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Taurasi and Bird keep longtime friendship going

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The United States’ Diana Taurasi, Tamika Catchings and Sue Bird celebrated with their Olympic gold medals in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

By her sophomore year at Connecticut, Sue Bird was accustomed to guiding recruits around campus. The high schoolers she led on tours to the bookstore or cafeteria were often reserved — perhaps even intimidated — and unsure how they would fit into what was fast becoming the best women’s college basketball program in the country.

There was no such trepidation during Diana Taurasi’s first trip to Storrs, Connecticut. Shortly after their first meeting, Bird and Taurasi ended up at a club where Bird watched the prized recruit dance the robot and Crip-Walk across the room all night, basking in the limelight.

It was the start of a journey that has spanned 18 years, half of their lives, during which they became two of the most popular and accomplished players in the history of women’s basketball.

“She was a kid out of Cali, just super cocky — not in a bad way, just had a swag about her, very free,” Bird, 36, said during an interview at Madison Square Garden this month. “We’ve been through a lot together. Whether it’s deaths in the family — Dee just got married, I was able to be a part of that — big life moments, we’ve seen each other through. And it started in college.”

Except for All-Star games, they have never played side-by-side in the WNBA, but they are almost certainly entering league history together this season.

Taurasi, 35, broke Tina Thompson’s WNBA career scoring record on Sunday by 6 points, reaching 7,494. At the same time, Bird is on pace to set the WNBA record for career assists — she is 119 behind Ticha Penicheiro’s mark of 2,599.

Their careers have been linked since 2000, when Taurasi enrolled at UConn during Bird’s junior year. Often, they are typecast — Taurasi as the brash Southern California girl with a knack for attracting controversy and Bird as the munificent point guard from Long Island with the girl-next-door vibe.

But Connecticut coach Geno Auriemma was quick to dismiss the notion that his two former stars are all that different. “Sue’s kind of the same,” as the bold Taurasi, he said. “But she hides it better.”

During a recent three-way phone conversation, Bird and Taurasi spent much of the time unintentionally illuminating their similarities.

Both harbored soccer dreams before basketball (“Sue swears if she would have stayed, she would have been on the women’s national team,” Taurasi said; “If you gave Dee two months to prepare, she said she’d be in the Olympics,” Bird countered). Another shared pastime is working in cahoots to pester Auriemma (“I feel like the only time we’re not wrong is always against him,” Taurasi said).

With such meshed personalities, cohesion came naturally on the court. Bird, who had already won a national title in the 2000 season, was the ideal pass-first point guard to complement Taurasi’s wondrous scoring acumen. Buoyed by a vaunted senior class that included Swin Cash, Asjha Jones and Tamika Williams, the Huskies went 39-0 during the 2002 season.

Along the way, opponents began proclaiming Bird and Taurasi as the best backcourt ever. As Sherri Coale, Oklahoma’s coach, said about losing to the Huskies in the 2002 national championship game: “Before you could stop the bleeding, you were dead.”

They were separated when the Seattle Storm made Bird the first pick of the 2002 WNBA draft, but they continued to thrive nonetheless. Taurasi commanded the UConn offense the same way Bird had and won two more national titles, the last in 2004. Bird won the first of her two WNBA championships while driven by a competitive temperament fostered by observing Taurasi in college.

“They know your offense better than you know your offense; they know where you’re supposed to be better than you know where you’re supposed to be,” Auriemma said. “They’re the best I’ve ever been around.”

The Mercury selected Taurasi first overall in 2004, nixing the opportunity for a reunion in the WNBA. But their relationship only grew stronger, fostered by the eight offseasons they spent playing together in Russia.

Taurasi said she would not trade that experience for the world, but she would not have continued playing overseas early in her career if Bird had not been her teammate.

Bird would be just as important to Taurasi away from the court, through the lowest valley of her private life — a DUI arrest in 2009 — and the moment when her personal happiness and professional obligation collided.

In 2015, Taurasi, already by then a three-time WNBA champion, sat out the WNBA season at the request of her Russian team, UMMC Ekaterinburg, which paid her about $1.4 million more than the Mercury. She was criticized by some fans for being selfish, leaving the team and league without one of its biggest draws.

But Bird, acutely aware of the mileage a women’s basketball player’s body accrues through a yearlong schedule, came to her friend’s defense. She told The New York Times in 2015: “This is about Diana being smart with her body and her career.” She added, “Do you want Diana to play two more years, or five?”

It was that kind of wisdom that Taurasi said she needed. “She has as much experience and knowledge as anyone I know,” she said.

As difficult as the decision was, it was the right one, Taurasi said. “The way I was playing year-round was breaking me down physically and mentally. Sue’s advice definitely eased my mind.”

That Taurasi was even faced with such a difficult choice illustrated the unusual challenges that female basketball players experience that their male counterparts — or counterparts in other fields — do not, Bird said.

“At the end of the day, you have to put yourself first,” she said. “This is something I learned about from Dee — if you erased ‘women’s basketball player’ from our profile and put doctor or nurse or accountant and it was like you can go over there and make this money, but you got to take a little time off, people would be like, ‘Oh, yeah, of course.’”

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