RIO DE JANEIRO — Sue Bird is talking about losing. It’s a subject she knows very little about, and, well, that’s kind of the point: to gain entry into the soul of a winner and see what else is floating around in there.
Bird is the 35-year-old point guard of the most dominant team in basketball, men’s or women’s, and she still has a lot of crossover dribbles left. She has won two collegiate national titles, three Olympic gold medals and three world championships in her career . Oh, and a bronze at the 2006 world championships.
Bird is still seething about that bronze.
The U.S. women’s basketball team had to settle for it in Sao Paulo, Brazil, that year. It was the last time the team lost in a major competition.
Ask her first if she knows anything about the last time the Americans lost at the Olympics — it was during the 1992 Barcelona Games; she was 12 — and Bird offers up her pain, “I was on a team that lost, too. So I don’t need to hear about it. I lived it.”
Ten years have passed, but the smirk on Bird’s face suggests that it wouldn’t be wise to say happy anniversary. In the 2006 world championships, Russia upset the United States, 75-68, in the semifinal round, forcing the Americans into the bronze medal game. Three members from the current Team USA — Bird, Tamika Catchings and Diana Taurasi — experienced that disappointment.
“I know for a fact it’s in the back of our minds as motivation,” Bird said. “You don’t want to feel that way. Being in a gym, playing against a team that is playing out of their minds and the entire arena — none of which, I guarantee you, were Russian, except for maybe their family members — chanting ‘Russia!’ against us. It was rough.
“And that memory motivates us, propels us. You don’t want to live that again. It’s probably the best thing that could’ve happened to us, to be honest.”
On Monday, the United States beat Spain, the world’s third-ranked team, 103-63, at Youth Arena. The women have won their first two games of these Olympics by an average of 52.5 points. Everyone wants to talk about how unstoppable they are, how wide the gap is between the United States and the rest of the world. They’d rather keep running. Looking back at the competition will only slow them.
“We have our foot on the gas pedal,” Bird said. “We’re trying to get better with every single game. You can’t relax. I know the score. It is what it is, but we don’t relax regardless.”
This program has won seven gold medals in nine Olympic appearances, including five in a row. It seems to become a stronger force even as the rest of the world improves. Still, the players won’t let up. They won’t take gold for granted. They don’t just play the competition; they compete with their standard, too. The commitment and sense of mission is something to marvel.
In men’s basketball, some of the best U.S. players decided not to play because of injuries, fatigue or disinterest. On the women’s side, however, the elite continue to play. There’s no building around the possibility of waning interest. The depth exists because the commitment never wavers.
This summer, the pool of candidates was so strong that Candace Parker was a controversial snub. The women probably still could win a gold medal if two or three of the top Americans chose to stay home, but it’s refreshing that they’re all still eager to be here.
Bird, Catchings and Taurasi are all playing in their fourth Olympics. Carmelo Anthony has been celebrated as an NBA player willing to stay with the program for four Games, but in women’s basketball, this is the norm. There’s always something to prove. The WNBA is celebrating its 20th season, but the game needs to grow more. The Olympics continue to be the sport’s biggest stage.
“If I tell people on the street that I won a WNBA title, generally speaking, they’re not really impressed,” Bird said, laughing off a painful reality. “When I tell them I have a gold medal, that stands alone.”
The players can’t imagine a time when the best women will decline an Olympics invitation. Continuity drives their dominance. When they lost to Russia 10 years ago, it came during a transition period. Dawn Staley had retired. Lisa Leslie didn’t play in the 2006 worlds, but she returned for her final Olympics in 2008. Sheryl Swoopes and Katie Smith were the veterans most experienced in international play on that roster, but Team USA is used to having a handful of those players. The United States was vulnerable despite its talent, and it suffered a rare disappointment.
Coach Geno Auriemma and his players nod and give thoughtful answers about their dominance. But they can’t believe the hype. The United States has won 43 straight women’s basketball games at the Olympics, and it’s logical to think that there will be an incremental process that leads to the team’s next loss. The competition will get better, play closer games, and then someone will break through. That’s the thought.
But sports don’t necessarily follow such a pattern. The next loss likely will be random and shocking, just like the defeat 10 years ago. This team plays with constant reminders not to let its guard down.
“Nothing stays forever, you know?” said Auriemma, who as the Connecticut women’s basketball coach knows a thing or two about being the favorite. “Nothing stays forever. I just want it to stay that way for another two weeks, but nothing stays forever.
“You want to know what’s crazy and a little sad? It’s a bigger story if we lose than if we win. There’s something off about that, isn’t it?”
It’s the burden of greatness. Triumph can seem more like relief. But it’s better than the alternative.
As Bird exited the court Monday, a reporter started asking a question: “I just finished talking to one of the Spanish players who said it’s impossible to beat the U.S. . . .”
Bird has felt the sting of impossibility, heard the chants build against impossibility, worn unfamiliar bronze that demurs impossibility.
Praise the most overpowering force in women’s basketball all you want. But the U.S. women have come to learn that only one thing satisfies dominance.
For more by Jerry Brewer, visit washingtonpost.com/brewer.