“I mean, I love Paris,” Taurasi said, referring to the site of the 2024 Olympics. “They have beautiful buildings, great fashion — the weather sucks, but oh well. What are you going to do? Sue’s going to be my plus one.”
The basketball world knew that the gold medal the U.S. women won Sunday in a 90-75 victory over Japan would be Bird’s last. The team’s unprecedented seventh consecutive gold also made Bird and Taurasi, former teammates at Connecticut, the most decorated women in Olympic basketball history, moving them out of a tie with fellow American Teresa Edwards.
Taurasi has joked about returning to the team as often as she has joked about leaving it.
But Coach Dawn Staley made something of a surprise announcement from the dais: After winning three gold medals as a point guard, two as an assistant coach and now one as head coach, she, too, was retiring from the national team.
“I’ll say this, too: I’m done as well, Sue,” Staley said, slipping her news in at the end of a reflection on the guards’ legacies. “I don’t know who else is going to sit on this podium in 2024 without them. I’m not!”
Staley, 51, is the first Black coach to helm the U.S. national team and the second woman to win a gold medal as a player, assistant coach and head coach after Anne Donovan.
Her announcement Sunday officially closed an era of USA Basketball, regardless of whether Taurasi returns as a 42-year-old swanning about Paris. With the World Cup looming in 13 months, the U.S. women’s basketball program is losing two of its greatest leaders, its head coach and its director. Carol Callan, who has served as the national team director since 1995, is also stepping down after Tokyo.
But on Sunday, the future could wait. The day belonged to Staley, Bird and Taurasi, with the latter two sharing a long hug at the end of a long day that had started in its usual way: breakfast together at 7:15 a.m. and coffee at 9:30 before the bus ride to the arena.
Both tried to treat Sunday as any other game day while knowing it was not.
“There was a point where, when they postponed the Olympics at the beginning, you know, Sue and I really were like, we might not make it,” Taurasi said. “It might not happen for us. And I start this countdown on my clock, on my iPhone, and every week I would send it to Sue, and the countdown was 267 days, 250 days — can you imagine how long that countdown was? That s--- was stressful. And we made it, and I’m happy we’re here. And I’m happy we got it done.”
Bird said she will miss the human moments most of all: team bus rides, inside jokes and morning coffee with Taurasi. She won’t miss the stress of trying to uphold a program that has won 55 consecutive games in the Olympics dating back to a bronze medal in Barcelona in 1992.
“There’s a relief that’s going to happen there for me, because with USA Basketball, we continue to tell you, there is a lot of pressure,” Bird, 40, said. “There is a lot of pressure. And so I don’t know if I’m going to miss that. And in the same breath, that’s what makes it great.”
Staley, who spent the past decade building her program at South Carolina into a college powerhouse, summarized the presence of Bird and Taurasi as an added level of comfort. She feels the same pressure that Bird described but has something of a cushion — “You know you have a really good shot at winning basketball games because of how they lead.”
The U.S. women never dropped a game in Tokyo, but they took some time rounding into form as Staley cemented her rotations and the players — all of whom are in the middle of a WNBA season back in the States — found their chemistry.
This tournament represented a period of transition even before Staley made her announcement. The roster featured six newcomers, and the question of who might step up as leaders in Bird and Taurasi’s stead hung over the group from its first game. Four-time Olympian Sylvia Fowles cried on the court because Tokyo is her last Games as well. Washington Mystics leader Tina Charles announced nothing about her future but reached a milestone, logging her 100th game with USA Basketball.
It was clear, as player after player jogged through the informal interview area known as the mixed zone on her way to pop a champagne bottle: The next Olympics will feature even more new faces.
The answer to who might fill Bird’s and Taurasi’s positions well may sit in the frontcourt.
Newbie A’ja Wilson and two-time Olympians Brittney Griner and Breanna Stewart, all starting post players, impressed throughout the Tokyo Games. Griner capped her tournament with 30 points against Japan, the most ever in a women’s Olympic gold medal game. Wilson had 19 points on her 25th birthday. And Stewart had 14 points and 14 rebounds.
“Man, I was just saying, I thought my 21st was good — but this was pretty good!” Wilson said, before she was asked about Bird and Taurasi. “It just lays the foundation down for the young kids like me. I’m sitting in the locker room like, ‘They really did this five times?’ Opening Ceremonies, I was like, five times? My feet hurt! But it’s real. It makes you want to come back and continue to give and continue to build for the next generation. I don’t know if I got five in me, but we’ll see.”
That Wilson won her first gold medal with Staley, with whom she won a national championship in college at South Carolina, made the day even more special.
Staley said winning gold made it easier to end her USA Basketball career this year. So, too, did knowing Bird and Taurasi were leaving with her. She didn’t sugarcoat the situation, saying whoever takes the program next would have a more difficult job without the two guards in the locker room, should both decide to leave. But she also has faith in the next generation.
“Our country has a lot of great coaches that can get the job done. Me being a part of, I believe, six? That’s enough. I’m full,” Staley said. “I’m full.”