Bird and Taurasi Lead U.S. to 7th Straight Women’s Basketball Gold
SAITAMA, Japan – Members of the United States women’s basketball team lined up on the field of the Saitama Super Arena, stepped onto the highest podium, and raised their hands above their heads.
The scene, in some ways, was new and unfamiliar. Thick white masks obscured the lower halves of the players’ faces. The seats in the stands behind them were empty. But in other ways, it was exactly what the basketball world has seen of the U.S. women’s team for over two decades.
The United States dominated the field in the Olympic tournament final, beating Japan 90-75 to win the team’s seventh consecutive gold medal. The Americans’ talent was unmatched throughout the Games where they did not lose a game. And in the middle of the team photo were the smiling faces of two veteran guards, Sue Bird and Diana Taurasi, who won their first gold medal before some of their current teammates entered kindergarten.
Bird and Taurasi each won their fifth gold, a record for basketball players at the Olympics. Each picked it up for the first time at the 2004 Games in Athens, and they have been stalwarts of the team ever since, taking over from the players who came before them and trying to pass something on to the generation to come.
“I hope we left some kind of legacy for the young players where they can now carry that torch,” said Bird, who had 7 points and 3 assists in the gold medal game. “To be sitting here now after going through 20 years of this is amazing.”
Bird, 40, has confirmed that this will be her last Olympics (“No one has to ask about this anymore,” she said). Taurasi (7 points, 8 assists, 6 rebounds) seemed to suggest it too, speaking nostalgically about his international career after the game.
But when asked, point blank if she would join Bird in stepping down, Taurasi didn’t rule out playing the 2024 Games when she would be 42.
“I love Paris,” Taurasi said between sips of champagne. “They have beautiful buildings there, great fashion.”
The international careers of Bird and Taurasi shone in a larger context of national team excellence. The women’s team, now filled with WNBA stars, have won 55 straight games at the Olympics. The last time he lost a match in this tournament was in 1992, at the Barcelona Games.
The team’s back-to-back Olympic title streak has now equaled the U.S. men’s team’s seven-medal streak from 1936 to 1968.
In the midst of a generational change, there were plenty of assurances on Sunday that the team’s future would remain just as bright.
The Americans’ game plan, which has never stopped working, was to bring the ball in to Brittney Griner. She led the team with 30 points and barely missed a shot, finishing 14 for 18 from the field.
As Griner spoke after the game in the tunnel next to the pitch, her teammates playfully teased her about her big game. Griner yelled back, “Can I have barbecue sauce for these 30 pieces?” “
Griner’s totals weren’t the only jaw-dropping stat line of the night. Breanna Stewart, 26, had 14 points, 14 rebounds, 5 assists, 4 steals and 3 blocked shots. And A’ja Wilson, who turned 25 on Sunday, had 19 points and 5 blocks.
All three players had nothing but praise and respect for the longevity and legacy of Bird and Taurasi.
“I’m sitting in the locker room like, ‘Did they really do this five times?’” Wilson said. “During the opening ceremony, I was like, ‘Five times? My feet hurt!’ But it is real. It makes you want to come back and keep giving and building for the next generation. “
The undersized and outclassed Japan relied on their outside shots to keep the score tight in the first half on Sunday. But the Americans were too clinical around the basket, too hard in defense, too big in the paint. The United States recorded 12 blocks as a team; the Japanese ended up with none.
Maki Takada led Japan with 17 points, and Nako Motohashi added 16 while taking 4 for 5 on a 3-point range.
Tears flowed for a few Japanese players after the final buzzer, a common scene for Japanese athletes who failed to win gold at these Games, but the grief seemed to last only a few seconds. In truth, Japan’s silver was a great accomplishment for a team that had never reached the medal round before. As the US team celebrated on the field, the Japanese players formed a ring in the middle of the field and leaned towards the stands.
Throughout the match, they had received the energetic support of several hundred Games staff and volunteers who sat in the stands to watch, and this final act drew a round of warm and grateful applause. When the Japanese players received their medals, they celebrated as happily as the Americans.
“We were lucky that there weren’t 30,000 Japanese fans in this building today because it would have been a different ball game,” Taurasi said.
USA coach Dawn Staley, who played in the 2004 team that awarded Bird and Taurasi the first medals, won her first gold as a coach. She has three as a player, including one from the 1996 Atlanta Games, the Olympics that launched the Americans on their current gold medal streak.
After the game, Staley said she too would be retiring from the squad.
“Who else is going to sit on this podium in 2024 without them? Staley said, smiling as he looked at Bird and Taurasi. “I’m not.”
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