Rivals and best friends: Inside the special, rare Sue Bird-Diana Taurasi friendship

    Mechelle Voepel covers the WNBA, women’s college basketball, and other college sports for espnW. Voepel began covering women’s basketball in 1984, and has been with ESPN since 1996.

It’s one of the great friendships in sports. But the longest-running rivalry among best friends in WNBA history is nearing its end. The Seattle Storm’s Sue Bird, in her 19th and final WNBA season, and the Phoenix Mercury’s Diana Taurasi, in her 18th season, meet Friday (10 p.m. ET, NBA TV) in Phoenix for what will be the last time unless their teams face off in the playoffs.

It will be the 46th time they have met in the WNBA regular season, with Bird holding a 25-20 edge. That ties for the most head-to-head regular-season meetings between players in the league. Tamika Catchings and Swin Cash and Lindsay Whalen and Candice Dupree also met 46 times.

Bird and Taurasi have faced off 14 times in the postseason, with Taurasi having an 8-6 edge. The 41-year-old Bird and the Storm have won four WNBA titles, while Taurasi, 40, and the Mercury have won three. Bird, the WNBA’s all-time assists leader, has played in a league-record 570 games. Taurasi, the league’s all-time scoring leader, will appear in her 500th game Friday. They are the only players in WNBA history to hit the 500 mark.

The guards grew up on opposite coasts: Bird from Long Island, New York, and Taurasi from Southern California. Their first official game together was 22 years ago on the same team: Nov. 12, 2000, in Hartford, Connecticut, as their UConn Huskies beat the Georgia Lady Bulldogs 99-70. Bird was a junior who had helped lead UConn to the program’s second NCAA title seven months before. Taurasi was a whiz-kid freshman who early on in college did a full-speed, spin-move layup in transition that left Bird thinking, “There’s a new sheriff in town.”

Bird had 11 points and three assists in that first game, with Taurasi coming off the bench to score eight points. They would go to the women’s Final Four twice and win a national championship in 2002. Taurasi would win two more NCAA titles before following Bird as a WNBA No. 1 draft pick in 2004.

In their first game as WNBA opponents, each scored 22 points as the Mercury beat the Storm 84-76 on May 28, 2004. Later that summer, they would win the first of their five Olympic gold medals as USA Basketball teammates.

In Russia, they won five EuroLeague titles together. In all, they have spent more than two decades as rivals, teammates, friends and icons for their respective WNBA franchises.

“I can’t come up with another one quite like it,” former WNBA and USA Basketball coach Dan Hughes said of the Bird-Taurasi sports relationship. “You can look at the NBA side and see some of that, but not nearly to the depth that these two have experienced things together, going back to college.

“It’s special, it’s rare, and it’s something that we really need to study. Because I think there are things that we all can apply from the friendship and the story they’ve had with each other.”

Teammates and coaches share there perspectives of Bird and Taurasi, their friendship and what they’ve brought to the game, as told to ESPN.

‘A true friendship’

Arizona Wildcats women’s basketball coach Adia Barnes was teammates with Bird on the Storm team that won the 2004 WNBA title and was there for the first Bird-Taurasi WNBA matchup that season. She was also a longtime Storm broadcast analyst and is a good friend of both players.

“I don’t even know how they still do it. Like, I would die to have to still work out like they do. The way their bodies look … I mean, they are stronger and fitter now than they were in their early years in the league. Maybe they’ve slowed down a little bit, but they are in such great shape and they’ve gotten smarter every season, so it’s like they haven’t missed a beat.

“Diana is someone who will talk a lot on court. Not even really in a rude way or talking crap. She just talks. And what I love most about watching her and being around her for years is the way she makes everybody else so much better. She pumps people up. She can make the 12th person on the team feel important and would give advice to them. She gives everybody confidence.

“When you see her personality on court, she can seem like a hothead. And she’s not afraid of anything. But then she’s one of the best teammates you’ll ever have. She will tell people, ‘Hey, you’ve got this.’ It could be someone who plays two minutes a game, and she’ll pass them the ball and try to make that person feel great.

“Sue makes people feel better because she is so in charge and has a calming effect on everyone. Diana is more outgoing in how she motivates people. But they are both great at that.

“And it’s always been a fun, healthy rivalry. They have always battled, and they might be irritated on the court and argue about something for a second during games, but then were able to hang out afterward.

“Because they have a true friendship. I loved seeing that relationship, because I had never really had anything like that. I never had someone I had known since college, where you compete with and against them at the highest level, yet still have such a close relationship off the court. It’s so rare.”

‘A fascinating journey’

Dan Hughes coached against Bird and Taurasi during his time in the WNBA, coached Bird with Seattle to the 2018 WNBA title and was a USA Basketball assistant during their time with the national team.

“The best example I can give you of them as competitors was the 2018 WNBA semifinals, where we played Phoenix. It’s probably the best series that I’ve ever been involved in; I think a lot of people would say the best in the league in general.

“They both had their moments. Diana made some shots where we did every single thing right defensively, and she still scored. How we scouted her, prepared for her and executed on the court — we did it perfectly, but it didn’t matter. The helplessness you feel as a coach is beyond measure.

“But Sue, in the fourth quarter of Game 5, had 14 points and we won. It was the deciding game, we had trailed much of the way. It was the last act of a great series with great players in it. And it’s really one of the defining moments in Sue’s career.

“What stands out as much to me was when the game was over. I watched the two of them, and you could see it was all part of the same story of greatness as competitors and together. Literally, I could feel it, too. They went at each other as great competitors do, but there was something deeper there.

“I’ve had to coach against many of my former assistants and former players. You compete like heck, you want to beat them, no question. But when the game’s over, there’s something more in that moment. That’s what I sensed from Diana. It wasn’t the typical disappointment after losing. It was a great player realizing another great player had just had an unforgettable game.

“Fast-forward to the Olympics in 2021. Sue came out of the gold-medal game and had a hug for everybody, and I was watching the two of them again. And it was a similar look between them, this time as teammates. And I thought, ‘Isn’t this a fascinating journey those two have had with each other?'”

‘I was sitting there with … two GOATS’

Jewell Loyd was the No. 1 pick by Seattle in the 2015 WNBA draft. She won league titles with Bird in 2018 and 2020 and is a Storm All-Star this year. Loyd won an Olympic gold medal in 2021 as a teammate with Bird and Taurasi and recalls being at her first USA Basketball camp with them.

“I had come back from overseas after my rookie season, and I still felt like a rookie. I was nervous with it being the national team; you don’t know what to expect.

“We were all at the hotel, and Sue and Diana were going to get food. I was just heading up to my room. And they stopped me, like, ‘Where are you going?’ I said, ‘Oh, I’m just putting my bag away.’ And they said, ‘You’re coming to eat with us; we’ll meet you down here in five minutes.

“At that point, I only really knew Sue from my first year on the Storm. Diana didn’t play in the WNBA in 2015 and I really didn’t know her. So that was my first time interacting with Diana. They invited me to dinner and we sat there for hours, and they reminisced about so many stories. They embraced me and encouraged me to keep doing what I was doing. That was amazing.

“I was sitting there with two Hall of Famers, two GOATS, this young player learning all this knowledge right from the get-go. Ever since then, both of them have always checked in on me and made sure I was doing good, and kept encouraging me. I’ll always remember being the rookie getting to sit there with two legends.”

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