Where does it say in life’s blueprint that three friends, from the same basketball recruiting class, with diverse social backgrounds, divergent personalities and skills, would grow not only to be lifelong allies, but teammates on the same Olympic team, playing for the college coach they helped win two national championships for at UConn?
And that those three – Asjha Jones, Swin Cash and Sue Bird – would be just half of a six-player UConn contingent that will try to help USA Basketball and coach Geno Auriemma win the gold medal at the 2012 London Olympics in just two weeks.
“It will never happen again,” said UConn associate coach Chris Dailey.
Perhaps she is right. But one of the great stories in the history of Olympic team sports is happening now, front and center in nation’s capital where the USA trained this weekend and will play Brazil Monday before leaving for Great Britain.
Still, this is not a story expressly about the competitive exploits of the 1998 freshmen class, which lost only nine games in four seasons and won NCAA titles in 2000 and 2002, going 39-0 in 2001-02. It’s about the bond that still prevails between Jones, Cash, Bird and Tamika Williams-Raymond, who along with Keirsten Walters comprised perhaps the greatest class in women’s basketball history.
“I don’t know that any of us thought much about anything at all as freshman because we so scared of the coach,” said Williams-Raymond, who played in the WNBA for Minnesota and Connecticut before retiring to coach and enter private business in Texas. “And coach never allowed us to think that far ahead so that we’d be tempted to equate our ability with the potential we had.”
Williams-Raymond, the consensus high school player of the year in 1998 from Dayton, Ohio, likely was the best player of the bunch coming to UConn.
“If you think about it, had Tamika stayed with it [basketball], there was no reason she couldn’t have been on this [Olympic team], too,” said Diana Taurasi, who came to UConn when Fab Five (as it was known) were juniors. “She was probably the most talented.”
But where Williams-Raymond – also a first-round WNBA pick in 2002 with Bird and Cash – zigged, her three teammates zagged, establishing vibrant professional and international careers as champions and all-stars. Bird and Cash have already been Olympians. Jones, hampered by injuries during her career, is playing in her first after being a part of the 2010 World Championship team.
“They were so competitive, so unbelievably committed to what they were doing and they just kept getting better,” said Auriemma. “But you don’t look at them as freshmen and say, ‘They are going to play for the Olympic team.’
“But when Sue and Swin were seniors, I began to realize that might be in their future because of the magnitude of what they had already done [at UConn]. I wasn’t sure, but I’m not surprised.”
Williams-Raymond said the four came to UConn quite different people and actually were so perplexed after their first summer workout they talked about transferring.
“We said, ‘we’re out of her,’’’ said Williams-Raymond laughing.
They stayed, of course. They were just getting to learn about each other.
“The morning of our first workout at UConn, I woke up at 5 a.m. because we were starting at six,” said Williams-Raymond. “I thought I heard and smelled an iron. Sure enough, Swin was ironing her sweat pants – really, to go to a workout? That’s just a little example of how our personalities were popping at that time.
“Asjha came to UConn with Timberland boots and puffy coats. I was a Catholic school girl with sandals and Tommy Hilfiger dresses and a $400 Dooney & Bourke purse my mom bought me for graduation that I was so proud to have.
“There was this perception about how sweet Sue was; America’s sweetheart, No. 10, all smiles. But the truth is, she was goofy. Even now, she posts only really funky, funny stuff on Facebook. She has a great sense of humor.
“The dynamic of our relationship, then to now, will never be duplicated.”
Cash says the women had their own code of communication, reveling in inside jokes and secret phrases that still resonate more than a decade after graduation.
“It’s a very unique friendship,” said Cash, who now plays for the Chicago Sky. “We can go for a long period of time without talking and then pick up the phone and we’re right back. We still remember the jokes we told and use the same code we used for things. We’ve reached such a comfort level with each other.”
Cash has the reputation for being somewhat of a diva, but likely with good cause. She is one of the game’s striking beauties, as capable of being a model as an all-pro forward.
“Whether you like her or don’t like her, and that’s how people are with her, in general, she is consistently Swin,” said Williams-Raymond. “She is who she is all the time, she never changes. If we go someplace, she likes certain things, like having her hair done. And if she wants a purple streak in her hair she will do it. I learned from her to be a consistent person.”
Jones, always the stoic one, also seems to be the quiet one, certainly in the public where her words are guarded.
“Asjha is not a serious as you may believe, but I will say this; I was afraid of her when I was a freshman in college,” said Williams-Raymond. “She is a rock. She will always be stealth. She will never open up, although she has more in the last five years than she ever has. If she doesn’t trust you, she will never open up to you. And she could care less about what anyone may think of that. But we you earn her trust, she is one of the most loyal, trustworthy people in the world.”
But now as women, they are much the same; worldy and wealthy, gifted and accomplished.
“That’s family to me,” said Jones. “We can go without talking to each other for days, months, but as soon as you do, it’s just like old times. You can pick up right from where you left off. I can hit Sue up right now and ask her a question about anything and know she will be there without her wondering why it’s been so long since we spoke.
“We definitely never thought this far ahead. It was impossible to imagine we would be doing to this at this point of our careers. It’s so exciting for me.”
But they are not on this team because of their friendship or their relationship with Auriemma. They made the team and seem to still fit perfectly together on the floor. And they understand the code.
“Everyone talks about Geno and all these UConn players on the team,” said Jen Gillom, an Olympic assistant coach. “Well, it’s because he knows they already understand what he is saying. They know his system, everything about him. That helps so much; having players on the floor that know what the coach wants and likes. It makes everyone’s job so much easier. It’s amazing how easy the language, the communication is between them all.
“How can you lose with something like that; all great players and they play three different positions. Inside, wing and point. What better combination can you have? I just hope people don’t think poorly on Geno and his Connecticut crew. They deserve to be on this team.”
And when it is over, and when we find out if the social symmetry helps produce a fifth-straight gold medal, the three players, and four friends, will someday look back and realize what a wonderful ride they have taken together.
“I think it’s one of those things that when your career is over and you look back that you realize how special it was,” said Bird. “But when you are in it, you are in it … I’m just this enjoying the moment, the process, who I am going through the process with. But when it’s done, I will sit back and smile.
“For whatever reason, the things you experience in college, I don’t know, maybe it has to do with your age, runs deep. What we experienced are things that we will never forget, will always make us laugh and will never get old.
“It’s almost like a sisterhood. And even now, on different teams with different friends, there is something about that connection that will always stay.”
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