In 1996, when Sue Bird was 15, she piled into a car with her AAU basketball coach and some teammates. The group drove from New York to Philadelphia to watch the U.S. women’s team face China in an exhibition game at the Palestra in advance of the Atlanta Olympics.
Bird already was a star on the rise, and she had thought about what the rest of her basketball career would look like. The Long Island native couldn’t quite envision playing in Europe after college, which was the primary professional option for women before the WNBA formed that same year. Bird’s long-term goal, however, was crystallized that night.
“That’s when I really connected that the end-all, be-all for me was going to be the Olympics,” Bird said in a recent interview. “If I could make an Olympic team, then I’ve achieved something. That was the ultimate goal.”
Bird is now a four-time Olympian who will go for an unprecedented fifth gold medal next year alongside teammate Diana Taurasi. Bird and Taurasi already have established their on-court legacies. Now, as the 2020 Tokyo Games approach, they are seeking to leave a different mark.
The pair are the minds behind a new training schedule for the U.S. women’s basketball team, announced last month. The plan is designed to benefit the program by increasing practice time and generating more exposure.
The schedule should allow the team’s top players to stay in the United States and practice together during the WNBA offseason, with the hope that it will solidify the American dynasty in an increasingly competitive international environment. It will feature five week-long training sessions, which is double the time the team has averaged in past Olympic years. What’s more, it was the players who initiated conversations about bolstering training efforts — a first for the program.
“USA Basketball never thought this was an option,” Bird said. “All this was was players saying something to USA Basketball that they probably would have wanted to do for many years, but because we all went overseas [in the offseason], they never really thought it would be an option. We were just opening the door.”
The new arrangement comes at a significant moment for women’s sports, following the Americans’ victory in soccer’s World Cup — in which Megan Rapinoe, Bird’s girlfriend, took center stage — amid a lawsuit against the national federation. The new USA Basketball schedule is the latest example of elite female athletes developing a more vocal relationship with sports’ governing bodies — although in this case, the dynamic was less contentious.
“We hadn’t done this program for a long time, so I’m not sure I thought it was possible until Sue and Diana mentioned it,” said Carol Callan, the U.S. women’s national team director. “And then it just built length. It was not just Sue and Diana, the two veterans, but then there were some players who were in the prime of their earnings career who said, ‘Yeah, I’d like to do this, too’ — and then all of a sudden, it became very possible.”
Taurasi, 37, and Bird, 38, will be joined by six other players — Sylvia Fowles, Elena Delle Donne, Nneka Ogwumike, Chelsea Gray, A’ja Wilson and Skylar Diggins-Smith — for the training sessions. Other players from the national team pool will have opportunities to join the core group as their schedules allow.
The time on court and compensation are enough to give players the option to stay in the United States during the WNBA offseason. USA Basketball would not confirm the financial arrangements, but the Associated Press reported that players would earn $2,000 per day for the 35 days of training, excluding World Cup competition. Hotel rooms, airfare, meals and travel accommodations also will be provided during the camps. Other players, who can earn up to 15 times their WNBA salary playing overseas, will opt to maintain their contracts with foreign teams.
“It’s a great time for us to finally get together and actually have time to [work out] together as a team,” Delle Donne wrote in an email. “It’s a schedule that isn’t as grueling as overseas, and will allow players to rest their bodies properly.”
USA Basketball is also organizing between six and eight exhibition games to boost fan interest by pitting the national team against top college programs. Similar tours were staged before the 1996, 2000 and 2008 Olympics, but lucrative overseas options, injuries and inconsistent schedules across multiple governing bodies prevented a comprehensive schedule from taking root.
The men’s and women’s national teams typically have received the same amount of training time in Olympic years, according to USA Basketball: roughly 2 1/2 weeks of camp, with five or six exhibition games leading up to the Opening Ceremonies. The biggest difference in practice time for the teams comes before the FIBA World Cup. The men’s team generally has a few weeks to train with its 12-member roster before the fall competition. Given the timing of the WNBA playoffs (in the fall), the final women’s roster has not assembled until about a day before the first game in recent years. The U.S. women still have won 10 gold medals in World Cup competition, the most of any nation.
“You know what’s made us winning all these gold medals so impressive? The fact that we don’t practice,” said Bird, who has eight gold medals between the World Cup and Olympics. “I can honestly say it’s some of the most uncomfortable basketball you play because your role is never truly defined. You just learned the plays three days ago. You don’t really know your teammates that well, and yet we find ways to make it work against teams that are training for months.”
Bird acknowledged that the talent level of other teams hasn’t always been equal to that of the United States, but she said that in later rounds of the tournament, the competition is “no joke.”
“People just assume we beat everybody by a billion,” Bird said. “No. Just last year we played against Belgium in the [World Cup] semis and struggled [in a 93-77 win]. Does Belgium have the talent level we have? Absolutely not. But they’re a really good team that plays really well together, and we’re never that.”
FIBA recently announced a new competition system that will take effect this year and will put increased emphasis on USA Basketball’s new practice schedule. All participating countries will shut down their professional leagues for windows in November and February, which will allow players to compete with their national teams in smaller tournaments before the World Cup and Olympics. U.S. players who will be playing overseas, such as Brittney Griner, also will be able to temporarily join the roster.
Beyond increased preparation time, players hope the new national team schedule will increase visibility for the team and sport. The changes were born out of conversations between Bird and Taurasi, Bird said, as the two brainstormed ways for women’s basketball to gain momentum.
“Whether it’s the 15-year-old boy on Instagram telling us to stay in the kitchen and that we suck or the people on TV saying we don’t have the revenue, they’re basically telling us we have no value,” Bird said. “But then we’ll turn around and a major company like Nike will pay us money to endorse their products. Clearly, we do have value. What I think happens is the WNBA isn’t able to really capitalize and be successful because we do go dark for so long.”
The college and international exhibition games are an attempt to remedy that. USA Basketball said it is still finalizing details with the participating schools. But for Bird and Taurasi, the new schedule should provide better preparation before their final Olympics, so fans “see an amazing product on the floor” — similar to the one Bird witnessed as a 15-year-old.
“It’s safe to say this Olympics will be the last time we put on the USA jersey,” Bird said. “Because we are at the end of our careers and we’re not overseas, we’re available and taking [our schedule] this way. Women’s sports are at a very unique place in time right now — in a good way. And I think, as women’s basketball players, we want to leave our mark.”
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