Taylor's Return About More Than Basketball

By Ben York, PhoenixMercury.com
Posted: July 2, 2013

June 29, 2013. 7: 20 p.m. Mohegan Sun Arena, Connecticut

“Let’s go, Penelope,” Head Coach Corey Gaines shouts at his bench with 4:40 left in the first quarter. The Mercury is in Connecticut taking on the Sun.

Wow, this is really happening,” Penny Taylor subtly thinks to herself.

At one point, the metaphorical walk to the scorer’s table seemed endless. Now, it takes just seconds.

She puts on a stoic face, but it doesn’t last very long.

She’s too happy.

No doubts. No nerves. No fear. No pain.

Only euphoric happiness.

“The only way I can describe it is pure joy,” Penny Taylor reminisced about her first minutes in a WNBA game since 2011. “I felt like I was 18 again.

“Like I could run for days.”

After 16 months away from the game of basketball, Penny Taylor made a triumphant return to the court last week against the Connecticut Sun tallying eight points and three assists in just 13 minutes.

For Taylor, it was the culmination of months of constant hard work – both physically and mentally – that sometimes seemed interminable.

“It’s the ending of a really difficult time,” said Taylor. “Obviously with my knee, but also personally with my mom and family. It was quite a roller-coaster. There were many times when I felt like it was going to be a never-ending rehab process. It was a relief to be back out there and see that I could still play basketball, still run up and down the court.

“I wasn’t worried about scoring or anything; I just wanted to be out there and part of the team again.”

The day before the game, Taylor admitted she was somewhat nervous – not because of her knee (which has been pain-free for months), but more so from her competitive flame being reignited. It’s a feeling she hasn’t experienced in years.

After a solid warm-up, all of her nerves quickly went away.

“It’s such a process,” Taylor said about her return to the court. “I mean, I started from square one where all I could do was calf raises to where I’m at now, actually playing in a game. The increases are steady and slow.

“To finally reach that light at the end of the tunnel was pure happiness.”

Still, for as much as Taylor went on a journey from a physical standpoint, her transformation emotionally was equally as demanding. During the time Taylor was rehabbing her knee, she would also visit her mother, Denna, in the hospital who was battling cancer.

The irony is unavoidable; had Taylor not injured her knee, there's little chance she would've had as much time with her mom over the past year -- something she wouldn't trade for anything.

Denna lost her battle with the disease just 60 days ago in May.

It’s often said the night is darkest just before the dawn, and the expression couldn’t be more accurate for Taylor. The “roller-coaster” journey she’s been on over the past two years has given her an infinitely greater appreciation of basketball, sure, but also for life itself.

Through her mom (whom Taylor calls her hero), she gained strength she never knew she had.

“I never skipped a day,” Taylor reflected. “I don’t know whether it’s good or bad but I realized I can separate what I need to do [basketball-wise] from my emotional state. Even though things would get bad with my mom, I knew I had to do my weights and workouts. She wanted me to do it, too. It was just as important for her as it was to me. I found I was really strong in that way. My strength came from her. What she was going through and how strong she stayed, and to still worry about everyone else instead of herself…

“I obviously learned that from her. I learned that about both of us.”

At times, playing through injuries and pain (as all players do) for the duration of the WNBA season as well as overseas can become more of a chore than enjoyment. The game you once had so much fun playing turns stale.

But not for Penny Taylor.

“I really learned how much I love the game of basketball,” said a smiling Taylor. “I’ve missed it and truly come to appreciate all of the small details that I never did before because I was doing so much of it. Now, to me, an assist is the best thing ever because you’re a part of something with someone else; you miss that feeling when you’re away from it. Even just running the floor, or executing a really good play where everyone touches the ball and we get the shot we wanted; it’s amazing.

“That feeling of doing something with the team, with four other people…it’s pretty special.”