U.S. Women Win Basketball Gold, and Prepare to Turn the Page
SAITAMA, Japan — The members of the United States women’s basketball team lined up on the court at Saitama Super Arena, stepped up onto the …
SAITAMA, Japan — The members of the United States women’s basketball team lined up on the court at Saitama Super Arena, stepped up onto the highest podium and raised their hands above their heads.
The scene, in some ways, was novel and unfamiliar. Thick white masks obscured the lower halves of the players’ faces. The seats in the stands behind them were empty. But in other ways, it was exactly what the basketball world has seen from the American women’s team for more than two decades.
The United States dominated on the court in the final of the Olympic tournament, beating Japan, 90-75, to claim the team’s seventh consecutive gold medal. The Americans’ talent was unmatched throughout a Games in which they did not lose a game. And in the middle of the team picture afterward were the smiling faces of two veteran guards, Sue Bird and Diana Taurasi, who won their first gold medal before some of their current teammates had entered kindergarten.
Bird and Taurasi each claimed their fifth gold medal, a record for basketball players at the Olympics. Each collected her first at the 2004 Games in Athens, and they have been stalwarts of the team ever since, taking the baton from the players who came before them and trying to pass on something to the generation to come.
“Hopefully we left some sort of a legacy for the younger players where they now can carry that torch,” said Bird, who had 7 points and 3 assists in the gold medal game. “To be sitting here now after going through 20 years of that, it’s amazing.”
Bird, 40, confirmed that these would be her last Olympics (“No one has to ask about it anymore,” she said). Taurasi (7 points, 8 assists, 6 rebounds) seemed to suggest as much, too, talking nostalgically about her international career after the game.
But when she was asked, point blank, if she would join Bird in stepping aside, Taurasi did not rule out playing at the 2024 Games, when she would be 42.
“I love Paris,” Taurasi said between sips of Champagne. “They have beautiful buildings there, great fashion.”
The international careers of Bird and Taurasi sparkled against a larger backdrop of excellence from the national team. The women’s team, packed today with W.N.B.A. stars, has won 55 consecutive games at the Olympics. The last time it lost a game in this tournament was in 1992, at the Barcelona Games.
The team’s run of consecutive Olympic titles has now matched the seven-gold run of the American men’s team, from 1936 to 1968.
Amid a generational changeover, there were plenty of assurances on Sunday that the future for the team would remain equally bright.
The Americans’ game plan, which never stopped working, was to get the ball inside to Brittney Griner. She led the team in scoring with 30 points and hardly missed a shot, finishing 14 for 18 from the field.
As Griner spoke after the game in the tunnel next to the court, her teammates playfully teased her about her big game. Griner shouted back, “Can I get some barbecue sauce for that 30-piece?”
Griner’s totals were not the only eye-popping stat line of the night. Breanna Stewart, 26, had 14 points, 14 rebounds, 5 assists, 4 steals and 3 blocked shots. And A’ja Wilson, who turned 25 on Sunday, had 19 points and 5 blocks.
All three players had nothing but praise, and respect, for the longevity and legacy of Bird and Taurasi.
“I’m sitting in the locker room like, ‘They really did this five times?’” Wilson said. “At the opening ceremony, I was like, ‘Five times? My feet hurt!’ But it’s real. It makes you want to come back and continue to give and to build for the next generation.”
Japan, undersized and overmatched, relied on its outside shooting to keep the score close in the first half on Sunday. But the Americans were too clinical around the basket, too tough on defense, too tall in the paint. The United States registered 12 blocks as a team; the Japanese finished with none.
Maki Takada led Japan with 17 points, and Nako Motohashi added 16 while going 4 for 5 from 3-point range.
Tears flowed for a few Japanese players after the final buzzer, a common scene for Japanese athletes who failed to win gold at these Games, but the sorrow seemed to last only a few seconds. In truth, Japan’s silver was a fine accomplishment for a team that had never before reached the medal round. As the American team celebrated on the court, the Japanese players formed a ring at midcourt and bowed toward the stands.
All game long they had received energetic support from several hundred Games staff members and volunteers who had taken seats in the stands to watch, and this final act drew a warm, appreciative round of applause. When the Japanese players received their medals, they celebrated as jubilantly as the Americans.
“We were lucky there wasn’t 30,000 Japanese fans in that building today because it would have been a different ballgame,” Taurasi said.
The United States coach, Dawn Staley, who played on the 2004 team that delivered Bird and Taurasi’s first medals, won her first gold medal as a coach. She has three as a player, including one from the 1996 Atlanta Games, the Olympics that started the Americans on their current gold medal streak.
After the game, Staley said that she, too, would be stepping away from the team.
“Who else is going to sit on this podium in 2024 without them?” Staley said, smiling as she looked at Bird and Taurasi. “I’m not.”