Diana’s Redemption

By Ben York,
Special to PhoenixMercury.com
Posted: Sept. 29, 2009

By all accounts, Diana Taurasi is having her best season in the WNBA. After leading the league in scoring this season and the Phoenix Mercury to their second WNBA Finals appearance in three years, the 27-year-old guard was presented with the league’s 2009 Most Valuable Player Award on Tuesday afternoon, the first of her already illustrious career.

Her journey over the past few months leading up to the MVP recognition, however, wasn’t as smooth as it normally has been.

Early this summer, Taurasi’s life took a surprising turn for the worse. Cited for multiple drunk-driving charges in the early hours of the morning on July 2 after a Phoenix Mercury home victory against the Seattle Storm, the seemingly untouchable WNBA superstar now faced a public backlash, the likes of which she had never seen.

Make no mistake about it; this was uncharted territory for the 27-year-old, but the off-court incident seemed to overshadow another impressive season, not to mention a lifetime of consistent grandeur. She was ridiculed by some in the media and even amongst some of her most devoted of fans.

Taurasi could’ve easily handled the situation with bitterness, animosity or resentment; instead, we each became a witness to the immense honor, dignity, and character that Diana holds herself to every minute, of every hour, of every day.

To her credit, not once did Diana place blame on anyone other than herself. Not once did we hear any remote insinuation of an excuse. She made a mistake, took accountability for her actions and made it right.

“Obviously you want people to say positive things about you,” she said about the public reaction. “But a lot of times it comes from people who don’t really know who you are and all they see is how you are on the court. I just try to always be respectful to the fans and media, and they’ve both been great. There are times when things are said that you’re not happy with, but you know, that’s life. You take the ups with the downs.”

Through this dark time, the public became acquainted with a side of Taurasi that has not fully been appreciated or even discussed – her humbleness. This was especially evident on September 5th, 2009 when she scored her 4,000th point in the WNBA. Amazingly, Taurasi had no idea she was the fastest player in WNBA history to 4,000 points. Heck, she didn’t even know that she was the fastest to 3,000 points just a couple seasons back. Not a clue. Despite reaching the 4,000 point mark 12 games faster than the next closest player, it's wasn’t even a passing thought in her mind.

Furthermore, it’s certainly no surprise to know that Taurasi was unaware she was the first player in WNBA history to score 500 or more points every year she’s been in the league. Or, that she has more 30-point games than any other player in league history despite playing in three less seasons than her next closest competitor. Or that she's on pace to reach 5,000 points in just 247 games, and 6,000 in just 296 - surpassing legends like Lisa Leslie, Cynthia Cooper and Sheryl Swoopes on a steadfast track towards becoming one of the greatest women's basketball players that has ever lived.

The truth is, individual accolades like these don’t hold much influence over Taurasi, and the 4,000 point mark was a situation she easily could’ve used to her personal advantage to cast a veil over her DUI charge. Instead, like a leader, she dismissed the accomplishment in favor of the greater whole, reflecting true humility.

"Eh," Taurasi nonchalantly said while shrugging her shoulders after the game when asked about the 4,000 point mark. "I'm not really one for individual records."

Even almost a week later, with ample time to digest and reflect over her achievement, her response remained indifferent. “There are so many great players in this league,” she said. “Being included in a group like that is always something you should be proud of. It really just comes from a lot of hard work, a lot of time in the gym, and being around a lot of great people.”

Yet, what makes Diana Taurasi so compelling as a human being is the way everyone assumes they know her as a person, without ever talking to her. Part of this is because of her unshakable status as one of the “faces” of the WNBA, and how remarkable a basketball player she is. Assumptions and judgments were once again cast upon Taurasi when the public got wind of her DUI charge. This solitary incident dwarfed an endearing side of Diana that is unmistakable to those who know her on a personal level – she is, quite simply, one of the most selfless people they’ve ever known.

Perhaps more so than anyone, Connecticut women’s Head Coach Geno Auriemma can attest to the distinction of Diana Taurasi as a person and teammate. Compiling a record of 139 wins and just eight losses in their years together, the two formed an extraordinary relationship on and off the court. “The one aspect of Diana that’s most commonly overlooked is that she may be the best teammate that I’ve ever seen,” said Auriemma. “She is a throwback to the days that players understood that the only way to be the best player is to make the players around you better. For example, we won the National Championship in 2002 with multiple All-Americans. But people forget that just two years later in 2004, we had Diana and zero other All-Americans and still won the championship. She can step on the floor with any four players and find a way to make that team win. If you’re a player that wants to experience what it’s like to have another player support you, be a great teammate, and make you better there is no one on the level of Diana.”

That, possibly more than anything, defines Taurasi as both a player and a person, and exemplifies her prominence in women’s athletics. Everyone faces difficult times in life where they undoubtedly wished they’d made a different decision. However, what separates the Mercury guard from others in a similar situation was the elegance and poise she exhibited as a response; not because she missed the epithet of being known as one of the greats, but because it was the absolute right thing to do. She made a conscious choice to come out of this situation even better and utilized it as a means to improve.

Not that there was much left to refine as a player. She has the three NCAA National Championships, two Naismith College Player of the Year awards (2003, 2004), two gold medals in the Olympics (2004, 2008), four All-Star appearances and a WNBA championship. She shares the WNBA single-game scoring record (47), holds the top two single-season scoring records (860, 820), is the all-time leader of 30+ point games (23), and boasts the third highest scoring average in WNBA history (20.3). She's already done it all, and she hasn't even reached her peak years in the league yet.

“Basketball is my career,” Taurasi said. “You never want to plateau. You want to find a way to always get better. My goal is to always make myself and the people around me better on the court. When it’s all said and done I want people to know that I put everything I had into the game,” I’ve enjoyed every single minute of it. I think I’ve put as much time in the gym as anyone possibly could. But more than anything, being a great teammate. Not just on the court, it’s about making the people around you better.”

Notice how Diana never mentions a personal desire to be recognized or touted on an individual basis. In spite of her continual desire to deflect credit, it becomes increasingly difficult to willingly ignore the impact that she could have on the future of women’s basketball.

“In terms of impact on the court, I don’t know that there is anyone I’ve ever seen that has done the things Diana has done, “ said Auriemma. “And I’ve been around the game for a long time. I’ve said when she was in college, there’s never been anyone I’ve seen that has all of the combined elements that Diana has.

“We’ve had our share of great players in the women’s game, but I don’t know if there’s ever been one with the skills Diana has - scoring, shooting, passing, leadership, making everyone better around her. I don’t know if there has ever been anyone that has put it all together like Diana.”

Fastest to 3,000 points, fastest to 4,000 points, and she’ll be the fastest to 5,000, 6,000 and 7,000 points. Whatever the specific name of the almost countless number of records she already has or will have, these accomplishments are empty if the team doesn’t get recognized alongside her or that the level of greatness isn’t attained at a team level.

“To this point, I don’t believe there’s anyone that has done what she’s done,” Geno proudly states. “When she’s finished, she’ll have every record that exists in women’s basketball; scoring, shooting, assists, rebounding, whatever. Is it possible that another young lady will come around in the future and have a shot at breaking those records? Sure. But I haven’t seen that person yet.”

But what matters most to Taurasi has nothing to do with being known as the greatest, or having a plethora of individual records. We’ve all heard the age-old saying that “the night is darkest just before the dawn.” In this case, she has navigated through some of the darkest times in her life this summer, and come out an even better player, a better teammate and a better woman.

For Diana Taurasi, the WNBA’s 2009 Most Valuable Player, it appears the dawn is finally coming.