Mercury Rising

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

"The WNBA is very fragile financially. It doesn't have the same resources and personnel that we have in a top-10 college program," Turner Thorne says. "A lot of times, players look at the NBA and the million-dollar contracts and go, 'How come we don't get that?' It's because they don't sell out arenas. Don't generate advertising dollars. TV's not paying to put women's basketball on . . . It takes time. Players need to be patient, and they need to be respectful and appreciate the opportunity. And you know what? Thirty thousand dollars for four months of work isn't a bad gig."

Still, the incentives for players to go abroad is a growing concern for the WNBA. Many in the league worry that some of the best players will leave the United States for more lucrative careers overseas. And Taurasi sees the sense in that. "I think that's definitely something people are going to start to look to do more," she says. "It's still a job. It's basketball, but it's a job. People have families, and sometimes you have to look at jobs for what they're worth and how they benefit you the most, so some people might be looking to go overseas and just take the summer off."

As for Taurasi, "I'm in the position right now where I love coming back to the United States and playing basketball in front of my friends and family, and being here in Phoenix, which I've loved since I was a rookie," she says. "So I haven't even thought about [playing overseas exclusively]."

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.
U.S. Airways Center

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When the Phoenix Mercury played the New York Liberty here on August 9, it had already clinched a spot in the playoffs. Governor Janet Napolitano was at the game, serving as guest coach (her game plan: "Scoring more points than the other team," which the Mercury did, winning the game 97-86).

"The Mercury are a run-and-gun team. In some respects, they remind me of the Suns," Napolitano told reporters before the game. "Some of the best players in the game are here in Phoenix . . . They play a high-level game, it's fun to watch, and it's family-friendly."

The phrase "family-friendly" always comes up in talk about Mercury games. The WNBA does have an audience — even if it's not the large and sometimes glamorous audience the NBA enjoys. WNBA President Donna Orender likes to say, "We have a unique voice to women. And kids. And families."

And, yes, lesbians. Though no one's taken an official audience sexuality survey at a Mercury game, a quick scan of the crowd reveals an abundance of androgynous women with short hair, attending the game in pairs. Televised Mercury games draw spirited, screaming crowds at local lesbian bars like zGirl Club, too. Still, the family faction at WNBA games seems to be the larger demographic, thanks in part to the high level of audience involvement.

Though there's a degree of fan participation during NBA halftimes and breaks, fans at Mercury games are on the court much more. There's always some contest — a Frisbee toss, a free-throw for charity, a beach ball volleyball game in the crowd. Often in dad-and-son or mom-and-daughter teams. Then there is the "Mercury Train," in which hundreds of fans race down to the court and run in a circle with the Mercury hip-hop squad and the Mercury mascot, Scorch.

Phoenix Suns star Amaré Stoudemire's been at several Mercury games, and his son, Amaré Stoudemire Jr., celebrated his first birthday by cramming his fingers into a cake at the Mercury's game against the Liberty this year.

In a comedic moment during that game, Scorch crawled around on the court during a timeout, and when he appeared unaware that play was resuming, Taurasi planted her size-12 in his behind to get him out of her way.

Unlike for Suns games, tickets for Mercury games are cheap and easy to get. Mercury games don't sell out, so fans can just walk up to the box office on game night and buy tickets — no need to overpay scalpers for good seats. Mercury playoff tickets start at $10 for upper-level seats, and top out at $161.25 for Courtside Club seats, with a wide range of tickets and prices in between.

The players are family-friendly, too, signing stuff and taking pictures with fans before and after games, often hugging enthusiastic kids who greet them like heroes. "The big difference between the NBA and the WNBA is that the players are so accessible in the WNBA," Blackwell says. "You can get to know them, you can have a drink with them after the game." (Taurasi's favorite postgame drinking hole, by the way, is Majerle's).

But for all the lighthearted atmosphere, playing serious basketball is the thing in the playoffs, and the Mercury's having its best season ever. The team hasn't made the playoffs since 2000, when it lost to the Sparks in the first round. This season, the Mercury dominated the league in the last month of the regular season, losing only two of 14 games. Much of this success is attributed to Coach Westhead's tutelage. In just two seasons under Westhead, the Mercury's turned in 27 of its top 29 regular-season offensive performances.

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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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