PHOENIX — Almost 25 minutes after Phoenix Mercury star Diana Taurasi sent her best friend, Seattle Storm star Sue Bird, off into the sunset of their own personal rivalry, they were navigating the underbelly of the downtown Footprint Center on Friday night trying to figure out which way to go.
After they shared the postgame news conference — a first for both of them, which was a rare feat to find something neither had done after nearly two decades in the WNBA — they walked out, stage left and never left each other’s side. Flanked by cameras, security guards and executives, they walked down hallways. They turned corners. They backtracked. Then kept walking more. They laughed like old friends, the recent sting of a loss for Bird and the pride of one last triumph over her best friend for Taurasi not to be found. They figured out their plans for dinner.
People lingering after the game waved and took pictures. Others emerged out of closed doors to point and stare, their phones up the whole time.
That Taurasi scored 28 points or made six 3-pointers or that Bird scored just two points and had just five assists or that the Mercury won 94-78 didn’t seem to matter.
The day, the game, the atmosphere were about Taurasi and Bird playing each other for the last time in the regular season before Bird retires at the end of the season.
“I’m kinda glad it’s over,” Taurasi said after the game.
It was their 46th time facing each other, tying the WNBA record for the most meetings between two players. But to Bird, publicly, No. 46 wasn’t all that different from the first 45.
“There was no extra anything on this,” Bird said. “I think of this as another game in the story of our WNBA like, quote, unquote, rivalry. And I think of it more as just a celebration.
“I don’t think of it beyond that. Maybe this is one of those moments where in a couple years, you talk about the last one — although I have a feeling I’m not going to talk about this.”
When Bird went to Taurasi’s house on Thursday night to see Taurasi’s wife, Penny Taylor, and their two kids, they talked. But not about basketball. It was a night of family and reminiscing.
“It’s exciting to start a new chapter off the court with our families and making other memories in other ways,” Taurasi said. “And the basketball part will always be there. That’s the one thing that we’ve dedicated our whole lives to.
“So, those memories, they stay close to my heart, whether we played against each other, with each other. It’s been an incredible ride, and you know, in any profession when you get to do something with your best friend for 20 years, life’s good.”
Looking back is something Bird does, just not publicly. She tries to leave it at home or in her hotel room. The court, the arena, the gym — they’re for basketball.
But on Friday afternoon, as she sat in her room at the Hotel Palomar across the street from the arena, a show on ESPN discussed her and Taurasi. It’s times like that where, in private, Bird let herself experience the emotion of facing her best friend for the last time in the regular season.
“So, it’s tricky,” Bird said. “There’s moments where the emotion does get to me, but you’re also trying to play a basketball game, right? You’re also trying to compete in a season, you’re trying to peak at the right time and get to the playoffs and all those things. So, for me, personally, I really have to monitor that and control that a little bit and find that balance of enjoying these moments.
“They are special, right? But also not letting it overcome me in a way that’s going to take me out of the game.”
There’s a chance Bird and Taurasi could see each other again in the playoffs, especially after Phoenix jumped into the eighth and final playoff spot with its win Friday. But that could change in the next game. Nothing’s guaranteed. Taurasi and Bird have learned that countless times in their careers.
Regardless of if they meet in the postseason, Friday night was about Taurasi and Bird.
During a pregame ceremony that included a video tribute, Taurasi presented Bird with a pair of custom Jordan 1s that honor Bird and her career.
Taurasi, as she’s known to do, also got in one last rib.
“It’s time for you to go,” she said, tongue in cheek, on the big screen looming above the court.
Their genuine affection for each other was hard to miss throughout the evening. As it always is, it was on display whenever they were together on the court before tipoff.
Their hug before the two sat down for a TV interview about an hour before tip — in which there were more smiles and laughs than questions — was the kind of embrace you see from two best friends who haven’t seen each other for a minute.
After Bird’s warm-up, she stopped to sign autographs on her way to the locker room. Within mere seconds, a crowd descended upon her as she inked her name on everything from mini basketballs to jerseys while signing in a complete 360. It didn’t matter that she was the visitor or even a West rival. She was embraced and celebrated by a mixture of Mercury and Storm fans.
Back in 2019, Taurasi, talking about being hated by fans on the road, wondered why Bird didn’t receive the same reception she does.
“I know sometimes, we’re getting introduced and, ‘Sue Bird …'” Taurasi said, before mimicking applause. “I’m like, ‘You guys, we’re in Phoenix. Will someone boo her please? S—. Why are we clapping for Sue Bird, dammit?’ And I go up there, and they’re throwing toilet paper at me, holy water.”
Bird’s greeting was no different Friday night. Except it was better. She received a standing ovation when she received the Mercury’s gift and another cheer when she was introduced — just like Taurasi complained about. This one was warranted, though.
For 17 years, fans in Phoenix watched their future Hall of Famer face her best friend, another future Hall of Famer. They appreciated what was unfolding before them Friday night.
Bird jerseys in Seattle’s trademark yellow and green stood out against the purple and black Mercury threads. There was more than one of Bird’s UConn jerseys in the crowd and a handful of Bird’s Team USA jerseys.
They complemented the plethora of Taurasi’s Mercury and Team USA jerseys that dotted the crowd.
Still in their own jerseys, hidden under shooting shirts, with their Nikes still tied, Taurasi and Bird were still together as they turned toward a security door. They were ushered through it and then they were gone. Off to continue to be best friends some more, the night and the hype over, another memory for the two of them written.
“Hopefully, we put on some good shows through the years,” Bird said. “I think we did all right.”