TOKYO — When the Olympics were initially postponed by a year, Sue Bird and Diana Taurasi wondered whether they’d make it to Tokyo. At this late stage of their basketball careers, having first put on USA jerseys in 2004, every month marched them closer to a finish line that would theoretically put their roster spot in peril.
“I started this countdown on my iPhone and every week I’d send it to Sue – 267 days, 250 days,” Taurasi said. “Can you imagine how long that countdown was? That (expletive) was stressful.”
Of course, the notion that either would get left home given what they’d done for USA Basketball was antithetical to the very nature of the program they helped reach incredible heights. In their world, this is how it’s done. You wait your turn, you lead, you win, you pass the baton to the next generation.
And it’s undoubtedly in good hands.
After dealing with all the pressure of trying to win their fifth gold medal together, and Team USA’s seventh straight overall, Sunday’s postgame news conference after a 90-75 win over Japan was in essence a champagne-soaked goodbye to this era.
Bird, 40, confirmed this was her last Olympics. Taurasi, 39, teased about how much she likes Paris but certainly talked and celebrated as if this was it. And Dawn Staley, who helped create the ecosystem for women’s basketball to thrive in America with three gold medals as a player and two as an assistant, revealed that she would be one-and-done as the head coach.
“Our country has a lot of great coaches that can get the job done,” she said. “Me, being a part of six, that’s enough. I’m full.”
But for all the history wrapped up in that triumvirate, the U.S. remains unyielding in women’s basketball because of the future.
Even through some uneven stretches during the tournament, the young American players carried the day, particularly forward A’ja Wilson, who celebrated her 25th birthday Sunday with 19 points and five blocked shots, and 26-year-old Breanna Stewart, who shined on defense and filled up every box score, ending her tournament with 14 points, 14 rebounds, five assists and three blocks.
It was fitting, in a way, that Wilson in her first Olympics proved to be the Americans’ best player game in and game out, forming a frontcourt duo with Brittney Griner that no other team in the world could match up against. Seven years ago, Wilson was a breakthrough recruit for Staley at South Carolina, finishing her career there as a three-time first-team All-American and a national champion.
Now here they were, elevating each other again, with Wilson growing into a leading role on the biggest stage of her career averaging 16.5 points and 7.3 rebounds while shooting 59 percent.
“I’m super proud of A’ja,” Staley said. “Obviously from coaching her to being in the Olympics with her and just to see her sure of herself. She told me, ‘I’m not going to let you down, we’re going to win,’ and it’s comforting to know that she really meant it. It came from her and I’m just super happy for her and her parents because that’s one of the things when we were recruiting her that we were able to check off. It’s cool. She’s got more big games in her future I’m just happy I got to share in her first one.”
For Team USA, so much of that confidence was rooted in simply knowing who they were. Anytime there was a wobble or a lull in their play, they understood that between Wilson and Griner, they had a massive advantage with two post players who could catch the ball and score either facing up or with their back to the basket.
Against Japan, which didn’t have a frontcourt player taller than 6-foot-1 but created all kinds of problems at the offensive end with their spacing and shooting, Team USA was particularly focused on getting the ball inside and not leaving anything to chance. Hardly a possession went by without the ball touching the paint, and most of the time, there wasn’t much Japan could do about it. Between Wilson and Griner, who scored 30 points, they made 22-of-31 shots.
“We knew Japan wasn’t messing around,” Bird said. “We had the utmost respect for that team, and we knew if we weren’t locked in and ready to go, we could lose.”
By midway through the third quarter, when the U.S. extended its 50-39 halftime lead with an 18-6 run, that was no longer much of a concern. In the final moments, the focus turned to the celebration — of what was, what is and what will be.
To win 55 consecutive games at the Olympics doesn’t happen by accident. In their case, it’s been about those links in the chain, carrying the culture from one generation to the next. And when that happens, there are certain seminal moments where change happens. To be able to see it coming, to have the opportunity to enjoy it and reflect on it in real time, is a luxury not everyone gets.
Taurasi and Bird are no longer the Americans’ best players, but they were good enough to be here, to start, to contribute, to show that there are bonds built through USA Basketball that can transcend anything else they do in their careers. That’s what keeps great players coming back. That’s what keeps Team USA on top.
“There’s always a lot of pressure when you put this jersey on,” Taurasi said. “I think you learn a lot about yourself when you play with the national team. It’s always a collection of 12 of the best players in the world and you have to set yourself aside and come together to win, and it’s not easy and it comes in different forms but we always find a way to do that and do it with class and team first. It’s pretty amazing. It teaches you a lot about yourself and other people.”
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: USA women’s basketball tops Japan to win gold medal at Tokyo Olympics