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Thursday, May 25, 2006 - Page updated at 01:56 PM

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Bird's new USA job is a point well taken

Seattle Times staff reporter

PHOENIX — As passengers filed down the jetway to board their flight, Sue Bird was heard clearly over the midmorning chatter: "Australia's goin' down!"

Bird was joking with Seattle Storm teammate Lauren Jackson, an Aussie, about the 2008 Olympics. The field hasn't even been set, but USA Basketball named its core members Tuesday, including Bird. And the excitement of replacing legend Dawn Staley as leader of the Americans at point guard still permeates the back of Bird's mind.

Bird can practice for taking the reins of a national team that will include three-time Olympic gold-medal winners Sheryl Swoopes (Houston) and Lisa Leslie (Los Angeles) by getting the WNBA's Storm (1-1) to play like a championship squad.

Tonight, Bird will face the Phoenix Mercury and guard Diana Taurasi, another player named to represent the U.S. at the World Championships.

The Storm has played polar-opposite games to start the season in defeating Leslie's Sparks by 23 and losing to Staley's Comets by 25. Bird commented at the national team announcement that she's picking Staley's brain to learn about the position. The way the Storm played in their nationally televised game against Houston, there's still a lot of digging to do.

"I've been watching how she [Dawn] gets the most out of her teammates and how she runs the team," Bird said after practice Wednesday. "It's odd because now she's [an assistant] coach [for USA Basketball]. But for me it's as if she was always the coach."

Today

Storm @ Phoenix,

7 p.m., FSN

Bird has watched Staley's game intensely since the 1996 Olympics, picking up nuances like how to quickly decipher where players like the ball passed to them, how to handle various personalities, and how to prepare for international competition. The latter is most important this season because Team USA will not reunite to train for the World Championships in Sao Paulo, Brazil, until after the WNBA championships in September.

The Americans will play in a four-team pool with China, Nigeria and Russia. The top three will move on in the competition and the overall winner will receive an automatic bid to the Beijing Games. It's stiff competition for Team USA, which had to defeat the Russians in the past two finals to win gold.

"I know she [Jackson] wants to beat us very badly," said Bird, who played in Moscow in the offseason. "And the same goes for Russia."

The remaining four members of the team will be a mix of more WNBA players and collegiate players, with Tennessee star Candace Parker heading the pool of about 15 candidates, according to the selection committee. One void that needs to be filled is backup point guard. And Storm coach Anne Donovan, who is also serving as the national-team coach, said depth with players that can be developed for the future also is a goal for the remaining positions.

Those players will be named this summer.

"I don't think that intimidation factor is there anymore," said Swoopes of other countries fearing the U.S. "Egos have to be checked at the door. Our No. 1 goal is to go to Brazil and not come back with anything less than a gold medal."

Notes

• ESPN2 reported Tuesday that Jackson had been hospitalized twice to be injected with bone-growth hormones. That was news to Donovan. "I'd think I'd know something like that," she said. The procedure was done in Australia prior to the season.

• Storm F Wendy Palmer did not practice Wednesday, resting her left Achilles, a nagging injury she had prior to training camp. She will play tonight.

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

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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