Tenacious Dee

Diana Taurasi stands flush with victory in the Phoenix Mercury locker room, fielding softball questions from local sports journos quizzing her on her golf game and how she's dealing with the triple-digit temps. Finally, they pop the question that's been dogging the six-foot phenom since she was the first pick in April's WNBA draft: How's she handling the pressure of being called the "savior of the WNBA"?

The 22-year-old point guard laughs off the heavy-handed mantle with which she's been anointed.

"I think that's unfair to put that title on anyone," says Taurasi. "I always dealt with pressure. . . . I'll embrace it and take it head-on, just like I always have."

The former University of Connecticut superstar is more focused on facing the Sacramento Monarchs in the Mercury's season opener this Thursday, May 20, than on the burden of bringing the women's league out of the sports periphery. Mercury fans are pinning their hoop dreams on Taurasi, hoping for the same fortitude she showed while leading the Lady Huskies to three straight NCAA women's championships. But redemption won't be a slam dunk -- with a dismal 8-26 record, the Mercury were the WNBA's virtual cellar-dwellers last season.

"Hopefully, we can turn it around this year," Taurasi says. "It's just about being tougher and a little bit more relentless."

It's that optimism and determination that's turned "Dee" into arguably the most popular and decorated women's hoopster in college sports, where she attracted a legion of followers with her attitude and her game. She's chill when dealing with both fans and the media, cracking jokes about how she'd rather have been drafted by the L.A. Sparks "'cause it's closer to home," in Chino Valley, California.

As the centerpiece of the Mercury/WNBA's marketing campaign, she's already a household name, and we'll see her straight ballin' and shot callin' versus the rest of the world in Athens as a member of Team USA this summer. But Taurasi is modest about her role with the Mercury, and talks about how the off-season additions of all-stars Nikki McCray and Adrian Williams are the final piece to the puzzle.

But is the WNBA ultimately doomed? Three teams have folded in the past two years, and the paltry turnout of 3,121 fans at the Mercury's May 10 preseason game against Sacramento could be a sign of things to come. But neither the small crowd nor rolling her ankle in the second half could stop Taurasi, who nailed four treys and racked up 14 points for the night.

"It's all coming together, and I'm jelling with everyone on the team. It's great playing with all these veterans," says Taurasi, casting a sly look at Williams, who's been hanging and banging with the team for four seasons. The center responds by pegging her teammate with an ice bag.

"Oh, sorry. My bad," says Williams, balancing another cold pack on her leg. Guess she's not a follower of the Tao of Dee . . . yet.

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Benjamin Leatherman is a staff writer at Phoenix New Times. He covers local nightlife, music, culture, geekery, and fringe pursuits.