Mercury Rising

The best baller in Phoenix doesn't play for the Suns. Can Diana Taurasi take the Mercury all the way?

After scoring a record 3,047 career points at Don Lugo High, Taurasi became a Husky, averaging 15 points and 4.5 assists per game over her college career. Before UConn won the 2004 NCAA championship, Coach Geno Auriemma summed up his team's chances of victory by saying, "We have Diana, and you don't."

Taurasi says she took a lot from her experience at UConn, where she majored in communications. "It makes you grow up," she says of her experience at a college program that's on a level with many WNBA teams. She was the best player on her UConn team, and Coach Auriemma "could've easily cut me a lot of slack, but he never did. He always held me to the highest standards. He's still, to this day, one of the most important people in my life."

In her 2004 pro debut, Taurasi scored 26 points to help the Mercury beat Seattle 84-76. The team went 17-17 that year; the season before Taurasi's arrival, the Mercury's record was a dismal 8-26.

Diana Taurasi
Tony Blei
Diana Taurasi
Taurasi landed on three Sports Illustrated covers before turning pro.
Taurasi landed on three Sports Illustrated covers before turning pro.

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The Phoenix Mercury plays the San Antonio Silver Stars in Game 2 of the Western Conference finals on Saturday, September 1. Tickets are on sale through Ticketmaster and at the U.S. Airways Center box office.
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Everybody hails Taurasi as the hero of the Mercury. Some have touted her as "the savior of the WNBA" — the Michael Jordan of her sport.

Patti Blackwell says, "The establishment has kind of put her in this position to be a diva, which isn't very WNBA-like, but they get excited when they have a big name that can bring a draw. She kind of means money to the league in that sense, so they want to kind of flaunt that."

Says Nancy Lieberman, "There's tremendous pressure because of her pedigree. I've had this conversation with her many times, as an Olympian and college athlete myself: When you come out strong, so much is expected of you. You set the bar and then you have to meet it."

But if Taurasi's feeling any pressure, she's not letting on. Reminded of Lieberman's statement, she says, "To me, that's not pressure. To me, that's a compliment. The only pressure I put on myself is to be a good teammate."

So much of the attention paid to the WNBA and to the Mercury is focused on Taurasi that she makes a conscious effort to talk about the team more than herself. Bringing up that team-spirit thing again, she says everybody on the Mercury gets along great. "I think that's important. People say, 'Well, you don't have to like each other to play on a basketball team.' I think that's . . . crap," she says. "I think you do have to get along. I think you do have to have that certain amount of respect for people to actually go out on the court and have each other's backs and play hard for each other."

Especially when they spend so much time together. In addition to playing two to three games a week during the season, the Mercury has two-hour practices five or six times a week. This season, the team clinched a spot in the playoffs toward the end of a 10-day stretch on the road. "We get about one day off a week," Taurasi says. "It's a pretty busy schedule, and you travel a lot. There are certain things that are tough."

In addition to all the WNBA games and practices, all the Diana Taurasi Basketball Camps, and all her community work with the Diana Taurasi Foundation and Project Kaboom! (a national nonprofit organization that aims to build playgrounds in disadvantaged neighborhoods), she spends her off-seasons playing basketball in Russia — which means she plays year-round, with maybe a month or two off. She recently re-signed a two-year deal with the Spartak team in Moscow, where she's spent the past two winters.

"Obviously, Russia's a different country — different music, language, food, culture. It took me a while to get used to it. But now, after being there for two years, I enjoy it," Taurasi says. "I have friends out there. So it's always nice to go back."

Not to mention the money. ESPN.com reported that Taurasi's getting paid $490,000 to play in Russia — 10 times her annual Mercury salary of $49,000. Even combined with her endorsement deal with Nike and past deals with Gatorade and Eight O'Clock Coffee, Taurasi's overseas earnings cast massive shadows on her paychecks here.

Many more WNBA players, including Sue Bird and Lauren Jackson of the Seattle Storm, Margo Dydek and Katie Douglas of the Connecticut Sun, and Tina Thompson of the Houston Comets, spend their off-seasons playing in Europe, where they're pampered with private planes and cars, free luxury housing, massages, and six-figure salaries.

That's worlds away from the WNBA, where the league's salary cap is $93,000 for an individual player, and teams usually fly coach on commercial airlines and stay in standard rooms at less-than-luxury hotels.

And it's even further away from the NBA, where multimillion-dollar contracts are standard. Taurasi's closest counterpart on the Suns, Steve Nash, has a five-year, $65 million contract, and the annual league minimum for an NBA rookie is $412,718.

Many WNBA teams are subsidized by their city's NBA franchises (the Mercury was purchased along with the Suns by Robert G. Sarver in 2004). Two teams, the Cleveland Rockers and the Charlotte Sting, have folded in the past five years because they couldn't find buyers once the owners of their NBA counterparts let them go.

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2 comments
CourtKilla
CourtKilla

Did you see the game last night against San Antonio? Way to sweep the playoffs, Mercury! The finals are going to be outstanding, but I doubt it will be Phoenix vs. Detroit. Look for the Indiana Fever to shut down the Shock today.

Fred
Fred

the sonics already hired a coach. i doubt westhead would rumored for a coaching position that's already been filled. p.j. carlesimo took the job earlier in the summer.

 
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