Sue Bird, Diana Taurasi
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Geno Auriemma wouldn’t have returned without Sue Bird, Diana Taurasi

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STORRS, Conn. — Geno Auriemma doesn’t think he would have returned to coach the U.S. women’s basketball team at a second straight Olympics unless Sue Bird and Diana Taurasi came back, too.

“I wouldn’t be good enough as a coach to guide the team through a gold medal [at Rio 2016],” Auriemma said at the end of a three-day national team camp at the University of Connecticut on Tuesday. “I need them to help me. That’s how good they are, and that’s how smart they are. And that’s how used to winning they are. So, I wouldn’t trust myself to be able to do it without them.”

Auriemma, 61, is in his 31st season coaching UConn, a run that’s included 10 NCAA titles, four of them with Bird and/or Taurasi on the roster from 2000-04.

In 2012, Auriemma led the U.S. women’s basketball team at the Olympics for the first time.

The Americans went undefeated, running their Olympic winning streak to 41 games. Auriemma called the experience more special because the 12-woman roster included six of his former UConn players, and the dynamic perimeter duo of Bird and Taurasi in particular.

“I think [Taurasi] knows, and particularly her and Sue, I think they know one of my reasons for wanting to do it in the first place was, obviously, being an Olympic coach means a lot, but the opportunity to coach the two of them again was pretty powerful,” Auriemma said.

Auriemma thought that would be his only Olympic head-coaching experience.

“It’s not my turn anymore,” Auriemma said in 2013. “It’s someone else’s turn. I did what I was asked to do and what I wanted to do.

“First of all, I was never asked [to return], so I didn’t want to presume anything. Second of all, I really did think USA Basketball, on the women’s side, has never done that [retain an Olympic coach for the following Games]. So why should I presume I would be the first?”

That all changed on July 31, 2013. USA Basketball finally asked Auriemma.

And on a cleverly planned day — when the coach felt particularly patriotic at the White House, feted with his national champion UConn team by President Obama.

“I was reminded that the opportunity to represent your country is one you don’t take lightly,” Auriemma said in a press release announcing his return to coach the team about one month later. “This is not an opportunity that comes along too often. I was humbled by the request, and I’m honored to do it again.”

Auriemma said the choice did not come easy. It was the longest he had ever taken to make a decision. Unspecified NBA and U.S. leaders nudged him to come back.

On Tuesday, the three-time Olympic champions Bird and Taurasi said they had deep conversations with Auriemma to persuade him as well.

“I think he was really thinking about it and kind of seesawing,” Bird said. “There was definitely a phone conversation that happened. That was probably, in that conversation, the most honest I’ve ever been with him.”

Taurasi said she communicates with Auriemma three times per week, even when she’s playing professionally in Russia.

“Coach, he knows how to use an iPhone now, that’s made communicating a little bit easier,” joked Taurasi, adding that she sat down with, called and texted Auriemma to convince him to go for 2016. “After London, I feel like there was still a little unfinished business for him.”

How can a coach of an undefeated Olympic champion team possibly have unfinished business?

“It wouldn’t be as far as results or scoring more points,” Taurasi said. “I think he just saw an opportunity with, maybe a new breed of players, that he can instill something that can go a long way. I think he’s doing that.”

The comment immediately brought to mind current UConn senior Breanna Stewart, the youngest player among 25 Olympic team finalists who is attempting to duplicate Taurasi’s feat from 2004 — win an NCAA title and an Olympic gold medal in the same year.

Back to Bird, the U.S.’ starting point guard for the last decade. She seemed hesitant to commit to 2016 in the emotional moments after taking gold in London.

But Bird and Taurasi’s message to Auriemma in 2013 couldn’t have been clearer.

“It was, well, we’re going to do it one more time,” Auriemma said. “We’re going to try to give it a shot one more time. I was like, yeah, but I’ve already done it. Then they talked about, let’s do it again. Let’s see where it takes us. Between that and [U.S. women’s national team director] Carol Callan and [USA Basketball CEO] Jim Tooley and USA Basketball, it kind of put the screws on me.

“You had two answers. Yes, and, yes, when can I start? You weren’t going to say no to them.”

MORE: Auriemma: UConn wouldn’t ‘make it at the Olympics’

NBC Olympic researcher Amanda Doyle contributed to this report.

Adam Jones, five-time MLB All-Star, becomes Olympic eligible

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Should the U.S. qualify for baseball’s Olympic return, a five-time MLB All-Star could be eligible for its roster in Tokyo. And he has interest.

Outfielder Adam Jones signed with the Orix Buffaloes of Japan’s domestic league, which, unlike MLB, will take an Olympic break next summer to allow players to take part in the first Olympic baseball tournament in 12 years.

Jones, 34, made no mention of Olympic eligibility in a social media post announcing the signing. His Instagram avatar is a photo of him in a Team USA jersey from the World Baseball Classic.

Jones’ agent later said that Jones does have interest in playing for the U.S. in Tokyo, should an American team qualify in the spring.

“To play over in Japan has always been a desire of Adam’s, and the timing worked out that the Olympics happens to be played in Tokyo the first year of his contract,” Jones’ agent wrote in an email. “It wasn’t one of the factors on his decision BUT more of a [sic] addition to the overall package to decide to go.”

Jones called being part of the U.S.’ 2017 WBC title, “probably the best experience of my life so far, especially with sports,” according to The Associated Press. He was one of five players to be on the U.S. team at each of the last two World Baseball Classics.

The U.S. still faces a difficult task to qualify for the Tokyo Games. It lost to Mexico last month in its first of up to three chances at qualifying tournaments, using a roster of mostly double-A and triple-A caliber players.

Major Leaguers are not expected to be made available for qualifying or for the Tokyo Games.

The next two qualifying tournaments will be in late March (an Americas qualifier in Arizona) and early April (a final, global qualifying event in Chinese Taipei). It remains to be seen how MLB clubs will go about releasing minor leaguers for a tournament that will take place during spring training.

Jones could become the third player with prior MLB All-Star experience to compete at the Olympics from any nation, joining Australian catcher Dave Nilsson and Canadian pitcher Jason Dickson.

Jones made five All-Star teams during an 11-year stint with the Baltimore Orioles from 2008-18 before playing for the Arizona Diamondbacks last season.

Many players competed at the Olympics before making an MLB All-Star team, including Stephen Strasburg and Jason Giambi.

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Russia boxers to boycott Olympics if sanctions not lifted

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Russian boxers will only take part in the Tokyo Olympics if doping sanctions forcing them to compete as neutral athletes are overturned, the general secretary of the Russian Boxing Federation told The Associated Press on Wednesday.

Umar Kremlev said he has spoken with the Olympic boxing team and they “unanimously” rejected the conditions laid out by the World Anti-Doping Agency as punishment for manipulating doping data.

The WADA sanctions, announced on Monday, ban the use of the Russian team name, flag or anthem at a range of major sports competitions over the next four years, including next year’s Olympics.

“They said we won’t go without our flag and anthem,” Kremlev said. “We aren’t going for medals, but for that feeling that I brought the highest honor home for my country.”

Separately, the speaker of Russia’s upper house of parliament said Russia could create an alternative to the Olympics.

“This ruling show the clear crisis in international sports institutions. I believe that Russia could host its own games at home,” Valentina Matvienko said in comments reported by the Interfax news agency.

There is a precedent. After the Russian Revolution of 1917, the Soviet Union refused to compete in the Olympics and hosted its own Spartakiads — named after the ancient rebel slave Spartacus — with a strong socialist slant. However, the Soviet Union began competing at the Olympics in 1952 and Russians generally take great pride in the country’s Olympic achievements since then.

If the sanctions aren’t overturned, Kremlev said Russian boxers would prefer to turn pro rather than compete at the Olympics.

“A world champion (in professional boxing) is better known than an Olympic champion,” Kremlev said, adding the Russian anthem would be played before pro title fights.

Kremlev said boxers are being asked to shoulder the blame for offenses committed in other sports. He said they would still stay at home even if Russia’s athletes in other sports decided to take part.

“If other sports are guilty and people have breached the WADA code, why are we punished?” he said. “We are for honest sport and against doping. We want our sport to be clean … If someone breaks the rules, we push them out.”

Russia is a major power in amateur and Olympic boxing. It hosted both men’s and women’s world championships this year, finishing at the top of the medals table at the women’s event and second in the men’s championships. The International Olympic Committee has taken direct charge of boxing at the Tokyo Olympics after criticizing chronic financial problems and infighting at the International Boxing Association.

Russian Sports Minister Pavel Kolobkov talked up Russia’s chances of overturning the WADA sanctions.

“I think that there is every basis to appeal the decision, because our experts have presented their position, and they have the same database as WADA does,” Kolobkov said in comments reported by state news agency TASS. “There is an answer to every question and the whole process is ahead of us.”

The official decision on whether to dispute the sanctions will be made on Dec. 19 by the Russian anti-doping agency’s supervisory board, but senior figures, including Russian President Vladimir Putin, have signaled their preference for taking the matter to the Court of Arbitration for Sport.

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