In the summer of 1994, USA Basketball realized it needed a strategic change for the women's senior national team. No one knew, of course, that a 13-year-old in New York and a 12-year-old in California would, in due time, be an enormous part of the answer.
Sunday, Sue Bird and Diana Taurasi struck gold again. Bird is almost 38 years old (her birthday is in October) and Taurasi 36, with an entire encyclopedia worth of hoops history between them. You can't overstate the impact they've had on the sport, and their ability to keep wringing out every last drop of their careers isn't just remarkable, it's inspiring. It's the stuff of sports legends.
Bird, Taurasi and the Americans continued their mastery over the rest of the globe, beating Australia 73-56 in Sunday's final of the FIBA Women's Basketball World Cup. What was projected as a possible tough battle, considering how well the Aussies had played to that point, was instead an exclamation point on how dominant the United States remains.
Despite limited preparation time, the Americans are able to keep winning major competitions. They are now 100-1 since 1996, when their gold medal in Atlanta was part of a breakthrough Olympics for women's team sports. The only loss came at the 2006 World Cup in the semifinals. It has been a 22-year run just a tad shy of total perfection. Bird and Taurasi were part of that one loss -- in the 2006 World Cup semifinals to Russia -- but they still made the most of it with a bronze medal.
This championship was led on the coaching front by Dawn Staley, who played on that 1996 Olympic team and, in all, won three gold medals at the Olympics and a bronze at the World Cup.
Staley was on the World Cup team that lost in the semifinals to Brazil on June 11, 1994 (Taurasi's 12th birthday, by the way). The Americans came back to beat Australia in the third-place game, but that meant two consecutive bronzes in major competitions, following a semifinal loss in the 1992 Olympics.
USA Basketball knew with the abundance of women's basketball talent in this country, bronzes weren't enough, and changes had to be made. The solution was two-fold, and in conjunction with a strong commitment from the NBA. First, have a traveling team with a full-time coach and a lengthy schedule starting in 1995 as preparation for the 1996 Olympics. Second, support the development of the WNBA, which began in 1997 and allowed American players a chance to blossom professionally in their homeland.
And while most WNBA players still need to travel overseas in the winter to maximize their income potential, the decisions USA Basketball and the NBA made in the mid-1990s are still impactful today for the women's game. Bird and Taurasi have both benefited from what happened then and built upon it with their own many years of contributions.
"You put everything aside and do what you've got to do for the team," Taurasi said of the commitment she and others have put into USA Basketball. "I think Dawn did a great job of mentally preparing us for that task. I'm just really proud of our whole team."
Even in the absence of three of the past six winners of the WNBA's MVP award -- Candace Parker, Maya Moore and Sylvia Fowles -- and another senior team veteran in Angel McCoughtry, this American squad was unbeatable.
Breanna Stewart, this year's MVP of the WNBA's regular season and WNBA Finals, added the World Cup MVP trophy to her collection. She averaged a team-high 16.3 points in the World Cup, along with 6.3 rebounds.
Everyone, in fact, on the United States squad made contributions to the championship, including the five first-time senior national team participants: A'ja Wilson, Jewell Loyd, Kelsey Plum, Morgan Tuck and Layshia Clarendon. Las Vegas' Wilson was the leading scorer among the newbies at 10.0 PPG, adding a gold medal to a spectacular 2018 in which she was the consensus college player of the year, the WNBA's No. 1 draft pick and the rookie of the year.
The question of who would be among the top guards of the USA's long-term future likely got at least one answer for sure in Loyd, who averaged 5.7 points, 4.0 rebounds and 3.2 assists, plus really helped by being an active perimeter defender. Plum and Clarendon can build on this experience, too.
The post play of veterans Brittney Griner, Nneka Ogwumike and Tina Charles was dependably reliable, and even fantastic at times. Charles was Team USA's leading rebounder at 7.3 per game, and also averaged 10.3 PPG. Griner was the Americans' second- leading scorer for the tournament with 12.8 PPG, although she did miss two games with an ankle injury. Sunday, Griner (15 points) got the best of the center battle with Liz Cambage (seven points), as the Aussie star looked worn down after a terrific first five games in which she averaged 27.2 points and 9.8 rebounds.
Elena Delle Donne showed her mettle all this past month, coming back from a painful bone bruise in her left knee suffered during the WNBA semifinals on Aug. 28. That night after Delle Donne's scary-looking tumble, most viewers probably thought she was done for the year. But she underwent myriad treatments and played through the pain to lead the Mystics to the WNBA Finals and then average 7.8 points and 3.6 rebounds for Team USA.
Then there were Bird and Taurasi, doing what they have done for so long. Both have made all-in commitments to their diet and exercise programs in recent years, which is key to their ability to still be so effective.
Bird's job with the national team is to run the offense, distribute the ball and keep everyone calm and focused whether she's on the court. She continues to be the best in the world at all of that, and proved it this year with another WNBA title (her third) and World Cup championship (her fourth). She led Team USA with 4.8 assists per game.
Taurasi nearly kept Bird and the Storm from the WNBA Finals as her Mercury pushed them to five games in the semifinals. Then in the World Cup, Taurasi was the Americans' third-leading scorer at 12.2 PPG (although she scored more points than Griner by playing in two more games), and second in assists at 3.7.
Bird and Taurasi have not put any firm timetable on how long they'll keep playing, although both are expected to continue through the 2020 WNBA season and Tokyo Olympics if they are healthy.
At this point, they're adding to what are already Hall of Fame careers and are still among the best players in the world.
Bird to Taurasi... How many times have we seen this? 👌 #PhantomCam @S10Bird passed her coach, @dawnstaley, for most assists in @usabasketball history with this pass! #FIBAWWC pic.twitter.com/seZ93kfcs3— WNBA (@WNBA) September 30, 2018
Nobody could have predicted 24 years ago that so much of USA Basketball's future would someday be put in the capable hands of two players who were then adolescents on opposite coasts. Now we can look back and marvel at just how fortunate American basketball has been to have them.
"I think there's times when, because I'm still in it, I don't know necessarily see the bigger picture of it all," said Bird, who was playing in her fifth World Cup overall. "I think it's not necessarily anything I've done other than try to stay healthy and try to stay on top of my game.
"The combination of that, and just continue to get better. I've tried to pride myself on that and put myself in a position to be available, to be honest. So I think when it is all said and done, that's kind of another milestone under my name. I can look back on it and be super proud."