Seventeen years later, as the 40-year-old Bird prepares to go for an Olympic basketball record fifth gold with Staley as her coach, she, along with baseball player Eddy Alvarez, will lead Team USA into Tokyo’s Olympic Stadium as the flag bearers for the Opening Ceremonies on Friday.
“I don’t even know if I’ve fully digested it yet,” Bird said in a news conference Wednesday. “It was pretty shocking when I heard. The thought of other athletes being the ones to pick the flag bearers, being the ones that chose myself and chose Eddy, makes the honor that much more special — but also that we’ll be leading the entire USA delegation into Opening Ceremonies. There’s something really special, and I know firsthand because I got to be right behind Dawn when she did it in 2004.”
Bird called the honor “mind-blowing” after her teammate and fellow four-time gold medalist Diana Taurasi made the announcement in practice earlier this week. She shared the news with her fiancee, U.S. women’s soccer team forward Megan Rapinoe, who was preparing for Team USA’s opening game of group play against Sweden — a stunning 3-0 loss.
“She already knew!” Bird said on the “Today” show. “I was like, ‘How did you know?’ ”
A Long Island native, Bird starred at the University of Connecticut, where she led the Huskies to a pair of national titles, including an undefeated season as a senior in 2002. Bird was named national player of the year and selected by Seattle with the first overall pick in the WNBA draft. She’s since helped the Storm win four WNBA titles, including last year, became the league’s all-time assists leader and was recently named to her WNBA record 12th all-star team.
In Tokyo, Bird will help lead the U.S. women as they seek a historic seventh gold medal. She and Staley are the only women’s basketball players ever selected to carry the U.S. flag.
“We’re both point guards, and generally speaking, point guards are leaders of teams,” Bird said. “Point guards are the ones that are supposed to be selfless and help the team function properly and help others be great. So to have to people who played the position in the ways that we did be selected to also lead the entire U.S. delegation into the Opening Ceremonies... there’s something there, that’s always going to connect us.”
Bird has been a leader off the court, too. She helped drive the fight for better pay and benefits for WNBA players; the league’s most recent collective bargaining agreement, ratified before the 2020 season, included a 53 percent increase in total cash compensation.
Last summer, after then-Sen. Kelly Loeffler (R-Ga.), co-owner of the WNBA’s Atlanta Dream, sent a letter to the league that denounced its support of the Black Lives Matter movement, WNBA players rallied behind the Rev. Raphael G. Warnock (D), one of 20 candidates vying for Loeffler’s seat in a special election. It was Bird’s idea for players across the league to wear “Vote Warnock” T-shirts to games. Warnock, who was polling at only 9 percent at the time, eventually defeated Loeffler in a January runoff election to become Georgia’s first Black senator. The landmark victory helped flip the Senate, and the next month, Loeffler sold her stake in the Dream.
“Someone was like: ‘Your four gold medals are cool and all, but you may have just saved democracy,’ ” Bird told The Post in January. “ ‘That might be your biggest accomplishment.’ ”
— Ava Wallace in Tokyo contributed to this report.