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Originally published Thursday, July 31, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Storm point guard Sue Bird ready to lead Team USA

Seattle Storm point guard Sue Bird is about to begin a new era of leadership with the USA women's basketball team as the players seek to defend their gold medal in Beijing.

Seattle Times staff reporter

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PALO ALTO, Calif. — It's a position she envisioned 15 years ago.

When Storm star Sue Bird began playing basketball on the neighborhood courts in Syosset, N.Y., there wasn't a visible professional women's league like the WNBA. The Olympics were her dream.

Once she traveled to Philadelphia to see the women's Dream Team play against China during its 52-game tour, she was sold on reaching that level. Sitting in a quaint gym she saw standouts Katrina McClain, Rebecca Lobo and Teresa Edwards.

She also saw her desired future.

"When I was watching that game, I said, 'I'd love to play for that team,' " Bird said. "It became my goal. That's when it was really real."

More than a decade later, in Beijing beginning next week, Bird will be part of a different era for U.S. women's basketball. She's the leader of a group that has experienced losing in the red, white, and blue uniform. It's a team that wants to use this Olympics to put fear back in the world that has seen the Americans aren't invincible.

Bird is at the helm, replacing three-time gold medalist Dawn Staley at what many regard as the key position in the international game: point guard.

"It's the single-most important position for a lot of reasons," said Staley, an assistant coach on this year's team. "You have a team full of players who are used to having the ball in their hands at the end of the game and getting a lot of touches. You have to be able to manage that part and make each player feel like they're going to get the ball and score, even though they're not.

"And you're going to be challenged in a way that could prevent you from playing for a gold-medal game. But the point guard, they think ahead and have to identify those moments because those will rate your leadership quality."

Bird, 27, started thinking ahead more than a decade ago. Back when she saw the 1996 U.S. team play.

And like a true point guard, she became strategic about every move to stay on the Olympic path. Adding that she wanted to get an education and become a better person, Bird first says she chose Connecticut because of the competitive platform it could provide her. She led the Huskies to two national championships.

After winning every college award, including her third point guard of the year honor, Bird got her first call by the senior team to practice with the group in Colorado Springs, Colo. Despite practicing immediately after landing, she impressed the group, earning a spot on the World Championship team.

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"I played against her and we gave them a pretty good spanking," Staley said of Bird and the USA Select team that played against the national team in 2000. "I started watching her through the ranks because I knew I was going to retire soon. I wanted the leadership, the point-guard position, in good hands. They were touting Sue as the next point guard, so I wanted to see her style.

"She's going to be different than me, more laid back. But when we got the chance to talk, I wanted to tell her a little bit about the things she'll have to look forward to just as the information was passed along to me."

Bird and Staley bonded at the 2004 Olympics. Joking that she played only 30 seconds, Bird appeared in seven of Team USA's eight games as Staley's backup. Rooting for her country, she observed how to lead on the Olympic level.

Signing a nearly $300,000 contract to play in Russia has also helped Bird by picking up the international game and playing against contenders in that country and with Storm star Lauren Jackson, who will captain Australia.

Nothing probably helped Bird more than this season with the Storm (17-9). With WNBA legends Sheryl Swoopes and Yolanda Griffith and all-star Swin Cash on a roster that included six new faces, Bird had to direct stars who led their former teams. She also needed to help build chemistry quickly, and when Jackson left for five games to train with her national team, Bird was the sole leader.

She averaged 15.2 points and 32.4 minutes in helping Seattle go 3-2 during the stretch. Bird leads the league in assists at 5.6 per game.

"Dawn leaves big shoes to fill, but Sue has big feet," said Val Ackerman, president of USA Basketball. "She's the right person at this time to lead it. But the beauty is that we not only have her, we have Cappie [Pondexter] and Kara [Lawson] and both Katie [Smith] and Diana [Taurasi] can swing to the [point-guard position]. We're in really good shape at that position."

But the best motivator probably isn't even having Staley nearby. It was the 2006 World Championship loss to Russia, which knocked the Americans off their gold-medal pedestal. Australia ultimately won the title and automatic berth to the Beijing Games.

Defense was an issue for Team USA, prompting the selection committee to bring in new players like Sylvia Fowles and Pondexter and keep veterans like DeLisha Milton-Jones and Tamika Catchings for their defensive prowess.

Due to the WNBA season and overseas commitments, the three-day session at Stanford is the first time the entire group has had together.

"Sue is big because she did her homework and studied under Dawn in 2004," Olympic coach Anne Donovan said. "She's prepared to take the torch to lead this team, so I'm very much relying on Sue."

Stealing a page from the men's team, Bird is calling these Games redemption. She has worked since grade school to reach this level. Nothing but gold is acceptable.

"This is business," said Bird, who said she'd like to see the Great Wall if time permits. "If my legs are sore, that's something I'll have to skip. We really need to redeem ourselves from Brazil [site of the World Championship loss in 2006], there's no doubt about that. And I know in myself there's a difference between where I was four years ago and where I am now. I'm just really ready to do it."

Jayda Evans: 206-464-2067 or jevans@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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