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ATHENS 2004

It's Country First, Mate

WNBA's Lauren Jackson and Sue Bird make transition to being Olympic opponents

August 03, 2004|Mike Terry | Times Staff Writer

Seattle Storm co-captains Sue Bird and Lauren Jackson are the best of teammates and best of friends.

Bird, a point guard, and Jackson, a forward-center, are two critical elements for the Storm, which is battling the first-place Sparks for the WNBA's best record.

"Lauren and I have a really good relationship off the court. We're really good friends," Bird said. "Both the coaches and players look to us to lead. From that aspect we are close. She's somebody I'm used to going to war with."

Added Jackson: "If I need to confide in anyone, she's one of the first people I talk to. She's on the same page with me on the court and off the court. It's great."

But for two weeks during the Olympic Games in Athens, they will be at each other's throats -- in a competitive way.

In Athens, they will be wearing the uniforms of their national teams. Bird is playing in her first Olympics as a member of Team USA. Jackson, a native of Australia, is playing in her second Olympics.

Both players said it will "feel weird" being on opposite sides.

"I've never played with a better point guard. But you have to get used to playing with other teammates," Jackson said. "I guess it's sport, really. I mean, what if one of us got traded? We'd be against each other all the time."

Bird said it was more strange to play against Jackson in the 2002 world championships.

"That was the first time," Bird said. "She had just been my teammate recently, and the next month I had to see her in the [other uniform].

"The way I'm looking at it, this is someone I can't wait to hang out with after the games in Greece. It might be different if we played the same position and we were going literally head to head."

The Bird-Jackson situation is unique because several international players -- some by choice, others by national team decree -- did not play in the WNBA this season, staying home to prepare for the Athens Games, even though the U.S. league is on hiatus throughout this month because of the Olympics.

The Phoenix combo of Diana Taurasi (U.S.) and Penny Taylor (Australia) are the only other teammates that could face each other in Athens. Svetlana Abrosimova, a Minnesota Lynx teammate of U.S. Olympian Katie Smith, has not yet decided whether she'll play for Russia.

According to USA Basketball officials, Elena Baranova of Russia, Jackson and Taylor are the only international Olympians who played in the WNBA this season.

Bird, whose first taste of international competition came in the 2002 world championships in China, is lucky in that she doesn't carry the U.S. hopes on her shoulders. For starters, she's coming off the bench, backing up veteran point guard Dawn Staley. Bird is considered part of the United States' next generation of national team players, a burgeoning core that includes Swin Cash, Tamika Catchings, Ruth Riley and Taurasi.

U.S. Coach Van Chancellor has said he put together the best group of players for this Olympics.

"He wasn't picking a team for 2008 or 2012," Bird said of Chancellor. "He was picking a team that was going to win the gold in 2004. I don't think any of us are on the team to get us ready for the next Olympics. We're trying to win the gold in this Olympics."

Spark standout Lisa Leslie, who will be playing in her third Olympics, described Bird as "a good shooter who also likes to push the ball."

"She got good experience in the spring international tour," Leslie said, "but when you're young like this it's a real learning experience."

Australia and Russia are considered to be the United States' main competition for the gold medal. South Korea, however, finished fourth in Sydney in 2000 and the world championship in 2002, and may be ready to challenge for a medal.

Chancellor doesn't seem concerned that the rest of the world is catching up to the women's team.

"That hasn't entered my mind," said Chancellor, who also coaches the WNBA's Houston Comets. "I'm just trying to take our players over there and do the very best job we can. We have really good players; getting them to come together in a short amount of time and understanding their roles is what it's all about."

But Leslie said the U.S. team better not expect to win the gold medal just by showing up.

"The game has grown," Leslie said. "Now you see the WNBA televised over in Italy and Germany as well as NBA games. The other women are watching and working on their games, the young kids continue to get better.

"There's not much disparity between the teams anymore. We're not guaranteed the gold."

Jackson said Australia feels ready to win it all. Australia, with Jackson as its main star, won the silver medal at the 2000 Olympics and the 2002 world championships.

"I think we're definitely closer to a gold medal than we were in 2000," she said. "Right before the gold-medal game, one of my teammates said, 'Well at least we'll get a silver since we're playing America.' And I'm thinking, why is there this wall between Australia and America?

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