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Originally published July 21, 2012 at 8:10 PM | Page modified July 21, 2012 at 9:50 PM

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Evolving Bird now leader of dominant U.S. women's hoops

Sue Bird is the leader of the U.S. women's basketball team seeking gold at the Olympic Games that begin this week in London.

Seattle Times staff reporter

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This is a nice piece of recognition for both a remarkable athlete and person that... MORE
Nice article. Ms. Bird is the greatest. GO USA!! MORE
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It was the 1980s. Herschel and Nancy Bird, a doctor and registered nurse, were raising two girls in their suburban Long Island home. The youngest, Sue, had bedroom walls coated in canary yellow.

Storm point guard Sue Bird, now 31, was asked if the faded gold coloring could have been foreshadowing her Olympic dreams.

"I was planning this since age 2!" she jokes.

Her career path was somewhat decided, too.

Not by her parents, who hoped she'd play basketball at Stanford and become a lawyer, as her older sister did. But by basketball experts who spotted her talent early and predicted success.

And now Bird is the leader of the U.S. women's team seeking gold at the Olympic Games that begin this week in London.

"Sometimes it's harder to prove people right when there's a lot of expectations," said Bird, who won two high-school titles, two NCAA championships at Connecticut, two WNBA titles with the Storm and four EuroLeague championships. "But I also know that even though I've achieved a lot and won a lot, I've had a lot of people help me along the way. Those memories will probably stick out more than most."

When talking rosters, this London lineup with Bird, a three-time Olympian, could be remembered as the best America has ever assembled.

Women's basketball is arguably the USA's most dominant Olympic team sport. The U.S. is attempting to win a fifth consecutive gold when play begins Saturday. Team USA has won 33 consecutive games at the Olympics.

But Bird isn't rushing to call this the best team. Not yet.

"The only time you can really compare teams is when you're comparing gold-medal winners," Bird said. "That's the challenge of this team."

It's a challenge that has always been Bird's dream since picking up a basketball in grade school simply because her sister, Jennifer, played. She dreamed of playing in the Olympics then — the WNBA didn't exist until Bird was in high school.

And the dream materialized at the Athens Games in 2004. But Bird was the backup to the backup, Dawn Staley carrying the tradition five-time Olympic guard Teresa Edwards set on the grand stage for point guards. Bird, learning the international game and how to lead, had eight assists in seven Olympic matchups.

Bird returned to Seattle and helped the Storm win its first WNBA title.

USA Basketball, with Bird as the starting point guard, lost the 2006 World Championships, missing a chance for a guaranteed spot in the Beijing Games. The Storm went through turmoil, getting knocked out of the first round of the WNBA playoffs in consecutive years. In Russia, Bird's Moscow Dynamo team could reach only the quarterfinals in the prestigious EuroLeague playoffs.

Then there were the injuries to her neck, back and knees. Her averages dropped to career-low 10.4 points and 4.9 assists in 2007 in Seattle. That fall, coach Anne Donovan resigned and there was a roster overhaul.

"I had to look myself in the mirror and ask myself what did I want?" Bird said. "Did I want to just be somebody who fell off, for lack of a better way of saying it? Or did I want to prove that I was one of the best point guards? I really had to ... figure out what I needed to do to get myself back. When you're going through that, it's hard to get out."

Bird began by changing her diet, noticing that at about 10 pounds lighter she can play at an elite level longer. She also switched Russian teams, playing for Spartak with stars Diana Taurasi and Lauren Jackson — the trio adapting to the "addicted to skinny" philosophy.

The last big change was studying.

Of the 144 women's basketball athletes prepared to compete in London, Bird believes she has played with or against players on every team except Angola, first-time competitors in the event. Bird's particularly familiar with the guards for France (Edwidge Lawson-Wade), Russia (Becky Hammon) and Australia (Kristi Harrower), countries Bird expects to be USA Basketball's toughest competition.

But only one of those point guards has always been projected to win gold seemingly since her mother chose a version of it as Bird's bedroom wall color. The question is whether she can achieve it, again, to join the all-time greats.

"I'm sure that once all is said and done, I'll see that I've achieved a lot," Bird said. "I was able to prove a lot of people right and maybe prove some people wrong, which is a good thing."

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

On Twitter @JaydaEvans

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