NEW YORK — In the past they always could hold on to the idea that there might be another tomorrow for the three of them to be together again — back in the gym, back chasing another big title of some sort and reveling in the wisecracking, blunt, demanding relationship they’ve had since they were all at the University of Connecticut and coach Geno Auriemma was the unquestioned boss.
But point guard Sue Bird is 35 now and contemplating retirement. Diana Taurasi is 34, and she skipped the 2015 WNBA season to recover from the burnout of playing year-round in the U.S. and overseas. They agree the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro are surely the last time they’ll play for Auriemma, who is 62. And all three of them are determined to give this last ride together the reverence — and irreverence — it deserves.
“He likes to talk a lot — don’t pay attention to what he says,” Bird needled earlier this summer at a pre-Olympic event in New York City that she and Auriemma attended.
“The common trait that all three of us share is none of us ever thinks we’re wrong — but Sue is the most passive-aggressive,” Auriemma countered.
“He’s right — see there, I agreed with you. Which technically makes him wrong,” Bird said with a laugh.
Told that Taurasi had recently claimed that every team she’s ever played on, including Auriemma’s, has been dysfunctional, Auriemma smirked and said, “Sometimes they’re dysfunctional because she’s on the team. That’s the common denominator, right?”
Then he laughed again.
“Dee and I had a conversation on the phone just the other day about this being our last time together,” Auriemma added, using Taurasi’s nickname. “And it was a moment where we both kind of told each other, ‘I wouldn’t be where I am without you.'”
“It’s going to be sweet and bittersweet,” Taurasi said of this Olympic run during a recent phone interview.
If the measure is winning, Auriemma, Bird and Taurasi are unmatched as a trio in women’s basketball history.
Bird is in the conversation for best point guard who ever lived alongside Dawn Staley, Theresa Edwards and Nancy Lieberman.
Taurasi, even now, is still considered one of the best players in the world. Auriemma said what her brash exterior hides is that “she’s the best teammate that ever lived. And I say that knowing she and Sue are 1 and 1A.”
Since turning pro in 2004, Taurasi has won three Olympic gold medals with Bird and the U.S. team, three WNBA titles with the Phoenix Mercury, and six international titles in the EuroLeague. Three of those were with Bird, as well.
Bird, also a four-time Olympian, has won two WNBA titles with the Seattle Storm since turning pro in 2002 and played seven years with Taurasi in Russia.
At UConn, Auriemma won four of his record 11 NCAA titles with Bird and/or Taurasi in the backcourt. Some folks still argue the Huskies’ undefeated 2002 title team was the most talented squad ever assembled.
So when Auriemma reunited with his former stars for the 2012 Olympics after a long break as their head coach, it seemed like bonus time. Taurasi cried on the podium in London after the American team won its fifth straight gold medal. Bird admitted she was unsure she’d be back to the Summer Games. Auriemma (who had also been an assistant for the 2008 Olympics) was convinced he was done as a national team coach.
The top job was, he said back then, “the most pressure-packed situation” he’d ever found himself in.
“If you lose at Connecticut, everybody at Connecticut has a heart attack,” Auriemma said. “If you lose with the U.S. national team, the whole country that follows women’s basketball wants to kill me.”
Their relationship has changed a lot since Auriemma regularly rode Bird in practices and games, telling her that as his point guard she was responsible for everything that happened on the court, even when it was a UConn teammate who made the wrong cut or threw the wrong pass. On a trip back to UConn this spring, Bird said it was the best and worst advice she got from Auriemma because she saw, in time, that he wasn’t gratuitously picking on her. (“I’m easy to play for — just do everything I say,” Auriemma cracked.) Rather, Bird said Auriemma’s prodding forced her to concentrate even more on running the team, anticipating and navigating situations, thinking on the fly, and controlling every aspect of the game.
Asked now for an anecdote that might illustrate what those formative days were like, Bird said, “Is it OK if it’s not G-rated? You know he can’t be miked for TV games, right? He swears too much.”
Bird wondered if UConn was the right place for her when Auriemma gave scholarships to two other guards the same year she was recruited out of Christ the King High School in New York City. She said when she discussed her concerns with him, his response was, “Follow your heart.”
Follow your heart? That’s it?
“Actually, it was the best advice he could’ve given me,” she insisted. “UConn is different. He doesn’t beg anyone to come. Saying that made me ask myself if I was the kind of person who could accept the challenge.”
Taurasi and Auriemma’s relationship has a different tenor. They’re so much alike — both the children of immigrant Italian fathers, both stubborn, opinionated, cocky and insatiably driven to win/dominate/succeed — and their clashes were often like an irresistible force hitting immovable object. Which only made them love each other more, of course.
Just not at first.
Taurasi was the nation’s No. 1 recruit in 2000, but she said she truly believed she wasn’t going to survive her first year at UConn. She dreaded going to practice. An incident where Auriemma stopped a scrimmage and accused her of refusing to take a charge was typical. Taurasi essentially said, “Did not!” Auriemma countered, “Did so!”
“So he stopped practice and lined up the full team — Shea Ralph, Svetlana Abrosimova, Sue Bird, everybody — and told them to just go at me,” Taurasi said. “But I wouldn’t fall. I took about 30 blocks or collisions and I still wouldn’t fall down. Then he threw me out of the gym.”
Auriemma said his mission with Taurasi was the same as it is with every player: “I didn’t want her to cheat her talent.”
Taurasi said, “Hopefully I’m a lot more mature now.”
When Taurasi or Bird talk now, Geno-isms routinely leak into their conversations. Bird’s take on how the U.S. again isn’t necessarily taking the 12 most talented American players to the Olympics, but the players who will hopefully meld into the best team, is a line straight out of Auriemma’s playbook. So was Taurasi’s response when asked before the London Olympics if the American team’s dominance had become “boring.”
Her retort: “I don’t give a s—. I’m trying to win a gold medal.” Which sounded like something Auriemma would say.
Bird has since said of Taurasi, “Whether it’s deaths in the families or winning championships — and, of course, heartbreaking losses as well — we’ve experienced it together. When it’s all said and done, the majority of my fond basketball memories will involve her. Absolutely.”
“Without him, I definitely wouldn’t be in the position I’m in, in basketball or life.”
Diana Taurasi, on Geno Auriemma
Taurasi said she and Bird have been together so long, “We can almost finish each other’s sentences. She’s the best point guard I’ve ever played with. She’s also one of my best friends.”
When Auriemma was waffling after the London Games about returning for a second stint as head coach of the U.S. Olympic team, Bird and Taurasi double-teamed him and worked on him until he agreed to return for Rio. Bird lobbied him over the phone. Taurasi — who said she typically speaks to Auriemma three times a week, whether she’s overseas or in the States — called, texted and met with Auriemma to pitch why he should join them for another gold-medal chase.
The two of them have come a long way from when Taurasi left UConn for the WNBA in 2004 and Auriemma “banned” her from campus until she finished her degree.
Not long ago, Taurasi divulged in a podcast that she played one of her UConn championship seasons at 185 pounds (or about 30 more pounds than she ‘s carrying now), which later prompted Auriemma to crack, “Yeah, I know. I remember telling her the best thing that happened to her before her freshman year here was she got food poisoning and lost about 10 pounds.”
And they are back to needling each other again.
One thing Bird, Taurasi and Auriemma independently mention about their Olympic runs is the noticeable role reversal that has happened over the years. Auriemma said that since taking over as national team coach he has routinely sought out both players and asked, “Am I going down the right path here?”
The partnership worked like a dream in London. And the U.S. is a heavy favorite to defend its gold medal in Rio.
If this is indeed the UConn trio’s last ride together, it has been a remarkable, sport-changing run. In the 16 years since they first played together, Bird and Taurasi have gone from being girls to women to basketball legends. And Auriemma is the women’s basketball’s equivalent of John Wooden. Best. Coach. Ever.
“Sometimes I look and I can’t believe everything he’s accomplished,” Bird said.
“Without him,” Taurasi affirmed, “I definitely wouldn’t be in the position I’m in, in basketball or life.”
“For me, it’s a very conscious thing that for us it’s coming to an end,” Auriemma admitted. “I think about it a lot.”
Auriemma said that among the things he’s valued the most over the years is how he, Bird and Taurasi have stuck together, and the affection they share.
“Like, I remember one time they Skyped me from Russia,” Auriemma said. “It was real late wherever they were, and Dee just went off and said this, that and whatever, and I was just like, pffttt, and I hung up.”
You hung up?
“I hung up,” Auriemma repeated. “I said, ‘I can’t listen to this. I just can’t do it.’ At least Sue gets a little bit embarrassed when they do something dumb like that. Dee? Zero.”
When he is told that right about here Taurasi might remind him they’re grown-ass women, Auriemma nodded and laughed again.
“You know how when your kids move away from home and whatever they’re doing, you don’t really want to know?” he asked.
“With them, I really don’t want to know.”
Then his smile suggested it’s the biggest lie he’s ever told in his life.