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Team USA notes: Sue Bird and Diana Taurasi preparing for final run in 2020 Olympics

The US national team prepared for its exhibition with UConn at UHart on Sunday.

Ian Bethune/The UConn Blog

Sue Bird still remembers the first time she heard about Diana Taurasi. The California native was coming cross-country for her official visit to Storrs and the coaches gave the team an important directive.

“We were basically told ‘Make sure you don’t mess this up,’” Bird laughed. “We did alright.”

But the coaching staff shouldn’t have been worried about the players. Instead, they needed to sell Taurasi’s mom more than they needed to sell Taurasi herself.

“I remember the first thing was my mom said ‘It’s really dark here in Connecticut’ because there’s no street lights. I’m like, ‘Mom, it’s 8 o’clock at night. It’s dark.’ And the second thing my mom said was ‘There’s no traffic here in Connecticut, what’s wrong with this place?’ So that started off on a good foot,” Taurasi said.

But once Taurasi was on campus, she connected with Bird almost immediately, setting the stage for what was to become a long friendship, both on and off the court.

“Sue was my pseudo-host. Stacy Hansmeyer was my host, who is a great UConn legend,” Taurasi said. “When I saw Sue, I saw a very honest person. That was my first initial thing. No BS. Sue is who Sue is and I really loved that from her from the very beginning”

Over two decades since that first meeting, the sun is setting on each players’ respective career, at least on an international level. Tokyo 2020 will be the fifth and final Olympic Games for the pair.

“Hell yeah that’s it,” Bird said. “It’s been a long run. It’s definitely the last Olympics for sure.”

“I’m more than sure that it’ll be my fifth and last one,” Taurasi echoed. “It’s been a good run. I’m happy.”

The two have achieved remarkable longevity in their respective careers, but they’ve done so together as well. Looking at the US roster, just one other player — Sylvia Fowles — graduated college in the 2000’s, and even Fowles did so four years after Taurasi and six years after Bird. While Bird attributed the length of their respective careers to a combination of luck, diet and healthy habits, Taurasi, naturally, had a different reasoning.

“Carol (Callan) walked by me and she goes ‘Man, you’re 40. You look like you’re 20 but mentally you’re still 20.’ I’m like ‘I don’t know if that’s a compliment Carol but I’ll take it,” Taurasi said. “I’m definitely still 20. Sue, she’s older. She’s probably like 25-30. She’s a little more serious than I am.”

But Taurasi is okay with that. In fact, she wants to make more of an effort to bring out the 20-year old in herself more often.

“My new motto is ‘Try to be more naive about life,’” she said. “I think sometimes when you get older and you have too much experience, you overthink things and you don’t live. I’m going to try to be more naive about this trip.”

Part of that naivety is not looking back on the past — “I’ve tried to stay away from reflection and all that. Shit makes me sad,” Taurasi said — it’s hard to not to reminisce considering this will likely be the tandem’s final go-around as teammates.

The basketball part is important, certainly. Bird and Taurasi have achieved plenty on the court together — national championships in 2000 and 2002, gold medals, world championships and EuroLeague crowns.

But those aren’t what define the two. To only look at what happened on the hardwood would leave an incomplete picture, one that misses arguably the most important aspect of the friendship.

“There’s not many people in life that you get to work with that’s your best friend, that’s your family. Sue and I have been able to do it for 20 years now,” Taurasi said. “Now it’s almost like when people are around us, they think we’re crazy because we have so many inside jokes. If something happens it triggers something else. People are like ‘What’s wrong with you guys?’ It’s like, we don’t know. We’re always on the same page and to be able to do it on the court, it just makes these moments so much better and I’ve been really liking it.”

Photos: USA Women’s Basketball Mini-Camp - Day 1
Bird and Taurasi during USA camp in 2016.

Stewie returns

On Tuesday, Breanna Stewart will take the court for the first time in a competitive game since tearing her Achilles tendon last April in the EuroLeague championship. Since she’s still on the early end of recovery from the injury, Stewart won’t be her typical MVP-level self. She’s on a minutes limit — less than 20 minutes total and an undetermined amount per quarter — and is still regaining the muscle she lost.

“If you guys look, my calves aren’t the same. They look alright,” she said. “But it’s just continuing to build the strength back up. Obviously I’m coming back on the early spectrum of an Achilles injury and just continuing to stay on top of my rehab and making sure that everything I do, I’m ready to play in these games and my body is prepared for everything.”

This game isn’t the top of the comeback mountain for Stewart. instead, it should be viewed as a step in the process of a full rehabilitation from the injury. But regardless, Stewart is excited to see game action again — especially on her former home floor.

“I’m really happy it worked out,” she said. “When I was going through this whole rehab process, you always have a date in your mind where you’re like ‘This is when I want to play by.’ Knowing that UConn was going to come up, USA vs. UConn, it’s just fitting.”

Ian Bethune/The UConn Blog

The GOAT learns from UHart

Not much has gone right for Morgan Valley in her first year as the head coach of the University of Hartford women’s basketball team. The former UConn player is 0-20 in her career so far — and Diana Taurasi has watched almost every loss.

“I’m always watching UHart games. They’re a little bit early on the West Coast but I always tune in,” she said. “Obviously Morgan is family and supporting her all the way. It’s been a little bit of a rough start but all you need is a bounce here, some luck there and things can turn around.”

It’s hard to imagine that Taurasi — arguably the greatest women’s basketball player ever — could learn much from UHart. But considering Taurasi has won at every single level she’s ever played at — in college, the WNBA and internationally — she doesn’t have much experience losing, especially not to this degree. So when Taurasi talked to one of the players about the season, it gave her a nice dose of perspective.

“I asked one of them ‘Has it been frustrating?’ and she goes ‘Yeah but we just have to be patient,’ and I was like ‘That’s a great answer. You just gotta be patient.’

The response was even more impactful considering Taurasi knows she’d have the exact opposite reaction.

“Oh no, I would’ve been a freakin’ wreck,” she said. “No, that wouldn’t have been my answer but I like her answer. I might actually steal her answer, even now being 37. Just gotta be patient.”

Ian Bethune/The UConn Blog

Coming home

When Taurasi first started getting recruited by Auriemma and UConn, she had never heard of the school. And she definitely couldn’t find it on a map.

“Most people didn’t even know where UConn was. I didn’t at the time. I was like ‘UConn? What is that? Oh it’s in Connecticut. What? Who even knew Connecticut was a state,” Taurasi quipped in ESPN’s Pat Versus Geno.

Little did she know that roughly 25 years later, Connecticut would hold a special place in her heart.

“Coming back here is always a little bit of Back to the Future,” she said. “I feel so good when I come back to Connecticut. I love it. I really do. I always say I could live here one day. There’s a feeling I have that I really love.”

While there’s certainly the nostalgia aspect — Taurasi admitted she feels like a little kid when she comes back — it’s also about the people. Specifically airport security.

“It’s great because you get all the security people that have been there for 40 years that are like ‘Taurasi!’ It’s like, ‘Man, they still remember me.’ It’s nice,” she said. “It just feels good to be back in Connecticut.”