My Time With Taurasi

By Brad G. Faye, PhoenixMercury.com
Posted: Sept. 16, 2009

When I first found out that I’d be traveling with the Mercury for their first-round playoff series in San Antonio, one of the first ideas I pitched was writing a piece on Diana Taurasi - just following the All-Star around and kind of taking in her day-to-day preparation techniques while trying my best not to step on any of her toes. And while I looked forward to piecing together a behind-the-scenes video and snapping a few still photos, it was this project I was most excited about.

One of the things which has always intrigued me about professional sports is what it is that separates the great athletes from the rest of the pack. Because of that, while I’ve always appreciated my job giving me access to interview tons of athletes, it’s the opportunity to interview the greats that I’ve always relished most. Talking to individuals like Bill Russell, LaDanian Tomlinson and Steve Nash over the years; I’ve constantly found myself wondering, “What is it that separates these guys from all the others who’ve tried their hand at playing the same sport?”

But it’s one thing to speak with these people for a few minutes following a game or a practice, and it’s another to actually watch them up close as they go about their daily routine. Especially when that routine was leading up to an athlete’s first postseason appearance in two years.

Taurasi took the team’s failure to qualify for the 2008 postseason personally, and as early as training camp, I could see that the All-Star guard was on a mission.

“Last season was obviously very disappointing,” Taurasi told me during an interview at training camp. “But our strength this season is going to be the ability to apply what we learned last year and not repeat some of the mistakes we made as individuals and as a team.”

It became apparent as the 2009 season progressed that those words carried some weight and this was in fact a different Mercury team than the one that took the court in 2008. Phoenix wasn’t just slightly better during this past campaign, they were vastly improved, matching a franchise-best record for wins and finishing the 2009 season with a better record than any team in the WNBA.

Before boarding the bus for a 9:45 a.m. departure, the team held a shootaround with Taurasi the last player to leave the court. Just before boarding the bus with the team for Sky Harbor Airport, I let Taurasi know about the story I’m working on and told her the first subject I’d be inquiring about was one I’d never ask about again – her memories from that 2008 season.

“Last year more than anything was a feeling of regret,” Taurasi said. “The season was completely in our hands and we kind of let it go. We didn’t appreciate what we had and that was something we weren’t going to allow to happen again this year. We came into this season with a sense of urgency right from the start and saw that translated onto the court.

“My whole goal this offseason was to get better. I played overseas and felt like I improved in a lot of skill areas which have helped me feel more comfortable on the court. It’s a different basketball game overseas compared to the WNBA. It’s officiated a little different and making those adjustments can be tough. Unlike in 2008, we were able to have a complete training camp this year and regardless of how many years you’ve been in the league, that time is incredibly valuable in making those types of adjustments.”

Before boarding the bus on Wednesday, I also had the chance to speak with Corey Gaines about Taurasi, and the head coach agreed that those in-game adjustments have helped make a key difference for the All-WNBA performer this year.

“She’s understanding the longer she’s in this league how this game is officiated and is making adjustments. That’s the sign of a great player, adjusting to how the game is being played. She stayed in great shape while playing in Europe and it was apparent she came into this year’s training camp ready to go.”

Among the many reasons I believe she took the 2008 season personally is because for as long as she’s been in the limelight, Diana Taurasi has been synonymous with winning.

In college at the University of Connecticut, she helped lead her school to three consecutive national championships. After becoming the Mercury’s number one overall draft pick in 2004, Taurasi helped her team eclipse the previous season’s win total by July and in 2007 helped the franchise to its first-ever WNBA Championship. One year later, Taurasi took her game to an international high with a 2008 Olympic Games appearance in Bejing which saw her capture, what else, but gold – her second straight.

In between all those accomplishments, “DT” also received the WNBA Rookie of the Year Award, was named the 2006 Female Athlete of the Year by USA Basketball and became the fastest player in WNBA history to score 4,000 points.

Everything mentioned in the paragraphs above constitutes why Taurasi is a winner, and makes obvious why she took the absence from the 2008 WNBA Playoffs so personally, but is simply having the will and desire to win above all else what makes for a great athlete? If that were the case, guys like Karl Malone, Marcel Dionne and Dan Marino would at least have a few rings to show for themselves. Although bad timing and playing in an era with names like Michael Jordan, Wayne Gretzky and Joe Montana didn’t help, the fact remains that not all great athletes can be linked to a great trophy case. And while gifted, nobody would ever argue that Robert Horry’s seven championship rings make him a greater basketball player than Malone or Jordan.

Obviously, being gifted physically is a great start to how one can become a great athlete. But really, was Jerry Rice – the greatest wide receiver of all time - more athletic than Terrell Owens? And there have been tons of point guards over the years with frames similar to Nash’s, but how come none of them went on to win back-to-back MVP Awards? And finally, Tony Gwynn – as unbelievable a baseball player as he was, the word “athletic” doesn’t quite jump out at you when explaining his physique. Lots of athletes who don’t leap out at scouts and general managers because of their frame go on to accomplish amazing things in professional sports. And at the same time, there are a number of guys who, while it is safe to call them athletic freaks, don’t go on to enjoy the careers that players like Jerry Rice and Tony Gwynn did.

Above the theory that one must be incredibly gifted athletically to be considered a sport’s great, I place the theory that one must have an immeasurable drive to be the best. Jordan didn’t strive to be a good professional basketball player, he strived to be the best.

Mercury General Manager Ann Meyers Drysdale - one of the greatest female basketball players to ever step onto a hardwood herself - was in attendance at Jordan’s Hall of Fame induction this past weekend in Springfield, Massachusetts. Meyers Drysdale was at the event standing up for C. Vivian Stringer, but spent time with a number of other new inductees including Jordan.

“Michael Jordan challenges you and he doesn’t back down,” Meyers Drysdale explained on Thursday. “We had golfed in the past so in Springfield, I asked him when we were going to make it back out to the golf course. He looked at me and asked, ‘Golf? How about you put your shorts on and we go one-on-one?’

“It’s the same thing with Diana, she’s always going to challenge you and she’s always going to take the game seriously no matter where she is. You saw that competitive drive in Michael during his Hall of Fame speech when he commented on coming back at 50 and people kind of laughed. You love a player having that kind of belief in themselves and Diana has that.”

After returning from her trip to Springfield, Meyers Drysdale met with a group of youngsters who had been eliminated from their postseason by a last-second jumper. She wanted to give them a little bit of encouragement and quoted Winston Churchill in reminding them that, “Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts.”

Recently, I also had the chance to speak with a good friend of Ann’s, Olympic great Jackie Joyner-Kersee. The six-time Olympic medal winner was being honored at a Mercury game as the 2009 Woman of Inspiration, and prior to the team’s contest against the Dream, I interviewed the track-and-field legend who discussed her history with Phoenix’s own, Diana Taurasi.

“I first met Diana in St. Louis while she was there playing with Connecticut in the Final Four,” Joyner-Kersee remembered. “You can sense greatness and I knew then that Diana definitely had greatness in her. The thing that separates the great athletes from the rest of the pack is the ability to bounce back and Diana has that ability. You are always going to have ups and downs and you need to know how to be resilient.”

Resiliency – yes, now we were getting somewhere! That’s something that every great athlete has needed to show at times… right? Bill Russell dealt with segregation… Michael Jordan overcame being cut from his high school basketball team… Tony Gwynn battled a wrist injury early in his career… All completely different obstacles, but all these individuals faced barriers in their lives and made the decision to overcome them.

As do all the greats, Taurasi also bounced back from that 2008 season. From the ashes of a disappointing campaign emerged an MVP-caliber 2009 season which saw the guard lead the league in scoring at a 20.4 points-per-game clip while also averaging 5.7 rebounds (a personal best), 3.5 assists (tied for 11th in the league) and 1.3 blocks (tops among guards). She posted two 30-point efforts, recorded two double-doubles, led the WNBA in three-pointers made and closed the season out exceptionally strong by recording 20-plus points in seven of her last 10 games.

“We talk about the numbers and we talk about the resiliency, but athletically Diana is incredibly gifted and a lot of people don’t speak about that,” Meyers Drysdale says. “She is the only player I’ve seen in the women’s game take the ball inside and operate and swing around the basket with one hand a la Julius Erving or Connie Hawkins. I’ve never seen another player do that in the women’s game.”

Perhaps Diana is underrated in terms of her physicality, but I really liked where we were headed with this resiliency thing. It’s why I have to ask Diana about her history in that department as we head to the bus following Thursday night’s game. Following a tough, one-point loss to the Silver Stars and now facing elimination as she heads home, she tells me that her biggest challenge on the court may just be this one.

“Following what happened tonight, Saturday’s game is going to be a great test. It was a game against a team we didn’t play well against and now we get to go home and see what we’re made of.”

It’s a challenge Taurasi instantly appears ready for and in no way intimidated by. According to the Hall of Famer, it is another reason “DT” is so special.

“She comes through in the big-time games and that proves she’s a big-time player,” Meyers Drysdale said. “At the end of the game, the players believe in her and know she’s willing to take the last shot and take the chance to either be the goat or the hero. The important thing is that no matter how the ball bounces, she’s going to be back for more. That’s what separates her – she’s not afraid.”

“Growing up, the players who influenced me most were Michael and Magic (Johnson),” Taurasi tells me as we board the bus ready to head back to Phoenix. “It’s about winning and I enjoyed watching them play and seeing how much they loved to win. To get there, it’s about making you and those around you better. It’s a balance, but that’s what makes great players great. Not just making yourself a better player, but making your teammates better players too.”

It’s something point guard Temeka Johnson – who last season played with Lisa Leslie and Candace Parker in Los Angeles – said Taurasi does in a very special way.

“Diana leads by example,” Johnson tells me. “I’ve been lucky to play with a number of great players, some of the greatest in the world. But Diana leads by example and does it while still keeping the game fun for everybody around her which is important.”

“Diana loves the game and I’ve always compared her to Cheryl Miller in knowing how to have some fun,” Meyers Drysdale says. Those who follow baseball may remember Roy Campanella saying you have to have a lot of little boy in you to play sports and I see a lot of little girl in Diana Taurasi. She loves playing the game on both ends of the floor and plays with such intensity.”

It appears whatever the attribute is that helps an athlete be great – be it athleticism or drive or a winning attitude, whatever it is, Diana has that. But there’s one key that Meyers Drysdale brings up on Thursday that hadn’t dawned on me before.

“One thing I think we understand with Diana Taurasi is that she’s got that something special – whatever it is,” Meyers Drysdale said. “I’ve seen her deal with a number of losses on the court and I’ve seen her be disappointed in how she’s played. But she’s always bounced back and a huge part of that is all the great mentors she’s had around her in her life. It starts at home with her caring family and then onto the court with all the coaches who have influenced her not just as a player, but a person.”

As far as how long it takes Diana to put Thursday’s loss behind her and start focusing on Saturday’s do-or-die contest at home, that question is answered for me on the airplane ride home. Delaying the flight because a flight attendant needs to find me on the plane, I’m informed by two members of the crew that there was a problem with my boarding pass.

Asks one of the two crew members, “Just to make sure you are Brad Faye, right?”

Right on cue, Diana leans in from the seat behind me and asks loudly, “What’s wrong, Jim? Is there a problem with your boarding pass, Jim?”

It’s why Campanella should be proud and yet another example of how “DT” is great in more ways than one.