Mercury Rising

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Every time you drive past U.S. Airways Center, Diana Taurasi's looking down on you, holding a two-toned basketball and smiling.

The 6-foot shooting guard for the Phoenix Mercury, our professional women's basketball team, has been honored with one of those life-size cardboard effigies, which looms in the second-floor windows of the arena. Taurasi's the biggest star on the Mercury and the biggest in the Women's National Basketball Association, yet the crowds that pass under her image are modest, nothing like the hordes that jam the arena for regular-season Phoenix Suns games, much less the NBA playoffs.

This despite the fact that the Mercury's in the WNBA playoffs for the first time in seven years and swept its first-round opponent, the Seattle Storm. The Mercury will face the San Antonio Silver Stars in the Western Conference finals. The first game is Thursday, August 30, in San Antonio.


Diana Taurasi

U.S. Airways Center

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.

But the Mercury has a loyal following, and for these fans, there's a now-or-never feeling about the team's chances of winning the league championship.

The Mercury played a great regular season, ending with a 23-11 record, earning it the top seed in its conference. This year, it's the only team in WNBA history to floor three of the league's top 10 scorers in a single season (no other team even has two).

And the Mercury has head coach Paul "Guru of Go" Westhead, who owns an NBA championship ring from his days as head coach of the Magic Johnson-era L.A. Lakers (he also coached the Chicago Bulls and the Denver Nuggets during his NBA career).

Fueling fan angst about the possibility of there being no tomorrow for the Mercury's championship hopes is the status of Westhead's contract, which expires after this season. Rumors abound that he'll return to the NBA as coach of the Seattle SuperSonics.

Adding to the pressure to win it all now is that 2008 is an Olympic year, which means that key Mercury players, such as Americans Taurasi and Cappie Pondexter and Australians Penny Taylor and Belinda Snell, will have competitive obligations outside the Mercury for their national teams.

Experts believe a championship's possible this year mostly because of Taurasi (known as "Dee" to friends and fans), who's spent three previous seasons with the Mercury without making the playoffs. As a point guard, she led the University of Connecticut Huskies to three straight NCAA Championships, was on the cover of Sports Illustrated three times before being chosen by the Mercury as the first overall pick in the 2004 draft, and has since shattered league records for most points in a season (860 in 2006) and most points in a single game (47 versus Houston on August 10, 2006).

"As a basketball player, you always wanna be at the [playoff] stage, rather than sitting at home like we did," Taurasi says with a laugh. (The Mercury missed the playoffs for six straight seasons.) "We're playing better basketball. We're finding ways to win."

Despite the Mercury's success this year, Taurasi isn't Steve Nash and the Mercury isn't the Suns. Despite her star power and that she's arguably a better baller than Nash (she's eight years younger), the Mercury never sells out the arena. Attendance at WNBA games is roughly half that of NBA games, and the women's league has been struggling financially since its inception in 1996.

The primary reason is that most pro basketball fans are men who aren't much interested in women's hoops. Among the common complaints: Women don't dunk, the pace of the games is slower, and there's just not as much physicality.

Yet the women's game has come a long way in a short time, baby, and continues to evolve.

There are women in the league, like Lisa Leslie of the L.A. Sparks, Michelle Snow of the Houston Comets, and 7-foot-2 Connecticut Sun center Margo Dydek, who can and have dunked. The pace of games has picked up, too, particularly for the Mercury — thanks to Westhead's high-energy, high-scoring, run-and-gun approach and to sharpshooters like guard Cappie Pondexter, forward Penny Taylor, and Taurasi (eighth, seventh, and third in league scoring this year, respectively).

The scores for WNBA games have jumped into the triple digits several times this year, and the athletes whom fans go to see are every bit as pro-caliber as their counterparts in the NBA.

Just ask Phoenix resident Patti Blackwell, author of Inspiring Women of the WNBA and a Mercury season-ticket holder since the team's inaugural season in 1997.

"I see a lot of hittin' the floor. I see these girls get bumped and bruised. It's not like watching little girls play," Blackwell says. "You see them coming out with bruises on their arms, wrapped in ice between plays. They really do battle with their bodies."

Not at all powder-puff basketball, even if the Mercury locker room often smells like vanilla body spray.

And the most aggressive player in the league is Taurasi.

Off the court, Taurasi's friendly, funny, easygoing — an energetic 25-year-old blasting hip-hop in the locker room and talking in cartoon voices. She maintains an exchange called the "Buddy Blog" with Storm player (and former UConn teammate) Sue Bird at www.phoenixmercury.com, where she writes candidly about everything from clinching a spot in the playoffs to wanting to swim with sharks to how much she misses Mama's Donuts back home in Chino Valley, California. She's also got a MySpace page (www.myspace.com/dianataurasi) and a Web site, www.dianataurasi.com. She's laid-back and friendly, even when reporters are shoving recorders and microphones in her face and fans are mobbing her.

But on the court, she means business, and she will bowl over opposing players whenever she can.

"She's a big guard. She's someone who can take you down," says Detroit Shock guard Katie Smith. Taurasi will get physical to block a shot or get the ball, and she's constantly in other players' faces.

It's nothing personal, Taurasi says: "I don't even see faces on the court. I see numbers and different-colored jerseys."

She was ejected from the May 29 game against the Sacramento Monarchs after getting whistled for a technical foul and a flagrant foul, within 67 seconds (the flagrant on Monarchs guard Kara Lawson was described as a "take down" that was "all head"). During the August 17 game at Sacramento, the crowd booed her when she hard-fouled Monarchs center/forward Yolanda Griffith near the end of the game.

She was suspended for two games in June for her conduct toward officials at a June 22 game against Detroit. She was giving refs lip about what she felt were bad calls.

The May ejection and June suspension were Taurasi's firsts. "I think I just lost my cool. There were a couple of calls that I didn't agree with . . . No big deal," she wrote on her May 30 blog. "Stuff happens, and you move on. People are making a big deal out of it, like I killed someone."

Taurasi exhibits such aggression only when competing. Whether it's basketball, tennis, ping-pong or Pac-Man, she wants to clobber her opponents. She's a fierce competitor who's out to win. That's her nature and that's what she does for a living.

When Diana Taurasi was still playing for the UConn Huskies, New Haven Register columnist Scott Cacciola wrote, "What Taurasi does on the court is authentic . . . Her legacy is assured."

During her collegiate career, Taurasi scored 1,583 points (seventh all-time at basketball powerhouse Connecticut), helped the Huskies win three NCAA championships, and was named the NCAA women's basketball tournament's Most Outstanding Player in 2003 and 2004. She won the 2003 Wade Trophy (named after Delta State University Coach Lily Margaret Wade, and presented annually to the best women's college basketball player in NCAA Division I). She also won the 2003 Associated Press Player of the Year award, and in 2003 and 2004, she was named Naismith College Player of the Year and Big East Player of the Year in women's basketball.

In his preface to the 2004 "Sportsmen of the Year" issue, Sports Illustrated's Tom Verducci wrote that Diana Taurasi was "the standard bearer for basketball excellence — gender be damned."

She was the number one pick in the WNBA draft in 2004, after which she made All-WNBA First Team and was named WNBA Rookie of the Year that season. She's been a WNBA All-Star for three years running (2005-07). She helped the United States women's basketball team win a gold medal at the 2004 Olympics. Last season, she scored 741 points to break Katie Smith's league record for most points scored in a season, then broke her own record to end the season with 860. She's already been named to the WNBA All-Decade Team, even though this is only her fourth year in the league.

Those who know women's basketball and who've competed with Taurasi say she's very hard to beat.

ASU women's basketball coach Charli Turner Thorne, who's led the lady Sun Devils to the NCAA tournament five times in the past seven years (including the university's first-ever appearance at the NCAA Elite Eight), remembers when the Sun Devils played the Huskies on their home court during Taurasi's senior year. With 10 minutes to go in the second half of a five-point game, Taurasi popped off some big shots and the Huskies won.

"We ended up losing by 18," Turner Thorne recalls. "And then [the Huskies] came back to us the next year — without Taurasi — and we beat them by 10.

"Taurasi's a tough match-up," Turner Thorne says. "You're never gonna completely neutralize her. She's so savvy. She's just the dagger woman. She'll just hit you with a big shot . . . She absolutely will be in the Hall of Fame for women's basketball."

Says Detroit's Katie Smith, "Her threes, she can pull from anywhere, and she can pull them quickly. She's obviously a talented basketball player who can score, but she's not opposed to giving the ball to her teammates."

Taurasi's not that fast, and at 6 feet and 172 pounds, she's certainly not the largest player in the league, or on the Mercury (that'd be 6-foot-5 center Kelly Schumacher). But Taurasi's touch is magic. She's known for pulling off three-point shots from way behind the line (during her UConn days, she netted a legendary 70-footer with four seconds to go in the first half of a January 2003 game against Tennessee). She's good under the boards, too, deftly slicing in for tight shots and rebounds. Her passes are fast and precise, and she's an aggressive shot-blocker. In one of her blog posts, Taurasi immodestly wrote, "I block shots like [NBA all-defensive center] Dikembe Mutombo."

Later, she said with a laugh, "That was maybe a little exaggeration, but it's just a good feeling [to block shots]. You kind of take away a little of their pride."

Hall of Famer Nancy Lieberman, who played for the Mercury in its inaugural season and went on to coach the Detroit Shock for three seasons before taking on her current role as a women's basketball analyst on ESPN, talks about how Taurasi stacks up against other players Lieberman's seen during her three-plus decades in the sport.

"Diana's different. She's a cut above," Lieberman says. "Everything about Diana is how a dude would play the game — she's strong, she's physical, she has confidence. And a winner's mentality. And you have to remember, she's only 25. She hasn't even hit the peak of her career yet."

Taurasi's always taken the whole "you play like a guy" analogy as a compliment, but she didn't hesitate in an ESPN The Magazine article to scoff at a Dan Patrick question about whether she would consider playing in the NBA: "I'd be playing against 6-foot-8, 250-pound men. These guys are freaks of nature. I'm realistic."

Besides, the women's game is changing, she believes. And so, hopefully, is the perception of what makes a great basketball player. Playing like "a chick" isn't considered inferior, she contends. It's just different, just as women's tennis is different from men's tennis.

"I think the game has revolutionized into all these great players," she says. Now, people can mean it as a compliment when they say, "'You know, you play like a chick.' Whereas, five or six years ago, maybe longer, playing like a guy was the only true compliment to being a real basketball player."

Author Patti Blackwell's watched the WNBA change and agrees that the bar's been raised — that it's not the same league it was 10 years ago. "The big trend now is rookies coming out of college. When [the league] started, they assigned older, veteran players to the teams to get it started, and so you had a lot of legendary players, like Jennifer Gillom and Michele Timms, and Cheryl Miller coaching. Things like that," Blackwell says. "And now the big names, like Taurasi, are coming out of the colleges."

The rules of the game have changed, too. "They went to a 24-second shot clock from a 30-second shot clock last season, and they went to four 10-minute quarters instead of two 20-minute halves. I think it makes for a more exciting game," Blackwell says. "The shorter shot clock allows for a lot more scoring by both teams, so you see a lot of 100-point games now, where that was really, really rare before."

The Mercury cracked the 100-point mark in seven games this season, and other teams have been hitting triple-digit scores, too. "The [high scoring] is great for the game," ASU's Turner Thorne says. "When Westhead came into the league, he couldn't believe how low the scores were, including his own team's. I think it was a problem. It was very much a half-court, rounded-out league, and the players were older.

"The style is becoming more aggressive, more up-and-down, and the scores are going up," Turner Thorne continues. "It's great for the game. I've never had a fan tell me, 'I love a 40-point game.'"

As for above-the-rim play, "It's not about the dunk," Lieberman says. "We're getting there. In men's basketball, the dunk is an exclamation point, a finisher. It will evolve in our game down the road as a force and a factor, rather than a novelty. But our game is played with execution, teamwork, and concentration."

Taurasi's wary of the topic: "We will never dunk [that much]. If you wanna watch dunk, you can go to the men's game. You know what I mean?"

Of course, this doesn't stop Taurasi from asking her teammates, "Think I could jump up and touch the boards?" during a break in practice. When nobody answers, she jogs a couple steps, jumps and slaps the backboard with her hand.

Just to show that she can do it.

"I'm gonna knock you over! I'm gonna knock you over!"

Diana Taurasi's walking down a line of kids who're all bent over, dribbling basketballs, and she's gently pushing on each one's back to see if she can throw them off balance.

This is one of many exercises 20 kids (including two boys), ages 8 to 14, are doing as part of the Diana Taurasi Basketball Camp. She conducts camps several times a year, and all the proceeds from tonight's camp go to the Diana Taurasi Foundation, for the purpose of remodeling the learning center at the Boys & Girls Club of Guadalupe.

Taurasi's teaching style is firm but encouraging. "Okay, when you do a left-hand lay-up, we're gonna start on the right foot," she tells the kids, demonstrating the shot for the umpteenth time. "Unh, unh, unh — come here. Get over here. Which is your right foot? Start on that foot. Okay, that's good! You're getting better."

She high-fives every child after every effort, and continually clowns around with them. During one exercise, the kids are divided into teams. Each has to run the ball the length of the court, make a basket, run the ball back to the other end, make another basket, and then pass the ball off to the next teammate. After one of the boys recounts the instructions for the exercise, Taurasi jokingly tells him, "Right. And you have to do 200 push-ups, and then you're done."

The kids are itching to go by the time Taurasi's ready to start the exercise. "On your mark. Get set. One . . . two . . . go!"

As each kid passes the ball, Taurasi yells stuff like, "Cheer your teammates on, you guys! You gotta cheer 'em on!"

Teamwork and team spirit are not trite ideas to Taurasi; it's important to be a good teammate and rally the troops. "I think that's one thing I've always prided myself on, being a good teammate on and off the court," she says. "I think that really brings chemistry to the team and, eventually, that's when you become a really great team."

As someone who's faced Taurasi, the Shock's Katie Smith considers Taurasi's teamwork skills to be one of her best attributes. "On the floor, if she can shoot the ball 20 times, she'll shoot the ball 20 times. If she can shoot the ball 12 times and is really getting her teammates involved, or if Cappie's going off or Penny's going off, then she'll [help] them," Smith says. "She's not someone who necessarily needs to get hers every night."

Paul Westhead says Taurasi's "the heart of the team and pulls them together," and Mercury forward Taylor — who came to the team as the number-one pick in the WNBA Dispersal Draft (when the Cleveland Rockers folded) the same year Taurasi joined as the top pick in the WNBA draft — says Taurasi's "definitely the leader of our team.

"She's a fantastic teammate. For all the hype and attention she's had, she's very grounded," says Taylor, who many fans believe has a shot at league Most Valuable Player this year.

"She's the energy of our team. She's probably the least selfish person I've ever played with, in the sense that she wants everyone to play well."

None of this is to say Taurasi doesn't like attention. If she catches a camera on her, she can ham it up. During the basketball camp, she saw a huge lens up in the stands out of the corner of her eye, and she started playing with the ball, expertly spinning it from fingertip to fingertip and rolling it up and down her arms like a Harlem Globetrotter.

But while she can be the showoff, Taurasi's mostly guarded with the media. When she answers reporters' questions, she looks them in the eye, speaks quickly, and ends statements with a tone of finality.

And she would prefer to keep her personal life personal.

Many WNBA fans, particularly the league's large lesbian audience, want to know about Dee's life off-court, mainly: Is she gay or straight? Many people assume most players in the WNBA are gay, but only a handful of them have publicly come out: Houston Comets forward Sheryl Swoopes, Comets guard/center Latasha Byears, former Minnesota Lynx center Michelle Von Gorp, and former New York Liberty center Sue Wicks.

Taurasi's said she's supportive of gay athletes who come out of the closet on their own terms, but she won't speculate on players' sexuality and doesn't think the media should be trying to out people.

Wicks, the first player in the WNBA to come out and openly discuss the issue with the press, told the Village Voice in an August 2000 story, "I can't say how many players are gay, but it would be easier to count the straight ones."

Swoopes, the player to most recently come out, in October 2005, also debunks the myth. "The talk about the WNBA being full of lesbians is not true," she wrote in an April, 2006, guest editorial in ESPN The Magazine. "I mean, there are as many straight women in the league as there are gay."

As for Taurasi, well, according to her MySpace profile (which she maintains herself), she's "straight," "single," and would like children "someday."

She certainly looks like the jock's jock during games, but Taurasi's surprisingly feminine off-court. When she's out on the town, at an awards ceremony, or doing studio television interviews, she'll let her abundant hair down and try all sorts of things with it, from just letting it hang straight behind her ears to the super-curly tresses she wore to the White House to accept George W. Bush's congratulations for the Huskies' winning the 2003 NCAA title. She wears makeup (usually shades of soft pink and earthy tones), dazzling diamond earrings, and form-fitting clothes and dresses that reveal her athletic curves. For the 2004 ESPY Awards, Taurasi got a makeover from tennis star Serena Williams, during which the pair spent more than three hours trying on various outfits and talking hair and shoes. Taurasi's outfit choices came down to a low-cut black number and a pink pantsuit with a black, lacy bra (she went with the latter).

Taurasi will make casual comments to fans about her relationship status (in a 2005 online chat on the Phoenix Mercury Web site, she told one fan, "I do NOT have a boyfriend, but I am looking for someone rich, [who] is about 6-8 and drives a BMW 745 Li."), but she isn't as forthcoming about such things with reporters. Several Web sites have stated that Taurasi's currently dating local TV star/producer Ari Louis, host of The Ari Louis show on Access Tucson, but Taurasi hasn't commented on that and neither will the Mercury's public relations department. (Louis could not be reached for comment).

For Taurasi, it might be less about maintaining secrecy and more about maintaining sanity.

She has so many obligations with the Mercury and the press and so little time to herself that when she has a rare day off, she often makes herself "unreachable," hiding out alone at her Phoenix home (not far from the arena), doing laundry and watching TV. She has no desire to become a tabloid topic.

"I don't think she's as full of herself as other people are full of her," says Patti Blackwell, who's met Taurasi several times and brings her son to all of Taurasi's basketball camps. "She is who she is, and she doesn't try to be something different. She's just been put on this pedestal, and she's doing her best to stay balanced on it, but it's got to be really, really difficult."

When Taurasi came to the Mercury as a rookie, she was greeted with tremendous fanfare, and her name still elicits more screams from the audience at U.S. Airways Center than any other Mercury player. And although Taurasi interacts with fans and the media, she visibly squirms when the word "celebrity" comes up.

"You know, I really don't pay attention to it much," she says. "I just go about my business and just chill out."

To that end, any free time Taurasi has (which is very little during these heady playoff days) is spent chilling out. When she's not hiding out at home, she says, "I like to go to the movies. I like to go to the mall and hang out."

Taurasi's tastes aren't that different from many other 25-year-olds. She digs hip-hop, particularly Tupac Shakur, Nas, Jay-Z and Biggie Smalls. She also likes U2, James Blunt, and Coldplay. She likes her music loud. Her favorite movie is A Bronx Tale. When she watches TV, she tries to catch The Jamie Foxx Show, Nip/Tuck, and reruns of Married . . . With Children. She's frequently vocalized her love of Fruity Pebbles cereal and sushi.

Then there's "the bun." Taurasi's on-court hairdo has become her trademark, and fans and reporters often ask her when she's going to let the bun down and bust out the old pony tail. It's become such a topic of conversation that Taurasi's taken to telling people, "Don't think outside the bun."

She says with a laugh, "Oh, the ponytail! Man, the bun is rollin' this year. I don't know if I can go back on that."

Taurasi doesn't go so far as to say that messing with the bun would be bad luck, but after a season in which she was named WNBA Player of the Week twice, the Mercury ended the season with a five-game winning streak and it swept its first-round playoff opponent, you've got to wonder if there's some mojo in that thing.

Diana Lurena Taurasi was born in Chino, California, on June 11, 1982. Her father, Mario Taurasi, was born in Italy and played soccer professionally in Argentina. That's where he met and fell in love with Taurasi's mother, Lili, when they were both 15. The couple moved to California in 1978 and started a family, beginning with a daughter, Jessika. Eighteen months later, Diana came along. She grew up speaking Spanish, still the language of choice in the Taurasi household.

The girl who would grow up to be a celebrity in women's basketball had a humble upbringing. Her father worked more than 50 hours a week as a machinist in Fullerton, while her mother waited tables at a Sizzler. Her parents' work ethic affected Taurasi profoundly, and she considers her "'rents" among her heroes. One of her goals is to buy a house in California to be closer to her family.

Growing up, Taurasi says, sports were a "huge" part of the household. "Soccer was probably the biggest thing. We're die-hard soccer fans," she says. "Whenever the World Cup comes around, it's like our family dies for a whole month — you don't hear from anyone. So it's always been special. We always grew up watching tennis on the weekends. We always watched as a family."

Basketball came up when Taurasi was 8, and took over from there. "I got onto a community team in second grade, with my sister, and we just started playing from then on," she says. "It kind of just grew into something that I had to do every single day when I got home from school. I had to watch every night. I had to wake up and go to school early and play in the yard. It's just something I love to do. I was addicted to it at an early age, and I still am."

Taurasi's talent was apparent even then. "I've seen her [hit big shots] since she was in the eighth grade," Charli Turner Thorne says. "I saw her at a tournament in high school in Santa Barbara, and three games in a row, she hit a buzzer-beater to win the game. And her high school team [Don Lugo High School] wasn't a good program. It was pretty much just her, and she just has a knack and a flair and a toughness for stepping up and making big plays, and that mentality of, 'I'm not gonna be denied!'"

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.

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.

"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]."

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.

The Western and Eastern Conference playoffs found four teams facing each other in a best-of-three first-round series, with the two winners facing off in a second-round best-of-three to determine who heads to the WNBA finals, a best-of-five series.

The Mercury won the first two games of the opening series against Seattle, defeating the Storm 101-84 on its own turf in Game 1. Thanks to a three-point shot by Taurasi late in the fourth quarter, the Mercury sneaked past the fourth-seeded Storm 95-89 in Game 2 to take the series.

Now that the Mercury has weathered the Storm, it will face the San Antonio Silver Stars to determine who goes to the championship round.

The Mercury's on a roll, and the players know what they must do as the playoffs continue.

"In the past, [the challenge] has been our rebounding," Penny Taylor says. "We've had problems getting on the boards and things like that. But even when we don't rebound well, we've won games. I think the focus now is blocking and getting boards, because from that, we feed our running game. And getting out and running is what we need."

"We've fared really well against some good teams," Taurasi says, "and I think it's just a matter of . . . just playing with the confidence we've had for the last month."

When asked about his expectations for Taurasi as the playoffs proceed, Westhead says what any coach would say about his star player, "She's gonna be marvelous. My expectation for her is to be who she is — she'll make big plays and big shots. I think she'll have a great playoff season."

As for bringing a championship to Phoenix for the first time since the Arizona Diamondbacks won the 2001 World Series, there's an obstacle beyond the Western Conference — two-time defending champs, the Detroit Shock, coached by former NBA center and Pistons bad-boy Bill Laimbeer. At press time, the defense-minded Shock was tied 1-1 in its first-round series against the New York Liberty, but many expect the Shock to win in the East again this year. In the regular season, the Shock stomped its way to a 24-10 record, including a 111-82 win over Phoenix.

But the Mercury and its fans are confident. For the first time, the possibility that this team can go all the way seems real.

"I definitely really believe — and I wouldn't tell you this if I didn't," Turner Thorne says. "The Mercury have everything they need."

In addition to the All-Star trio of Taurasi, Taylor, and Pondexter, the Mercury has players like Kelly Mazzante, the all-time leading scorer (male or female) in Big 10 history; Tangela Smith, whose career rebounds rank among the top 10 in WNBA history; Kelly Schumacher, who reached a career high of 25 blocks in 21 games this season; and so-fast-she's-a-blur veteran Kelly Miller, who ranks third in the league this year in assists.

If the Mercury were to meet the Shock in the finals, Detroit's Katie Smith's not selling Taurasi & Company short. "They are an offensive juggernaut. They have a couple of guards who can flat-out score," she says. "They just come at you, but on the defensive end, they give up a good amount of points."

Going forward with Smith's statement about the Mercury's defense, Turner Thorne says, "There's an old cliché in basketball: 'Offense wins awards, defense wins games, and rebounding wins championships.' And rebounding [a major part of a team's defense] is not a strength of the Mercury's. If there's one thing I'm concerned about for them in the postseason, it's that. Taurasi, Pondexter — those guys that do so much for the team, they've got to have five or six rebounds per game. They can flat-out score. I think the defense has improved and they're doing a good job with that, so it's won and done if they can just hold teams.

"And," she stresses, "Taurasi has to keep her cool and not get in foul trouble."

Mental toughness counts more than ever in the face of postseason fatigue. "We've worked so hard all season, and now it's this moment in time, where you're reaching for this one thing," Pondexter says. "I think we've got to just focus, focus, focus. And I truly believe we have the pieces to win a championship."

And for an athlete who's almost always smiling off-court, Taurasi looked deadly serious during an on-court interview following the Mercury's final game of the regular season, an 87-73 victory over the visiting Monarchs.

Asked what title the team was looking for this season, Taurasi didn't hesitate:

"The championship. That's the only thing we're looking at right now — the championship."

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