97-77 in Phoenix.
And it’s quite possibly the last Bird-Taurasi matchup in Seattle considering their respective teams play once more this season in Phoenix.
The 41-year-old Bird, who is treating this season as if it is her last while leaving the door open for a return next year, refuses to attach any extra meaning to what could be her last home game against Taurasi, because “I don’t know if that’s a sustainable state to be in.”
“I’m just going to approach it like every other game and try to enjoy it,” she said. “Try to enjoy the little moments. Then I’ll look back on it.”
Taurasi, who turns 40 in June, mostly agreed but added that these games are a reminder of how much they’ve accomplished as teammates and basketball rivals.
“You do start to look back on how many moments we had in the WNBA against each other and playing on the national team, playing in college and playing overseas,” she said. “Our careers have just overlapped in so many ways. And it’ll continue to do that in the future with our families and friends and vacations. We always joke about when this is all over we’ll enjoy life again.”
Their friendship began 20 years ago when Taurasi joined Bird at the University of Connecticut. Together they had a 71-3 record with the Huskies, including a 39-0 mark in 2001-02 that ended with an NCAA tournament title. It was the second NCAA title for Bird and the first of three for Taurasi.
As Team USA members they’ve won a record five Olympic gold medals and three FIBA World Championships. And in Russia they’ve won five EuroLeague titles.
Aside from the success, what makes Bird and Taurasi so compelling is their unique paths to stardom.
At 5 feet 9, Bird, a four-time WNBA champion, is the prototypical point guard who is the league’s all-time assists and games-played leader.
Meanwhile, the 6-foot Taurasi is the most prolific scorer in WNBA history who has won three league titles.
“We’re different on the court, yeah, but what connects us is that desire to win,” Taurasi said. “No matter if we’re playing together or against each other, you never want to lose. … I love her, but I want to kick her (butt) every time, and I’m quite sure she feels the same.”
Bird leads their individual matchups 25-19 while Taurasi has an 8-6 edge in the playoffs. Their rivalry has produced some of Bird’s most memorable WNBA moments.
In 2010, the Storm star drained a three-pointer with 2.8 seconds left for an 89-88 victory in Game 2 of the Western Conference finals against Phoenix to clinch the best-of-three series.
And in 2018 a masked Bird went bonkers in the final six minutes and scored 14 of her 22 points to rally the Storm to a 94-84 win in Game 5 of the WNBA semifinals.
That was also the last time Taurasi played in Seattle before the Storm spent the next three seasons on the road while Climate Pledge was under construction.
“What I remember about playing in Seattle?” Taurasi asked. “Unfortunately, Sue making a lot of damn shots at the end of the game that put us away. Just another iconic moment for her. Her willingness to do anything at any time for her team to win.”
Bird added: “Our relationship and our friendship has been documented. The success we’ve had together has been documented. Then you get to see these two go head to head (and) let these friends go at it.
“I totally get why there’s a little something extra for fans when it comes to those games. And they’ve always been fun. Throughout the years, they’ve been some of the best games. Some of the best endings. Hopefully, through the last 20 years we’ve put on some good shows.”
- Stewart and backup guard Epiphanny Prince are in COVID-19 health and safety protocols and will miss a second consecutive game Saturday. Seattle is also without center Mercedes Russell due to an undisclosed non-basketball injury.
- Reserve forwards Jantel Lavender and Reshanda Gray were absent from at least a portion of Friday’s practice, and their status is unknown for Saturday.
- Seattle signed forward Kaela Davis to a hardship contract Friday.