Mercury Rising

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.

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."

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Niki D'Andrea has covered subjects including drug culture, women's basketball, pirate radio stations, Scottsdale staycations, and fine wine. She has worked at both New Times and Phoenix Magazine, and is now a freelancer.
Contact: Niki D'Andrea