Let the Taurasi Era Begin

By Steven Koek, PhoenixMercury.com
Posted: May 18, 2004

The Phoenix Mercury has had its share of stars in their eight-year history. Michele Timms has her No. 7 jersey retired, and splattered throughout the club’s record book are the names of Jennifer Gillom and the recently retired Bridget Pettis. The original roster in 1997 included Nancy Lieberman, one of the best and most well-known female hoopsters of all time. Current assistant coach Lisa Harrison was a solid player and fan favorite for five years, and Adrian Williams is making major strides every year towards becoming one of the premiere forwards in the league, as evidenced by her All-Star appearance in New York last season.

However, nothing the franchise has seen so far has compared to the arrival in the Valley of Diana Taurasi, arguably the most heralded player to enter the WNBA in its relatively short history.

When the former University of Connecticut star makes her professional basketball debut as Phoenix hosts the Monarchs at America West Arena Thursday night (7 p.m.), it will mark the dawn of a new era in Mercury history. The start of the 2004 season begins a period of increased publicity and notoriety off the court, and perhaps most significantly, markedly increased expectations on the court.

“She’s one of the rare players that has the charisma and the hype that is consistent with the play,” said Mercury General Manager Seth Sulka, who selected Taurasi with the first overall pick in the WNBA Draft. “A lot of times you don’t necessarily get both. When you get both, you get the rare athlete.

"She will deliver on the floor, she will be our leader, she will be a star player and she has the charisma and a likeability that’s in line with that. It’s what you call the complete package, because it’s both sides of the equation.”

In addition to what she is expected to bring to a Mercury team that finished with the league’s worst record at 8-24 last season, Taurasi is also being looked upon to bring the WNBA to the next level in terms of quality of play and attention.

And if being the top pick in the WNBA Draft was not enough pressure, she is already being compared to some of the top players of all time, before she even steps on the court for her first regular season game.

“She’ll be to this league what Elgin Baylor was, what Michael (Jordan), what Julius (Irving) was to basketball,” said Lieberman , now an analyst with ESPN. “When we started this league in ’97, nobody knew Michele Timms or Gillom. Nobody knew who those players were because there wasn’t media exposure. Even though the Cynthia Coopers were phenomenal, nobody knew that. We found it out as it was happening.

“Well, we’ve found out what Diana is already, so she’s already embedded in our conscious.”

While having a talent like Taurasi would be any coach’s dream, Carrie Graf also understands that the only way the Mercury will be putting tally marks in the win column is if they utilize the rookie sensation as one part of the whole package the team has to offer.

“It’s important for us to understand this about our team,” the first-year Head Coach said. “She’s going to give us a lift in many ways, but we have to do this as a team and have that kind of approach. She adds a lot to us, but we have to be focused as to what we can do as a team.”

For Taurasi, any individual successes she will achieve will come within the team concept.

“I’m just going to go out there and try to make my mark,” she said. “Not as an individual, but as a team. That was always my big thing, trying to get a team going. I think we have the tools here and with a little bit of energy that we’re bringing right now, it could happen.”

Taurasi’s love affair with the game of basketball began very early while growing up in Chino, Calif. and her parents, Mario and Lily, have supported her athletic endeavors from the start. Diana and her sister, Jessika, began playing YMCA basketball in elementary school and soon the Taurasi’s front yard was sporting a hoop that Diana began to put to use at all hours of the day.

“That’s where I played 75 percent of the time, in my front yard with the hoop and by myself with the light on,” Taurasi recalled. “The neighbors would complain because I was either shooting way too late or too early in the morning. I loved it because the weather was great. I loved my hoop and I loved being around the neighborhood.”

“Summer nights, we’d be out there until 11,” Jessika added. “My mom would come out there and say, ‘Our neighbors are giving us calls. You have to come inside because they can hear you.’ We had a lot of long summer nights playing basketball one-on-one on the front porch.”

Those summer nights and early mornings set the foundation for the hard work it would take for Taurasi to earn the 2000 Cheryl Miller Award, presented annually to the best high school player in Southern California, and become one of the most sought-after college prospects ever.

“Her freshman year she was player of the year in our area here,” said Larry Webster, Taurasi’s coach at Don Lugo High School. “She was the freshman MVP of our league and we had people thinking that only seniors could be the MVP of the league. But she was that way right from the very beginning. You couldn’t ignore her. And then the legend grew.”

Taurasi went on to one of the most decorated careers in college basketball history at one of the top collegiate programs in the country. She became only the fourth player to win back-to-back Naismith Awards on the way to leading UConn to their third straight NCAA Championship in March.

“I have a lot of respect her,” said former Huskies teammate Sue Bird, who will once again team up with Taurasi when the two compete on Team USA at the 2004 Olympic Games this summer in Greece. “Her freshman year she came into a team that had won a National Championship the year before. There were a lot of All-Americans on that team and she never said a word about it. She just kind of played her game and did whatever coach asked of her, and then eventually, even that year, she became a star.”

Mario and Lily Taurasi watch their daughter, Diana, at a recent preseason game in Phoenix.
(Jeramie McPeek/PhoenixMercury.com)
Of her current Mercury teammates, none can better understand Taurasi’s college achievements more than fellow rookie Ashley Robinson, whose Tennessee Lady Vols fell to Connecticut in the NCAA Tournament the past three years, including the last two championship games.

“She’s a superstar that’s not cocky,” Robinson said. “She’s a superstar that goes out there with confidence. She just wants to win and she’s going to fight. But she’s not just that superstar that says, ‘I’m the best’ and ‘You’re not better than me.’ She’s the superstar that makes you want to play with her.

“It was always fun playing against her and seeing her success, and I was happy for her as a friend. Disappointed that my team would always lose to her team, but I was really happy for her success.”

Robinson has also experienced firsthand the lighter side of Taurasi that has made her as likeable and approachable off the court as she is competitive and effective when the ball is tipped off. The two originally met while playing in tournaments throughout high school and it didn’t take Robinson long to realize that she had to keep her eye on “Dee” for reasons other than her skills on the court.

“Her team used to always come to our Memorial Day tournament in Southlake, Texas," Ashley said. "We all went to CeCe’s Pizza. I had on a tank top, basketball shorts and Diana pulls down my shorts in front of everybody and I didn’t have on spandex, so you can only imagine. It was so funny, but from that day on I knew no matter where she was, I had to watch, hold my shorts and either wear spandex or two pairs of shorts, and just be ready because she’s such a prankster. But that’s how we really got close.”

You need look no further than Williams to get a feel for the impact Taurasi will have on the outlook and approach for the Mercury in 2004. Coming back from a season in which she totaled career-highs in every major category and her first trip to the All-Star Game, the pressure would seem to be high for the fourth-year veteran to bring the franchise back to respectability, but with the “Super Rook” around to take on that responsibility, it leaves "A-Dub" to simply continue refining her game and fit into a system that revolves around Taurasi.

“I feel no pressure whatsoever,” Williams said. “I feel like Diana has all the pressure. I'm just in her world and it's fun."

Forward Kayte Christensen enters her third WNBA season admiring in Taurasi many of the same elements that have made the UCSB product a fan favorite and increasingly valuable member of the Mercury’s roster.

“I think the most important thing to me that sticks out about her is that she’s obviously passionate about the game of basketball,” Christensen marveled. “I think that’s what so appealing about her to the fans. When she plays, there’s a fire in her that really draws people to her. That’s something that I’m looking forward to the most. Obviously, she’s a great passer and she’s a scorer. She’s a great team leader. She has tons of other great qualities, but my favorite thing about her is her passion.”

“She is one of the few players who is going to carry women’s basketball a long way,” added guard Anna DeForge. “It’s a great position for her to be in. I’m happy to be along side of her, to be her teammate, and hopefully we can assist her as teammates and as an organization in helping each other be successful.”

League officials are hoping that passion translates into increased national interest and exposure to a game gradually gaining acceptance and respectability in an already flooded sports marketplace.

Mercury players and fans alike will be more than satisfied with The Taurasi Era meaning more victories and a run at their first WNBA Championship.

While that sounds like a lot for a young player entering the world of professional sports to have to deal with, Lily Taurasi insists it is a challenge her daughter has already conquered and will continue to embrace as her career develops.

“I think she’s already used to that because she had it that at Connecticut, too, a lot of pressure,” she said. “I think it’s something in her life. It’s not bothering her. She can handle it.

"We are proud of our Diana because she gets her goal. She starts when she’s little, she sacrificed a lot of things when she was a teenager. I’m so proud of her.”