RIO DE JANEIRO — To fully appreciate the U.S. women’s basketball team’s latest gold medal, secured Saturday with a 101–72 victory over Spain, requires the recitation of what people around the Olympics might call compulsory figures. So here goes:
Forty-nine, the number of consecutive wins the American women have delivered at the Olympics going back to 1996.
Six, the number of gold medals they’ve collected without interruption over that span. The U.S. women haven’t lost an Olympic basketball game during the lifetime of one of their players, Breanna Stewart.
“We played against the Dream Team,” said the Spanish coach, Lucas Mondelo, after the game. “This is the Magic and Jordan Dream Team, only with women.”
But the most human number of all is surely three, as in the trio of Sue Bird, Tamika Catchings and Diana Taurasi. Each broke in with the national team in Athens in 2004. Each collected her fourth gold on Saturday.
Their longevity can be traced to an uncommon professionalism. All have won WNBA titles. All have returned to top form after suffering serious injuries. And all have reaped the benefits, such as they are, of Russian winters: Bird has played 10 seasons for club teams there; Taurasi, nine; and Catchings one. Sometimes the three played with one another, in garden spots in and around Moscow, or in the provincial outpost of Ekatrinburg; sometimes they suited up against one another. In the summers they would drift back to their respective WNBA teams in Seattle, Phoenix and Indiana. The most astonishing thing they share may also be the most telling: Each still plays for the same WNBA team that drafted her—Bird for the Seattle Storm (14 seasons), Taurasi for the Phoenix Mercury (11), and Catchings for the Indiana Fever (14). Once you see up close what each gives on the court and in the community, it’s apparently impossible to imagine doing without it, much less improving on it.
For these Olympics, the three brought that standard of basketball citizenship to USA Basketball’s women’s program, which like all thrown-together national teams needed epoxy to cohere. “This Tuesday it will be a month that we’ve been together,” said their coach Geno Auriemma after Saturday’s final. “You play international basketball, you want experience, people who’ve been there, done that and won’t get rattled.”
“That’s what was so great about those three,” added one of the team’s three first-timers, Elena Delle Donne. “It was always about this team. Not about the past. Bringing us along is what it was about for them.”
Bird supplied stability, a feel for the international game and the knack for making the right pass. A sprained knee kept her out of the semifinal, but there would be no deterring her from playing Saturday. “On this team, all I’d have to do is bring the ball up the court and pass it,” she said. “I could do that on half a leg.”
Taurasi—dubbed White Mamba by the only person with the credibility to do so, Kobe Bryant—used the Games to make the case that she’s the finest in the world. She may be 34, but her legs are lively enough. She rose into 57 three-point attempts over eight games, sinking 33, for a staggering rate of 58%. When Auriemma needed someone to initiate the offense with Bird on the sidelines, Taurasi obliged. Her fortnight in Rio, she said, felt like her first Games—“every practice, every bus ride.”
Catchings, who’ll retire after the current WNBA season, played the least and was the only player who failed to score in the gold medal game. But you didn’t need a microscope to see a strand of her DNA in the team’s chemistry. Her inclusion on the roster—at the expense of such younger options as Candace Parker—testified to how steady and respected she is. “I imagined myself being an Olympian when I was younger,” she marveled. “But even at that age to say, ‘O.K., 16 to 20 years from now, can you see yourself still being part of the Olympic family, still being ready to go?’
“Every single Olympics has come at different phases of my life. The first one I go to, I’m a baby, playing with people I’ve looked up to. The second one, I’ve got one under my belt, now I can come out and play. And the third one is like, I’m stepping up to be the leader. Knowing this one is my last, it’s still surreal.”
Perhaps most important, Bird, Taurasi and Catchings modeled for Delle Donne, Stewart and Brittney Griner how this rings thing is done. In Athens, Bird said, “We knew the three of us were on that team to learn what it meant to represent the U.S., to take the torch and run with it. We saw Hall of Fame players [such as Sheryl Swoopes, Lisa Leslie and Dawn Staley] not care about any stat on the stat sheet and only care about a gold medal. Hopefully we’ve done them proud. Because that’s exactly how we’ve played in each of the Olympics we’ve been in.”
Even in the blush of winning gold, Auriemma understood the transition he’s presiding over. “Send ’em out,” he said of his three four-time gold medalists. “Like we do graduating seniors back home.”
Graduating seniors eventually meet up at reunions. And when these Olympians meet again, let the Aged Three lay out their dozen gold medals as coasters, as the Sixteeners raise a glass to themselves.