By John Zant | Oct. 11, 2017, 4:34 p.m. (ET)
Sue Bird (R) shoots against Sugar Rodgers (#8) and Kiah Stokes (#11) of the USA Basketball Women's Select Team in the second half of the game at Galen Center on July 25, 2016 in Los Angeles.

 

SANTA BARBARA, Calif. -- It’s a long, arduous journey from one Olympic Games to the next, but Sue Bird is willing to take it again.

Even with all of the success she’s had with the U.S. women’s basketball team, Bird knows there will be no shortcuts to the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020, where she could make history by winning a fifth gold medal.

And part of why she’s still here is knowing her presence alone can help the program, as it did during a recent three-day training camp in Santa Barbara, California.

Seventeen women accepted invitations to the camp, and, coming at the end of a grueling WNBA season, they proved to be a younger group. Only Bird and Breanna Stewart, a first-time Olympian last year, had the experience of playing at the Games. The hopefuls, hoping to equal that acheivement in 2020, exhibited a high degree of talent and played with youthful energy. At the end of the last session, Bird put it into perspective.

“There are subtleties to being a member of this USA Basketball team,” she said. “A lot of it is doing the little things. I could tell you right now, if you sat down and said, who was the leading scorer in Rio? … Nobody would know. Who was the leading scorer in London or Beijing or Athens? You might guess, but nobody knows for sure.

“But you remember who has that gold medal. That’s all that matters. It’s bringing your individual talents, because that’s why you’re here, but putting everything else aside and doing every little thing that’s needed to win. That’s where I bring my experience and give some advice.”

That desire to pass on the legacy has flowed through every player who’s matured with the U.S. women’s team, Bird said.

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“We all feel that way. Lisa Leslie did the same thing,” she said. “Her last Olympics was Beijing. You felt her leadership; you watched her and you knew what it meant. From there, you take part of her with you as you go on.”

Bird remembered her first Olympics in 2004, when she was Dawn Staley’s understudy. Staley, who won her third gold medal as a player that year, is now the U.S. coach.

“Dawn was always in my ear that year leading up to Athens,” Bird said. “I learned the most just by watching her, the way she carried herself, how she led the team, what it meant to be the point guard of the national team. I’m just trying to pass that torch on the same way Dawn passed it to me. What Dawn did for me, I want to do for every guard out here.”

Skylar Diggins-Smith found herself studying Bird at the camp. The former Notre Dame guard came away impressed by the veteran’s “presence, her professionalism, the way she takes over the game, the quarterback-type mentality she has. She’s the best teacher on the floor just by watching her.”

Bird, who turns 37 on Oct. 16, said every step along the way to becoming an Olympic team is significant.

“When you’re on the podium and somebody is putting a medal around your neck, yes, that’s a very satisfying moment,” she said. “You know you’ve accomplished a goal that you set out for personally and as a team. But the stuff you remember, it’s the training camps, it’s the rides on the bus, it’s the funny things that happen throughout the course of your preparation.”

Bird came to Santa Barbara in top condition after going through her 15th WNBA season with the Seattle Storm.

“As you get older, you have to look in the mirror and decide what you want things to look like, how you want to go out,” she said. “There are things I need to change from a workout standpoint, from a nutrition standpoint, all that stuff. The best way to sum it up, when you’re older, you can’t just rely on your youth, you can’t just rely on your physical attributes. You have to dot every ‘i,’ cross every ‘t,’ and control everything you can.”

Katie Lou Samuelson, a 20-year-old junior at Connecticut — where Bird was a star almost two decades ago — did not see an aging player at the training camp.

“She’s kicking butt,” Samuelson said. “She’s D’ing me up pretty good.”

That’s what USA Basketball is all about, Bird said.

“Whether it’s the first day of training camp or actually at the Olympics,” she said, “every day is about competing and fighting for that gold medal.”

John Zant is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.