SAITAMA, JAPAN – Sue Bird and Diana Taurasi swear this is hard. We will have to trust them on that. For the fifth time, each of them leaves the Olympics with a gold medal, a record that does not challenge anything. They and their US basketball program have done everything so well, for so long, that greatness is assumed.
Since 1996, the United States has won seven consecutive gold medals. They have won 54 games in a row. They won 52 of them by double digits, and one of the single-digit games was a nine-point win over Nigeria this year that wasn’t nearly evenly matched. In their 90-75 gold medal win over Japan on Sunday, the United States held at least a three-possession lead during the final 36 minutes.
So when you hear Taurasi say “We really didn’t know who we were at the beginning” of the tournament, you might be so skeptical that your eyebrows rise above the hairline. But the United States cannot just come forward and win gold. It wins, in part, because everyone involved knows it.
What Bird and Taurasi have done is exceptional and expected, exceptional because they are the first basketball players to win five gold medals, and expected because of the program they represent. The United States wins the gold and the players stay.
The medal streak began in 1996. It is no coincidence that 1996 was the year the WNBA was founded. He began playing the following year. The WNBA is now a fixture on the American sports landscape, and probably has the best relationship with any individual Olympic team in any sports league in the world.
The 1992 bronze-winning American squad did not have a single player aged 30 and over. This one has six. Taurasi is 39 years old. Bird is 40. The WNBA has made it easier to be an elite player for so long, and those elite players maintain the US basketball culture. Bird recalled the first Games for her and Taurasi, in Athens in 2004 , when Dawn Staley was an American star. Neither Bird nor Taurasi, both former UConn stars, started a game.
“In the 2004 games, I was there to learn and take Dawn’s torch and carry it,” Bird said. “And those older players taught us what it meant.”
The most talented American girls can look forward to long basketball careers in their home country, and the best American professionals want to play in the Olympics and have the full support of their league. The men’s team is great, but there are still agents and owners who prefer that the stars skip the Olympics, and a lot of those stars do.
For American women, the Olympics are an essential part of their career. No one has to beg them to play. As Staley put it, “the committee has a hard time selecting 12.” Taurasi said that after these Olympics were postponed, he would text Bird each week to let him know how many days they had.
“Sue and I thought, ‘We may not make it,'” Taurasi said. “‘They may not have it for us.’
The WNBA has also dramatically improved the overall quality of women’s basketball in the United States. Here in Tokyo, USA, he played a fluid game from the inside out that was basically crash-proof because his biggest players are so skilled. The American’s top three scorers in this tournament were three of the highest: Wilson, Breanna Stewart and Brittney Griner.
The United States only attempted 13 3-pointers against Japan and made just four. But the Americans shot 59% from two points. Japan shot 43%. Griner made 14 of 18 shots and scored 30 points. Taurasi, Griner’s teammate at Phoenix Mercury, said that sometimes Griner doesn’t even realize how good she can be. But everyone on the team understood how good America could be, and it was expected to be. The presence of Bird and Taurasi assured it.
“I would sit in the locker room like, ‘Did they really do this five times?’” Said Wilson, who is 25 and played in his first Olympics. “At the opening ceremony, I thought, ‘Five times? My feet hurt!’ It really makes you want to go back and continue giving and continue … building for the next generation. “
She laughed and said, “I don’t know if I have five in me, but we’ll see.”
Bird said it doesn’t have six in it: “This is my last one. Nobody has to ask about that anymore. “He ended up winning the game as his fiancee, soccer star Megan Rapinoe, played with the system:” Megan somehow got a media credential and got into this arena today. ”
Bird said that what she will really miss is not the medal ceremonies, but something even more routine for her: “What I’m going to miss the most is the bus rides, the camaraderie and the goofy pranks.” She and Taurasi return home knowing that the national program they inherited is even stronger now. The biggest compliment you can give them is that USA Basketball probably won’t miss them at all.
More coverage of the Olympics:
• Ariel Torres wins America’s first karate medal.
• Sadulaev dominates Snyder in Titanic Clash for Gold
• Allyson Felix-worthy finish sets a promising future
• Durant Cements status as the best US Olympic men’s basketball player.
Eddie is an Australian news reporter with over 9 years in the industry and has published on Forbes and tech crunch.