An air of optimism encircled Team USA's basketball camp as preparations ramp up ahead of tournament opener against Nigeria.
Four-time Olympic gold medal winner Diana Taurasi confirmed to media in Japan on Thursday (22 July) that she is back in training and optimistic of starting in Team USA's opening game against Nigeria on Tuesday.
“I’m getting a little better every day. I’ve touched the court for the last few days so that’s a good sign - I’m hopeful that’s the plan," shared Taurasi.
"When you haven’t played for a while there’s a little bit of a protocol to get back on the court so I’m checking all the boxes and hopefully I’ll be ready for the first game against Nigeria."
The 39-year-old missed the last three games with the Phoenix Mercury in the WBNA as a result of a left hip injury. Taurasi also missed out on the WNBA All-Star Game and Team USA’s exhibition matches in Las Vegas earlier this month.
The Diana Taurasi effect
Taurasi is something of a talisman for Team USA.
The four-time USA Basketball Female Athlete of the Year is just one of 11 players to have ever earned an Olympic gold medal, FIBA World Cup gold medal, WNBA title and NCAA title.
Assistant coach Jennifer Rizzotti remarked on the veteran's capacity to draw on her achievements, and raise the game of those around her:
“Her leadership, her intensity that she plays with elevates us in practice and that’s been noticeable in the last two days.”
“She knows how to make the players around her better. She moves the ball well, she sees the open the guy, she delivers the right pass, so you can’t just guard her with one person because she is literally able to score in so many ways but she’s able to get us easier baskets," Rizzotti added.
The influence of guard, who owns the U.S. Olympic single-game record for most three-pointers made (6), is one that is far reaching among her teammates.
For two-time WNBA champion Jewell Loyd, Taurasi is the pinnacle.
“I think for me, I’m still just trying to follow whatever Diana does. I’ll just try and mimic that as much as I can,” Loyd said wryly before switching tone, “her record, her track record, speaks for itself and she gives so much confidence to so many players. She’s constantly talking, encouraging.”
“She brings a lot of joy to the game of basketball and for me that’s a player I watched growing up and wanted to be like, and now she’s my teammate and she’s encouraging me - it definitely gives me a lot more comfort on the court” - Jewell Loyd on Diana Taurasi
Sue Bird USA flag bearer announcement
Taurasi is not the only basketball veteran on Team USA lifting spirits.
It was announced at the beginning of training, by Taurasi, that 40-year-old Sue Bird would be one of the United States flag bearers at the Tokyo 2020 Opening ceremony.
“When Carol finally came over and told me that I was going to announce at the beginning of practice I was a little nervous!” Taurasi said detailing the moment Bird received the news.
“We were just all really happy for Sue. Her getting it, I think the whole team felt like we got it so, you know, for how selfless Sue is it’s a pretty amazing thing.
“It’s just a testament to how hard she’s worked and all the things she does on and off the court, and her leadership skills are second to none.”
The question of team chemistry is often one that follows Team USA when it comes to their Games preparation. Given the nature of their domestic season and the weight of expectation that follow both the women’s and men’s sides how quickly players mesh is often discussed.
For Rizzotti, Bird’s news was a moment that united her team together:
“These players all have so many individual accolades over their careers, and they’re always shared with you all and the public, but it was kind of an intimate moment for our group to be able to hear that and to be able to congratulate her.”
“It’s so much deserved for Sue and everything that she’s stood for and not just for USA Basketball but for the United States. I mean she’s been a role model for so many young women. I’m just honoured to be a part of her career in this role that I’ve had.”
U.S. Basketball pool stage prospects
With the way U.S. basketball has dominated the Olympic arena, the question lingers over whether they can continue that form in Tokyo.
Team USA suffered two shock losses to the WNBA All Star and Australia ahead of arriving in Tokyo, before then switching gear to comprehensively defeated Nigeria.
“Every pool is tough,” Rizzotti shared, reflecting on what lies in wait for her team.
“But we feel specifically our pool starting with Nigeria, then Japan and then France, is really going to test us and really get us ready.”
“I don’t think there’s as big as a disparity as people think there is in this world. I mean when you look at the teams we’re playing against at this Olympics and, probably because they’ve narrowed it to 12 teams, we’re looking at the very best."
"So many of these players play professionally in the United States or around the world and they continue to get better and better every single time we step on the floor in the Olympics." - Jennifer Rizzotti
“We didn’t want to come here and have Nigeria in the first game be our first time together as a team. We don’t have a lot preparation, we never have. Other teams have probably been together for weeks and months but that’s what U.S. basketball has been about. We’ve got to come together in a short amount of time, we’ve got to compete against really special teams in the world.”
Never taking the Olympic Games for granted
As the U.S. women’s basketball team begin their pursuit of their seventh consecutive Olympic title, it is clear that the special quality of the Olympic Games is not lost of any of the U.S.’s brightest basketball stars.
For 27-year-old Loyd, winning gold at the Games has always been a dream. Then, when her WBNA career began to take off, it became part of the plan drawn up between her and basketball legend Kobe Bryant:
“The Olympics is everything. It’s one of my goals ever since I started to play basketball, was to win an NBA Championship and also win a gold medal.”
“The fact that I’m able to be here knowing all the sacrifices my family has made, all the sacrifices people in my life have made and that goes to the time I spent with Kobe and our goals that we had for myself and what we wanted to do – it’s kind of surreal.”
Taurasi noted the unique challenge the Games present and how it is only a select few who can thrive in the environment:
“It’s not for everyone, it’s not an easy transition.”
“We know every single player that puts a jersey on on other teams, their go-to player is probably their best player but when you get together with 12 other great players it’s all about: ‘how can I make the team better?’ ‘What two or three things did I do really well that I have to make sure I do at a very high level. I think having some main staples has really helped USA Basketball just carry the tradition of going out and competing at the highest level.”
Catch the U.S. women’s basketball team in action when they begin their Olympic gold medal campaign against Nigeria on Tuesday 27 July, and follow it all on our Live Blog.