Except for All-Star games, they have never played side-by-side in the W.N.B.A., but they are almost certainly entering league history together this season.
Taurasi, 35, broke Tina Thompson’s W.N.B.A. career scoring record on Sunday by 6 points, reaching 7,494. At the same time, Bird is on pace to set the W.N.B.A. 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 W.N.B.A. 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 W.N.B.A. 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 over all in 2004, nixing the opportunity for a reunion in the W.N.B.A. But their relationship only grew stronger, fostered by the eight off-seasons they spent playing together in Russia.
It was there, amid trips to Siberia and endless hours watching bootleg DVDs, that their twenties were molded. It shaped their views of the world — and of growing up, of politics, of gender and of the perception of their sport around the world.
“I think their friendship took on a whole other meaning,” Auriemma said, “to the point where I can feel safe in saying they’re each other’s best friends.”
As they spent almost half the year far from home, they missed a whole spectrum of life events, from births to deaths.
“We got to see the world, we’re put on some of the best teams in Europe, we made a lot of money, and then the flip side is it was 12 years of our parents getting older,” Taurasi said. She added: “Personal relationships become really hard when you’re away from home and long-distance. For all the amazing things we’ve got to do, there’s always the flip side of life kind of passed us by in other ways.”
Bird concurred. “That’s really true,” she said.
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 D.U.I. arrest in 2009 — and the moment when her personal happiness and professional obligation collided.
In 2015, Taurasi, already by then a three-time W.N.B.A. champion, sat out the W.N.B.A. 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.’”
Taurasi restarted her W.N.B.A career last year, leading the Mercury to the semifinal round of the playoffs. Last summer, she and Bird captured their fourth Olympic gold medals with the United States women’s national team.
This season, Taurasi has already topped Katie Smith’s W.N.B.A. record of 906 career 3-pointers, a fanfare prelude to the arrival of her scoring crown.
When asked the meaning of Taurasi taking the top scoring spot, Bird said: “There’s just no questions marks around who the best ever is.”
Posed with the same question on the significance of Bird approaching the record for assists, Taurasi first replied, “We’re old.”
Then she provided her real answer, an answer that came from someone who has been on the receiving end of both passes and encouragement from Bird: “I think that shows you what kind of person she is, more than anything.”
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