Two Players, Two Journeys - Always FriendsJuly 4, 2012
They came to elite basketball careers through far different journeys.
Sue Bird, a physician’s daughter from the upscale Long Island community of Syosset, transferred to Christ the King High School in Queens after it was clear she needed better competition in the sport. An all-American career as the starting point guard on two national championship teams at the University of Connecticut followed, after which she embarked on a WNBA all-star career with the Seattle Storm and has led the USA to a pair of Olympic Gold Medals with a third likely.
The other player, Svetlana Abrosimova, spent her formative years in her native Leningrad, Russia, growing up in a working class family, where her father was a welder. At 16, she was in Olympic prep camps when a Russian coach tipped off UConn’s Geno Auriemma (the UConn coach only saw her tapes) and several months later she landed on U.S. shores, barely speaking the language but focused on becoming a basketball player.
Bird, a 5-9 guard, and Abrosimova, 6-2 forward, were both on the 2000 NCAA national championship team, (some say the best in Storrs history) but the following year, a season-ending foot injury cost Abrosimova, UConn’s only three-time all-America the final stages of her senior year. Bird was to win another national championship, that in 2002.
Both were high draft picks: Abrosimova, 7th overall by Minnesota Lynx, Bird first overall by Seattle Storm, where she has spent her entire career. Abrosimova has played with the Connecticut Sun and is now in her second stint with the Storm, reunited once again with Bird, with whom she plays with in Russia during the off-season.
But at this point their paths will take different courses. Bird is headed to London for her third Olympics; Abrosimova, who has helped lead Russia to Olympic and European competition medals in the past decade, was passed over by the Russian team and will stay in America during the month long hiatus in the pro schedule.
She was taken by surprise when she learned recently from her agent that she would not be among the 22 players invited to the final Russian training camp, from which the team will be selected.
“I was very disappointed,” she said Sunday before the Storm-Sun game. “It was never explained ... I thought everything was fine.”
Abrosimova said she was most disappointed that she didn’t even get a chance to compete at the camp. “It was tough – there was never any real explanation.”
She speculated she was passed over because she didn’t play in the WNBA in 2011, instead preferring to prepare herself for the 2012 London Olympics. She cautioned her countrymen about embarking on a new direction (youth perhaps in this case) during the Olympics.
But as the saying goes, when one door closes another opens and within days the Storm signed her to a free agency contract and she was welcomed back to the team by head coach Brian Agler, who called her an excellent defensive player who also takes risks on offense.
“I had a good relationship with the Storm,” Abrosimova said, referring to her status as the first off the bench during the team’s 2010 WNBA championship year.
“If I was to come back I would only have played with Seattle,” she said.
Bird said she was surprised that Abrosimova was cut from the Olympic team but said every country has its own process. “The reasoning was a little odd,” she said.
Abrosimova will be a strong addition to the Storm, Bird said, because she knows the system and can score and defend.
The Storm, which started the season with strings of losses, is starting to round into shape and has gone 6-1 since mid June.
With Australian center Lauren Jackson back after the Olympics, the future looks bright for the team, which is always among the leaders in the Western Conference.
Bird and Jackson are likely to square off in London, as they have in the past and, although the U.S. is a heavy favorite to win its fifth straight Gold Medal, she’s not taking anything for granted. “Everyone knows the US is the best team, but there’s always a target on your back if you’re the USA,” she said.
She also said the U.S. is at a slight disadvantage because unlike other countries, the team does not have months of preparation because of the WNBA season. They’ll play a few exhibition games before leaving for the Olympics but that’s it.
“The challenge is to see if we can put it all together quickly,” Bird said. One advantage is that the players have been together or played against each other for years so there is a lot of familiarity both with American and foreign athletes.
Bird was noncommittal about whether this will be her last Olympics (she’ll be 32 in October) but her smile, when asked about her future, would indicate a fourth Olympic is definitely in the cards.
As for Abrosimova, who is 32, there will be no more Olympics.
“I wanted to retire with this Olympics,” she said. Instead, there will be disappointment (her parents were planning to attend) as she turns her attention to helping develop younger players in America while enjoying her last few years in the WNBA.
“I still enjoy it,” she said. “I’ve worked so hard to get here. A lot of people helped me become a better player... I’d like to be one of those players who helps bench players.”