Sign up for our free daily Olympics newsletter: Very Olympic Today. You'll catch up on the top stories, smaller events, things you may have missed while you were sleeping and links to the best writing from SI’s reporters on the ground in Tokyo.
TOKYO — Sue Bird says she doesn’t think too often or too much about her Olympic experience. Not with another WNBA title to defend when the season resumes later this summer. Not the sheer, immense, staggering totality of wins, medals and passport stamps. Not the history involved. It happens fast, she says, plus she’s terrible at math. “I can’t even really wrap my head around it,” she says. “Even though it has been 17 years, you blink"—quick pause—“and it’s gone.”
And yet, for all of Bird’s accomplishments—two-time national champion at Connecticut, No. 1 draft pick (Seattle Storm, 2002), four-time WNBA champion, 12-time WNBA All-Star—it’s easy to argue that her most impressive work was in her two decades starring for a national team as dominant as anything in sports. The length of her U.S. career is actually 19 years, if the clock begins on her call-up in April '02; or 21 years, if it starts when she played for U.S. select teams in international competitions starting in ’00.
Regardless, the 40-year-old Bird can boast—even whether she chooses not to—of a national team résumé that almost any athlete not named Michael Phelps or Katie Ledecky or Carl Lewis in Olympic history would envy. She’s 9–0 in Olympic and World Cup competitions, the nine in this case meaning nine gold medals, the most by any basketball player in the history of international competitions. She’s the only five-time FIBA World Cup gold medalist. As in, well, ever. She has also won one FIBA World Cup bronze, which is notable only in its exceptionalism. The horror! She actually lost!
Very rarely, that’s for certain. In nonexhibition games for the U.S. team, Bird is 142–6. In exhibition games, she’s 54–2. No wonder it’s tough to remember everything. She’s the all-time U.S. Olympic assist leader (89, through four Games, all golds). For U.S. women in World Cup career statistics, she ranks first in assists (107), fifth in steals (38) and 10th in points (188). She’s also, at the risk of collecting too many accolades, one of 11 players to have amassed a rare collection of hardware—may we suggest: the Four Queens—seizing at least one apiece of Olympic gold, FIBA World Cup gold, WNBA title and NCAA championship.
When the U.S. women tipped off in Tokyo on Tuesday, Bird and longtime teammate Diana Taurasi began their quest to become the first hoopers to win five golds, which is almost impossible, because it requires five separate Olympic competitions as a baseline. That’s five cycles where their team can’t lose a knockout game. Five years in which they cannot get injured at the wrong time. Twenty years where their play cannot drop.
That’s long enough for the WNBA to grow from an upstart league to a powerful force, behind a rotating core of stars, like Bird, who seamlessly transition from rivals to teammates every national team cycle. They’re aware of the significance, of what they’ve done and what it means. “It’s hard for people to understand now, with the WNBA in its 25th year, but there was no professional basketball for me growing up,” she says. “That’s not what I dreamt of. I dreamt of the Olympics.”
Bird also spoke to Sports Illustrated via car phone, in early July, as she drove to a Storm practice two weeks before she would head to Tokyo with Olympic basketball history close enough to reach out, grab and dunk. She wasn't worried about that in the car, not with three WNBA games left before the break. She was more concerned over what to pack.
First, though, a trip through her Olympic history will take place. Bird started in 1995, when she says USA Basketball began to invest significant resources in its women’s program, leading to a barnstorming tour of exhibition games played all over the world. Not yet at UConn, Bird took a trip with her AAU team to Philadelphia, driving hours to see the U.S. play China. The young guard found herself drawn to Jennifer Azzi, the veteran whom Bird would sometimes be mistaken for. Azzi looked like her. Azzi played like her. “I kind of understood in that moment,” Bird says, “that this”—meaning a national team career—“could be a thing.”
By 2000, by then entrenched at UConn, Bird remembers her coach, Geno Auriemma, coming back from the Olympics. He had served as an assistant, and he issued his star a challenge disguised as a compliment. Bird remembers him saying, roughly, “If this is something you want to do, like you can achieve this, you could be the point guard for the national team.”
Now, she says, “He’s saying, You have what it takes, but you need to get your s--- together.”
Her Olympic career unfolded that way, step by step, win by win, gold by gold and, most important, moment by remarkable moment. Those, she actually does remember. In 2000 she played with college players on the U.S. team for the Jones Cup. They flew to Hawaii, to play the senior national team in exhibition, only to get blown out. Bird familiarized herself with future teammates like Dawn Staley, who guarded her in that game, maybe even picked her pocket a time or three. Bird might not have scored a point in the blowout loss; she can’t remember exactly. But she left certain of something else: She belonged.
Bird has become a mainstay for USA Basketball ever since, through five U.S. presidents, the explosion of professional women’s hoops, injuries, titles, personal growth, all of it. A life, more or less, that unspooled between golds.
Of those, there were many. The 2004 Games took place shortly after Bird underwent a successful microfracture surgery, and she still remembers sitting in her car, on the way to one airport or another, when officials called to tell her she had made the team. She can still recall the loss in ’06, at the FIBA World Cup, the one Bird says “set the tone” for her generation of Olympians, with Taurasi and Tamika Catchings and the rest. They never forgot how that felt—and never felt that way again after a game of that magnitude. That pushed the U.S. to victory in ’08, after Bird became a starter. By ’12, she had morphed into an even more vocal leader on a dominant squad. By ’16—another gold—she had started to lose track of the totality.
Please, though, do not tie Bird’s lack of statistical recall in any way to the number of blowout victories she played major roles in shaping. Yes, the U.S. women last lost in the Olympics in 1992. Yes, they averaged 102.1 points per game in Rio, or almost 40 more on average than they allowed. But to equate blowouts with ease or lack of satisfaction would be wrong. “The Olympics are never easy,” Bird says. “They’re stressful. We have less practice time together than other teams. And people look at the score and judge it based on that without taking the entire journey into account.” She pauses. “Whatever, that's their problem.”
She laughs over the phone. “The funny thing is, usually our country likes when people dominate. That just doesn't translate to women's basketball," she says.
Regardless, Bird will take the wins. They all count, anyway. Especially in her final Olympic competition, one so distant from her first that Staley, the guard she once looked up to, is now her coach. Staley took over for Auriemma, who ascended to the top job, led the U.S. to gold medals in 2012 and ‘16, and then stepped away from his national team duties. Bird has played international basketball long enough for Auriemma to go from assistant to head coach to retired (from that part of his life).
It’s the small moments from those two decades that Bird recalls most clearly. Learning from pioneers like Teresa Edwards, playing with icons like Lisa Leslie, helping push women’s professional basketball—in part, through the Olympics—into the mainstream sports consciousness. Watching Auriemma adjust to coaching older players. Hanging out with Taurasi all over the world. “It’s a pretty cool part of my story,” Bird says. Her friend Taurasi says they’ve "never taken an experience for granted.”
A week after the phone call, the U.S. team played a WNBA counterpart in Las Vegas in a spirited exhibition. The WNBA squad won, in what is likely to be the women’s national team’s only defeat this summer. Bird, meanwhile, plans on having another Olympic tournament to remember—even if, most of which, she will eventually forget. That started on Tuesday in Tokyo, when the U.S. women outscored Nigeria 27–12 in the second quarter, then held on for an 81–72 victory. It marked the team’s 50th-consecutive Olympic victory. Bird, predictably, dished 11 assists.
For the longest time—for years, really—Bird kept all her gold medals in a sock drawer. Seriously, she hardly gave them a second thought. Now, they rest, crowded together, in a safe-deposit box. She’ll pull them out for special occasions, like when speaking to young basketball players, so that they can see what the most decorated Olympic hooper in history looks like after two decades of medals seized and passports stamped. Which is to say, like them.
On Friday in Tokyo, four days before she would tip-off for another Games, Bird and baseball player Eddy Alvarez led the contingent of available U.S. Olympians onto the floor of a stadium in Tokyo. She held high an American flag, becoming the first women’s basketball player to be selected as the bearer since her coach, Staley, in 2004. This was a moment 17 years in the making, according to Bird math. Or 19. Or 21. Whatever. It was memorable, regardless, the first step toward history and a fifth gold to make room for in that crowded safe-deposit box.
More Olympics Coverage: