Bird and Taurasi together again
Forever linked, former UConn teammates have always been a winning combination
When screen legend Paul Newman died in 2008, Robert Redford said of their enduring friendship, "If you're in a position of being viewed iconically, you'd better have a mechanism to take yourself down to keep the balance. I think we did that for each other."
When you think of a similarly iconic pair in women's basketball, the sport's "Butch and Sundance" if you will, it's Diana Taurasi and Sue Bird.
They're back in Connecticut this week, the place where they became icons. They're training with the U.S. national team, then will take part in Saturday's "Stars at the Sun" game (ESPN, 3:30 p.m. ET) in Uncasville. It matches 11 members of the U.S. team against a group of WNBA "all-stars" -- a bit of a hodge-podge collection that's a testament, in part, to the voting dedication of San Antonio fans. (Four Silver Stars are on the squad.)
It's a different concept than a standard all-star game, one that gives the U.S. national team one of its limited opportunities to train together before the world championship in September-October.
But just like last year's "real" all-star game, also at the Mohegan Sun, this midseason exhibition will be a testament to the "UConnization" of women's hoops. The UConn program has had back-to-back perfect seasons. The defending WNBA champion, Phoenix, was led by a UConn player as Taurasi was league MVP last season. There are six former or current Huskies on the Team USA roster for Saturday's game, and the coach is UConn's Geno Auriemma.
The first of what's sure to be several UConn players inducted into the Women's Basketball Hall of Fame, Rebecca Lobo, got that honor last month. Certain to follow her someday are Seattle's Bird and Phoenix's Taurasi, still in the primes of their careers and never far from whatever spotlight this game affords.
They never have to look for that; it always finds them.
"I think the beauty of UConn is you get used to it at an early age," Bird said of receiving so much more scrutiny than most in her sport. "When you're 17 or 18 going to college, you start to deal with it. Now that I'm 29, it's been 11 years. So I'm really used to it."
Trying to think of a comparative duo for Bird and Taurasi for analogy purposes, somehow the Redford-Newman partnership kept coming to mind.
The parallels are not that numerous. Newman was 11½ years older than Redford, while Bird is about a year and a half older than Taurasi. The film icons made just two movies together, albeit both smash hits: "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid" and "The Sting." The two women's hoops icons have collaborated far more often: one perfect NCAA season, an additional Final Four, two Olympic gold medals and two EuroLeague championships with Spartak of Russia.
Yet the Bird-Taurasi pairing does resemble Redford-Newman in well, the "ultimate coolness" factor. And star power. And their shared ability to hilariously needle but deeply respect one another.
"Looking back on my career, two national championships in college is not so bad," Bird said. "But compared to some, it's not enough, you know? Some have three."
But she who has three (Taurasi) says, "There is still this little person inside me that gets angry. I still go out there and play with a chip on my shoulder no matter what. I think to prove something to myself. The last thing I want to do is go to bed and not feel like I've done my part every day."
Yes, Taurasi and Bird have helped each other "keep the balance." And that has mostly been through really good times. But there have also been some bad ones.
One of the worst is still fresh in their hearts and minds.
The loss of a friend, father figure and confidante
Bird, home in the United States, got the call from Taurasi in Russia last November. Bird's pulse raced, but she wanted to believe this was just another time that Taurasi was trying to put one over on her.
"I was like, 'Stop kidding,'" Bird said. "But obviously, she would never kid about that. But that's how it felt, so unbelievable."
Taurasi was conveying the news that Spartak owner Shabtai von Kalmanovic was dead -- killed when his car was strafed with bullets in a murder for which it seems unlikely there will ever be any arrests.
"It is a different world," Taurasi said of post-Soviet Union Russia, where the "Old World" mixes with new-world capitalism, crime, remnants of communism and an overall feeling of being just a step ahead of anarchy.
If we Americans never really "got" Russia, we probably "get" it even less now. Because it's somewhat like a house of cards built inside a house of mirrors. You don't know if what you're seeing is stable or even really there.
Yet this was a place of further bonding for Bird and Taurasi. Their time together at UConn ran from 2000 until 2002, when Bird was the WNBA's No. 1 overall draft pick, the same as Taurasi would be in 2004. Their days in Russia expanded their friendship, and provided them with an adoring and indulgent benefactor.
Now, he'd been gunned down in a vehicle that they had ridden in countless times.
"If something of this magnitude happened in the States, the story just doesn't die," Taurasi said of his murder. "But if you ask now if there is any new information on Shabtai, there isn't. It was kind of swept under the rug, and all that is left is his memory. A lot of questions were left unanswered."
Of course, that also could be said of his life, not just his death. There are those who don't view Kalmanovic warmly. Bird seems to more readily acknowledge that "Shabs" had a complex reputation: a man once jailed in Israel for espionage whose detractors claim he accumulated at least some of his wealth in such a way that he could have been a model for a guest character on "Law and Order."
"I know if you do [Internet] searches, there's a lot of stuff about him," Bird said. "But the only side we saw was, by far, the most generous man I've known."
Kalmanovic lavishly pampered his athletes -- such as Bird, Taurasi and Lauren Jackson -- in ways large and small. He wanted to win, but he also wanted them to smell the roses as few ever do.
"He really enjoyed life, and that is one thing we shared more than anything," Taurasi said. "We loved to win -- him in business and me on the basketball court. He would call me his Italian daughter, and he made life there unbelievably good."
Taurasi was in Israel with Kalmanovic on a vacation in October.
"I've never seen him that calm and happy," she said. "Then we get back to Moscow, and three days later, he was assassinated. And the way he was murdered was so brutal.
"The night he was killed, we were all going to his office to go to a concert -- Sylvia Fowles, Janel McCarville and one of the Russian players. And when we got there, it was a weird feeling already in the office.
"He's usually there to greet us, his office is open and we come in to talk to him. And his door was closed, which it never is. We knew something was up. We stayed around about 30 minutes, and then we got the news. It was all over the radio and TV that he was killed."
For Taurasi, it was the second crisis of 2009, a year that saw her hit a professional peak as WNBA champion and MVP, but also a personal valley with a DUI arrest.
The remorse and shame she'd felt from that July incident, to which she pled guilty, were topics she didn't avoid talking about as she and the Mercury made their way to the title. She'd stumbled but gotten back up.
"Once the season ended here in Phoenix, everything felt really good," she said. "We put a lot of hard work in, and when it pays off, it's gratifying."
She was expecting to keep the good vibes going with Spartak, but instead she was faced with the loss of someone who'd become like a second father.
"Really, that's the first time that death hit so close to me," Taurasi said. "He was the person who, the past five years, was probably who I talked to the most. He was someone I could confide in. He did a lot for me personally and for my career. So it was very hard."
Jackson, also greatly affected by Kalmanovic's death, did not come to Russia for the season. Taurasi, though, was determined to play there. Did she feel fearful staying in Russia after the murder?
"I really did not. We always felt safe," she said. "The car he was in, I had been in a million times. But I never felt in harm's way. And after it happened, there was no way I was leaving. There was a sense of loyalty and commitment that he had to me, and I was going to repay that."
Bird said that after an initial period of uncertainty, operations with Spartak resumed pretty similarly to what the players were used to. But without the unique personality of Kalmanovic, it really couldn't be the same.
"There are still moments when something will happen, and it will remind me of him, and I'll get very sad," Bird said. "He meant a lot to us, he did a lot for us. We had a lot of fun and memorable times. We really felt like part of his family. He would take us to his house for breakfast and bring his kids to our house.
"Then being there last season was hard. It was great to see his kids, but it also made me sad because they look exactly like him."
Taurasi is typically more the wisecracker to Bird's philosopher, although they can switch roles. But Taurasi has always had the sharper kind of devil-may-care sarcasm, generally delivered in good-natured fashion but still a shield against whatever might harm her. Kalmanovic's death -- and the reaction to it as Russian "business as usual" -- punctured her armor.
"It never seemed real," she said. "For the rest of the season, there was a certain energy that was missing. Sue and I would drive downtown to go eat, and it just didn't feel right. Because every time we'd go before, we'd go with him. Things like that that leave you kind of it sounds strange, but kind of emotionless.
"His wife and Moscow Region, they did a great job of keeping the structure for the whole year. They honored the contracts, and it wasn't easy. Because Shabtai was a micromanager -- he did multibillion-dollar business, then he'd buy us soup and bring it to the house. Every little part of it he wanted to be involved with; that's what made it so special."
Far from simply 'black and white'
Bird and Taurasi both realized that Kalmanovic's death, apart from being a personal loss to them, also had a long-range impact on professional women's basketball.
"In terms of salaries, you have to have competition to make those go up," Bird said. "It could come to a point where teams see they don't have to pay a player a certain amount because nobody else is offering them that much. You have to have that competition, even if it's between two teams in Russia. It had upped the rest of Europe."
Bird will be 30 in October, Taurasi turned 29 in June. It's easy to say they still have a lot of time left to play, but they know that's not guaranteed. Recently, Bird sat out a game with back issues, and Taurasi did the same after injuring her tailbone.
But both have been remarkably durable in their pro careers, never missing any significant time in the WNBA. However, they've pushed themselves hard by playing near year-round and answering every call from USA Basketball, of course.
"I'm reading the Andre Agassi book," Bird said of the tennis champion's candid autobiography, "and after every season, he gets to reunite with his trainer and work on this regimen: 'What do I need to do to get stronger?'
"As a female basketball player, we don't necessarily have that luxury. This year is the first time in five years I took two months off from competing. Mostly, we're constantly playing. It's hard to find that time for maintenance. You want to work out, you want to polish individual skills. But how do you do that without getting too tired for the games you're playing in?"
Taurasi suggested earlier this summer that maybe the time could be coming when she will have to take a break -- and that it might be during the WNBA season, because that's less lucrative.
She knows how that sounds, and so does Bird. They don't want to appear to not support the U.S.-based league. But will they reach a level of fatigue where they feel they have no choice but to step away for all or part of a summer?
"There is a limit to our careers as athletes, and you want to make the most of that time," Bird said. "Is that making as much money as you can? To each her own. But it's definitely a question at some point.
"When you lay it out, it probably makes sense to take some or all of the WNBA season off, financially. But, on the other hand, there are a lot of things the WNBA provides. It's the best competition. You're playing in front of your family and friends. You have health insurance and a 401(k). For some, their endorsement deals might ride on playing in the WNBA. You can try to break it down black and white, but it's just not as black and white as you might think."
And for players such as Taurasi and Bird, there's probably no "acceptable" gray area when it comes to what's expected of them by fans. They are not just Americans who understandably feel obligated to do whatever they can for the success of the U.S. pro league.
They are the highest-profile Americans. They are UConn royalty. They are women's hoops' Redford and Newman. They can't quietly lay low.
"If an American player sat out the WNBA season -- well, it depends on which ones, because some have and you don't hear anything about it -- people will say she's selfish," Bird said. "But I understand that. It's just a really difficult issue."
For now, though, their focus is completely on this WNBA season, which is going particularly well for Bird's Storm. Seattle is running away with the Western Conference at a league-best 16-2. Bird had 16 points Tuesday as the Storm beat New York even without leading scorer Jackson, out with a mild concussion.
"For me, I've had success in Europe, but I haven't won a WNBA title in a long time," Bird said, referring to her 2004 championship with the Storm. "We've had success with USA Basketball, and that's great. But winning titles is something you definitely think about all the time.
"All year, you're never not preparing for something -- with what you eat, how you sleep, whether you go out. You're constantly preparing in your head. That's something that was ingrained in us early at Connecticut."
Taurasi's Phoenix team, adjusting to playing without Cappie Pondexter, is only 7-11. But in a decimated West, that's good enough for third place.
Taurasi had 30 points Tuesday in helping Mercury newcomer Candice Dupree drag Phoenix across the finish line at Los Angeles. Dupree -- whom Taurasi calls "an amazing player; she's so good" -- came to Phoenix as part of the three-way deal that sent Pondexter (by her vigorous request) to New York.
"I reached out to her," Taurasi said of her reaction when she heard that Pondexter wanted to leave Phoenix. "I was lobbying the hardest to keep her in town. She's a great friend, and there was no one I'd rather go into a game with feeling confident that we can get it done.
"But sometimes things work out; that's the path she wanted to go and I'm happy for her if she's enjoying herself."
Saturday, when Pondexter made her return to Phoenix, it turned out to be not so enjoyable for anybody. In a game charged with emotion, Pondexter committed a flagrant foul against former teammate Penny Taylor on a breakaway layup, then gave Taurasi an elbow when she raced over to see if Taylor was OK. Pondexter was ejected.
It was a final fracturing of the Mercury's former terrific trio, at least on court. Taurasi gave her standard shrug of, "Things happen," afterward, and no doubt she and Pondexter will still be pals. That has always been a Taurasi trademark -- she might seem volcanic at times, but the lava cools just as quickly and she doesn't hold on to grievances. She hopes others don't hold on to them against her.
After all, it's just part of basketball, which to Taurasi is as natural a function as eating or sleeping. Yet even with such an instinct for the game and love of playing it, hard work has also helped Taurasi position herself as one of the game's greatest successes.
"There is a point where you have to get serious," she said of firmly committing in 2008 to getting in the best shape she could. "Your window starts shrinking. And you don't want to wake up one day and say, 'What did you do with the last five years?'"
Bird has made the same commitment, stating plainly, "If you're in great shape, you can play at a higher level for a longer period of time. Everybody in this league can do great things, but not if you're too tired to do them."
So they continue on. They'll be the biggest of the stars at the Sun. Then they'll separate and finish out the WNBA season. Can Bird and the Storm get another title? Or will Taurasi and the Mercury find a way to derail them? Then it's back together again with another quest for gold at the world championship.
For two such eloquent people, distinctly different but in some ways the same -- and forever linked -- Taurasi can wrap up their approach to basketball succinctly.
"At the end of the day, if you don't win, none of it counts," she said. "It's just a whole lot of fluff."
Mechelle Voepel, a regular contributor to ESPN.com, can be reached at email@example.com. Read her blog at voepel.wordpress.com.