Players from the two teams chat before Friday's game at KeyArena. (Neil Enns/Storm Photos)
Ties Run Deep with Mercury
An hour before last Friday's crucial matchup between the Seattle Storm and the Phoenix Mercury, KeyArena looked more like the site of a reunion than a basketball game. Ashley Robinson and other Storm players teased Phoenix rookie Krystal Thomas, their former teammate, and caught up with friends on the Mercury. Storm Head Coach Brian Agler chatted with Phoenix star Diana Taurasi, whom he coached when she was a rookie with the Mercury.
In a 12-team league where players team up and face each other with overseas clubs, this isn't exactly unusual. It's inevitable that former teammates will face each other. Still, the number of relationships between the Storm and Phoenix is unique. If anything, they've actually increased in the year since the teams faced each other in last season's Western Conference Finals.
Take a pair of transactions from July, for example. To provide more depth on the perimeter, the Storm signed Allie Quigley, who played for the Mercury in 2008 and 2009 and won a championship ring the latter season. To make room on the roster for Quigley, the Storm let Thomas' seven-day contract lapse. A few weeks later, Thomas caught on with Phoenix.
Quigley is one of four former Mercury players on the Storm's roster. Between Quigley, Robinson, Belinda Snell and Le'coe Willingham, at least one current Storm player was part of Phoenix's team every season from 2004 through 2010. Snell won a championship with the Mercury in 2007 - beating the Storm in the first round along the way - while Quigley and Willingham were both part of Phoenix's 2009 champs.
"I always look forward to playing against Phoenix," said Snell. "I still have some good friends there and it's fun playing against them. It's always very competitive."
Both teams have embraced Australian players, which makes it only natural that Snell has played for the Mercury and the Storm. The league's two best Aussies, Penny Taylor and Lauren Jackson, will match up in this series and other contributors from down under have dotted both rosters dating back to Michele Timms' time in Phoenix. Australian National Team Head Coach Carrie Graf was once an assistant in Seattle and a head coach for the Mercury.
The deepest Storm-Mercury relationship was forged at the University of Connecticut, where Taurasi played two seasons alongside Storm stars Sue Bird and Swin Cash. Bird and Taurasi quickly developed into close friends. They start together in the backcourt for the U.S. National Team, played together for years in Russia and once even jointly blogged for WNBA.com. Given that history, Bird and Taurasi can't help but be friends and not rivals at times when playing each other.
"With D, there's always going to be a moment when we look at each other and both laugh," said Bird.
For the most part, players on both sides don't think the ties make much of a difference when the series start.
"We do it so often whether we're in Europe or here, national teams, we're always playing against someone we know," said Taylor. "The basketball world's a small world.
"I feel like everyone has friends everywhere, so it's not that big of a deal," echoed Bird. "It just so happens that this friend is really good when it comes to big games, so that's my issue - not so much that she's my friend, but that she's got a killer instinct.
"She's such a tough player to play against and she has an ability to take a team and put them on her back and carry them through. In that way, it's tough to play against her. When you play against great players, hopefully it brings out the best in you, brings out the best in your team. It's always fun to play against D."
Bird and Taurasi talk about everything but the results of their games against each other. For other players, however, there's a little something extra on the line in a matchup like this.
"You always want to beat your friends and get bragging rights," Robinson said last year, "because this stuff comes up in everyday life when you're talking about championships and playoffs and things like that. We always want bragging rights."
They'll get that chance again in this series.
Green - Played together in Seattle
Purple - Played together in Phoenix
Red - Played together with a national team
Blue - Played together in college
Yellow - Played together with another WNBA team