Are Brittney Griner and Diana Taurasi in their last year with Mercury? | Phoenix New Times
Navigation

Iconic Mercury duo Brittney Griner and Diana Taurasi face the end

While Griner was imprisoned, the pair worried they'd never reunite. Now they prepare for a possible last ride together.
Guard Diana Taurasi (right) of the Phoenix Mercury greets center Brittney Griner (left) after scoring her 10,000th career point during the game against the Atlanta Dream at Footprint Center on Aug. 3.
Guard Diana Taurasi (right) of the Phoenix Mercury greets center Brittney Griner (left) after scoring her 10,000th career point during the game against the Atlanta Dream at Footprint Center on Aug. 3. Chris Coduto/Getty Images

Local News is Vital to Our Community

When you support our community-rooted newsroom, you enable all of us to be better informed, connected, and empowered during this important election year. Give now and help us raise $5,000 by June 7.

Support local journalism

$0
$5,000
$750
Share this:
Brittney Griner got to Phoenix right when Diana Taurasi was ready for her.

By the time Griner met her in 2013, Taurasi had been the brash, bucket-getting face of the WNBA for nearly a decade, winning two championships and putting the Phoenix Mercury on the map. When Griner arrived in their adopted desert home, Taurasi was seasoned and ready for a new co-star. The two quickly became close, both as buddies and two halves of a killer high-low attack.

What Taurasi learned from her travails through the WNBA’s rocky early history, she shared with Griner. And when Taurasi needed reinforcement down on the court in the waning days of her prime, the springy 6-foot-9 Griner provided it. Their partnership was natural.

And now it — as well as an era of Phoenix basketball — may be nearing an end.

As the Mercury begin their 2024 campaign in Las Vegas on Tuesday against the defending champion Aces, Taurasi will enter a WNBA-record 20th season. She’s the league’s all-time scoring leader and the inspiration for the WNBA logo, but she’s also staring down her 42nd birthday, her sixth Olympics and the final year of her contract.

Meanwhile, the 33-year-old Griner is only a year removed from a nearly yearlong wrongful detainment at a Russian labor camp. She played for the Mercury in 2023, but hardly looked like herself while her body adjusted after months and months of imprisonment. Like Tarausi, she’s set to become a free agent after the season.

This could be Phoenix’s last year with both of them — though, due to a toe injury, it will be a few weeks before Griner joins Taurasi on the court. So, as the Mercury look forward to a new season, it’s all but impossible not to look backward as well.

click to enlarge
Diana Taurasi is in the last year of her contract and likely will consider retirement after the 2024 season.
Barry Gossage/Phoenix Mercury

Like sisters

When Griner arrived in the WNBA, she found one of the league’s biggest stars prepared to coach her up. “If you have to make a concerted effort to mentor,” Taurasi told ESPN The Magazine’s Kate Fagan in 2015, “you really don't give a shit about that person.” Taurasi gave a shit.

The pair won their only championship together in Griner’s second season. Though they’ve made regular playoff runs since, they’ve yet to win another. In 2015, Griner was thrust into a leading role without Taurasi — Taurasi was paid by her Russian team UMMC Ekaterinburg not to play in the WNBA, her way of sticking a finger in the league’s eye over its low salaries — and led the Mercury to the Western Conference finals. Since Taurasi’s return, the Mercury have made regular playoff runs but always lost their last game, losing the WNBA Finals in 2021.

That’s a lot of battles to weather together, and the pair is close. Taurasi, Griner has said, is like a sister to her. When Griner was imprisoned, they wondered if they would ever see one another again. Now, heading into a consequential season, fans are wondering about something similar.

But the two Mercury stars are not.

“I’m taking it one day at a time,” Taurasi told Phoenix New Times at the team’s media day on May 9. “At this point in my career … I’m realistic. I prepare for what’s coming in the near future, and for me right now that’s game one in Vegas.”

For her part, Griner said her ordeal in Russia has lent her a new perspective on the game. After being arrested and convicted of possession of cannabis oil, there were times she felt she’d never come home. It took a prisoner swap – with the United States releasing a Russian arms dealer – to secure her return.

“I used to think (basketball) was the end of the world,” she said, “until I met what the end of the world is to me.”

Understandably, Griner has sworn off playing overseas since her detainment. After a difficult 2023 season — the Mercury finished 9-31 and last in their conference, and Griner missed games for mental health reasons — she considered retirement. Griner did not officially re-sign with the Mercury until late March.

She feels more certain of what she wants now.

“Last year I definitely thought about giving it up,” Griner said at media day. “Y’all are stuck with me for a while now. I’m not going to let up.”

click to enlarge
Brittney Griner considered retiring after her imprisonment and a rough first season back, but she nows says, 'Y'all are stuck with me for a while."
Lorie Shaull

A consequential season

Still, with the clock ticking on their signature tandem, it behooves the Mercury to make the most of the upcoming campaign. Much of the organization around Taurasi and Griner is brand new.

The team was sold last February along with the NBA’s Suns to Michigan mortgage executive Mat Ishbia, who brought in a new coach and general manager from the NBA. That new leadership rebuilt the roster around Taurasi and Griner, replacing star point guard Skylar Diggins-Smith with rugged WNBA champions Kahleah Copper and Natasha Cloud to make the team bigger, younger and more physical.

But Taurasi and Griner remain the star attractions. During media day, new team President Josh Bartelstein recalled that in his first meeting with Ishbia, everything atop the new owner’s to-do list pertained to the Mercury and not the Suns — including a new Mercury practice facility set to open in early July.

What lies beyond this summer, though, is uncertain. Taurasi is likely to consider retirement, whether or not she wins a historic sixth Olympic gold with Team USA in Paris. She holds countless league records already and played the fewest minutes of her career last season. Significant hip and spine injuries have sidelined her throughout her career.

Keeping pace is a challenge at her age, but she embraces it.

“I don’t play for any of (accolades), I play because I love the game,” Taurasi said at media day. “I love to prepare, I love to compete. I love to come into a training camp in my 20th year and still try to prove myself to my teammates and my coaches. … Hopefully, there’s still more championships to bring to the city of Phoenix.”

If Taurasi does hang it up, what would that mean for Griner? The vast majority of Griner’s pro career has been spent with the legend at her side. It doesn’t appear Griner wants to leave Phoenix, but with so much change around her – baby number one on the way with her wife, Cherelle, and no long-term contract — one or both parts of the Valley’s greatest sports duo could be gone before long.

Another Mercury season is underway. And an era, one that has defined women’s basketball in Arizona, approaches an end.
BEFORE YOU GO...
Can you help us continue to share our stories? Since the beginning, Phoenix New Times has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix — and we'd like to keep it that way. Our members allow us to continue offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food, and culture with no paywalls.