Fourteen years ago, when Diana Taurasi began her WNBA career with the Phoenix Mercury, she was fresh off a legendary career at UConn, where she helped lead the Huskies to three straight NCAA championships on top of her individual awards. She was also in the midst of training with the U.S. Olympic team, playing alongside women’s basketball royalty that included all-stars like Sheryl Swoopes, Dawn Staley, Lisa Leslie, Tina Thompson, and Katie Smith.
“When I first arrived at UConn, I told myself I was going to dedicate my life to basketball,” Taurasi told Deadspin after practice on a Sunday afternoon in Phoenix. “And when you do something like that, you alienate a lot of other things in your life that most people think are normal things to do. For me, that was the best decision I’ve ever made, to put a 100 percent of everything I have into it, and it’s treated me really good.”
Taurasi’s unwavering dedication to basketball over the course of her career has manifested into three WNBA championships, more all-star teams, and record-breaking stats. She’s the first player in WNBA history to amass 7,000 points, 1,500 rebounds, and 1,500 assists. Last season, she passed Tina Thompson as the WNBA’s all-time leading scorer. Taurasi achieved another milestone on Friday night, during the 2018 WNBA season opener against the Dallas Wings, becoming the first player to reach 1,000 career three-pointers and one of the top four fastest players to hit that mark in the entire NBA/WNBA combined.
She’s dominated so many statistics and become such a huge figure in the sport that it can be hard to imagine the game without her. Taurasi says her retirement isn’t coming anytime soon but, as she enters her 14th season, it’s worth looking back on it all. She went through the growing pains of establishing professional women’s basketball in her own country, played overseas because it paid her more, came back from a DUI arrest, and successfully fought a false positive on a drug test. And yet, as dominant as she was predicted to be, holy shit was she even more dominant.
Taurasi wasn’t made to sit back and play checkers. She was made to play ball. That much is evident in her ability to throw her entire being into the game. It’s part of her DNA; it’s as innate as her ability to breathe. She once joked with Sports Illustrated, “If there was a basketball rehab, I’d be the first one admitted.”
That’s part of the reason Kobe Bryant dubbed Taurasi the “White Mamba.” The other reason? Simple. She’s just that damn good.
Throughout her career, Taurasi has been able to marry finesse with grit, a combination that confounds and frustrates people who want her to be one or the other. She has the ability to make intricate no-look passes in tight traffic, get to the hoop as if she was surfing on a cloud, and fight for position in the post and block the shit out of a shot if anyone dares to step in the lane while she’s defending the basket. Time and again, she has made fans, coaches, and players alike whisper to themselves in wonderment, how did she do that?
When Geno Auriemma coached Taurasi at UConn, he’d often say about facing opposing teams, “We’ve got Diana.” It was more than casual bragging or taunting. It was true. When it comes to key players and big moments, there’s clutch shooting, and then there’s Taurasi. In college, she built up a reputation for being the player who should always have the ball in her hands at the end of a game and it followed her to the pros, where that reputation morphed into legendary status and thrust her into the inevitable role as the face of women’s basketball. In every championship game she’s been part of, she has taken over. And it’s why, in 2014, when she won her third WNBA championship with the Mercury, she became the all-time leading scorer in WNBA finals history.
At 35, Taurasi hasn’t slowed down. She’s as addicted to the game as ever, earning yet another all-star appearance during the 2017 season and breaking WNBA records in the process, all while pulling off incredible shots, making jaw-dropping passes, and being as braggadocios as she was when she came into the league.
Still, the Mercury haven’t sniffed the WNBA finals in four years. There are numerous factors to that drought, like the fact that Taurasi sat out the entire 2015 WNBA season because her overseas team—UMMC Ekaterinburg in Russia—offered to pay her WNBA salary on top of her base earnings to rest her body. That same year, the rivalry and dominance of the Minnesota Lynx and the Los Angeles Sparks—both powerhouse teams with talent-stocked rosters from top to bottom—took over the league. The Lynx won the title in 2015, then the Sparks took it in 2016. Last season, it was the Lynx again.
This year, Taurasi will tell you the Mercury have a good shot of breaking up the Lynx-Sparks rivalry. She says she’s in the best shape of her life, key players are healthy, and, if Brittney Griner can return to the same form she started off with in 2017 before suffering a late-season injury, a playoff run looks entirely possible. Taurasi wants another championship, another ring. It would only add to her incredible legacy.
To say that Taurasi’s career has been all triumph, however, would be misleading. She’s had her fair share of missteps and controversy, both on and off the court. Early in her career, in 2009, she was pulled over and arrested for speeding and driving under the influence. Taurasi ended up pleading guilty to a DUI and served one day in jail after a judge commuted her 10-day sentence. Then, in late 2010, she was falsely accused of taking performance-enhancing drugs after she tested positive during a routine drug test while playing overseas for Fenerbahçe in Istanbul. Fenerbahçe terminated Taurasi’s contract and she fought the charges as hard as she does when she’s playing a playoff game down the stretch—she wasn’t going to go out like that.
On the court, Taurasi’s been known to lose her temper. In 2013, she was suspended by the WNBA for accumulating too many technicals. And in 2016, it took her just 22 games before the same thing happened. Last season, she went as far as to clock a player in the back of the head with her forearm, prompting yet another suspension. For most of her career, Taurasi has led the league in technical fouls, and it’s something she’s not embarrassed about in the slightest. A technical foul to Taurasi is just another move of the chess piece, a way to gain a competitive advantage, an edge.
Taurasi affectionately calls basketball a game of mistakes. She says you can’t make the same one twice or it will cost you. And that’s the battle. It’s learning from those mistakes that she aspires to every time she steps on the court, and perhaps even in life.
Today, Taurasi’s status as one of the all-time basketball greats is not even a question, just an evolving fact. Now, as she begins to look back over her career and starts the 2018 season, Taurasi is reflective about how she’s changed. “I like to say I’m a lot different in a lot of ways, but I also like to say that I’m the same in a lot of ways,” she says.”When you play a long time and you get a little older, you can get a little skeptical and become a little bit of a pessimist, and that experience plays against you. I felt like this year, I had little goals and that was to be naive again and to enjoy the moment again.”
At this point in her career and life, Taurasi’s overall accomplishments have surpassed even her wildest expectations—especially off the court. Last year, Taurasi married her former Mercury teammate Penny Taylor. This past March, they welcomed their son, Leo. “I actually was of the thinking that I was never going to get married and never have a family, to tell you the truth,” Taurasi says with a laugh. “I was just always kind of a free spirit with a wild side, but when you a meet a person that just makes you better and makes you better at life, your mindset changes. Then as you get older, different things come into play. Fifteen years ago, I would have said no way. Sitting here now being 35, there’s no other way I’d want it.”
For Taurasi, opening up about her personal life is a big deal. Throughout her playing career, she has been very private about everything but basketball. But as she’s gotten older, Taurasi says she’s realized that some things are worth talking about, especially the birth of her son.
“The day that we went to the hospital was just a day of the unknown. When you get into that car and you’re driving home and you have a little human being in the backseat, you’re just like life has completely changed in so many ways and it makes everything else kind of secondary,” she says. “You know, you have to care for this little child. And it’s been really great the past few months.
“The most overwhelming thing to me is wondering why they haven’t created a good changing table that’s functional. I don’t get it. Or even the baby wipes, where you reach for one and like 10 of them come out. I do not understand it. It doesn’t makes sense to me.”
What does make sense, and what will always make sense to Taurasi, is basketball.
At practice with both rookies and veteran players, Taurasi muses over how the players just keep getting more athletic and more skilled every year, and that the level of play in the WNBA is better than ever. Her only complaint about the growth and evolution of the league is a financial one. “At the end of the day, the media coverage and all of the talk about the importance of the league hasn’t turned into something for the players. At this point, the coaches are still getting paid more than the players, the GMs are still getting paid more than the players, and I don’t know really any other sport that that happens,” she says. “Eventually, someone from the business side of things has to step up and take a stand. Maybe it’s the NBA with their multibillion-dollars TV deals and Nike deals. I don’t know. We always talk about trickle-down effect in American politics and the economy, so I don’t know why that doesn’t trickle down to us.”
Like many other top-tier women’s basketball players, Taurasi has made her money (millions, actually) playing overseas. According to Forbes, between 2017 and 2021, the maximum salary paid to WNBA veterans will increase only from $113,500 to $121,500. So, for 14 years, Taurasi has played year-round to increase her earning potential and make a living. She earns 15 times more money playing for UMMC Ekaterinburg. And when Taurasi took the deal in 2015 to sit out for millions, it sparked a national debate on WNBA salaries and the physical toll playing all year long takes on the body.
That’s why WNBA players often talk about playing for love of the game. Compared to their male counterparts, they don’t get paid nearly enough for what they put into it.
Yet, Taurasi is back for more. “I always say that I know I’ll be done playing basketball when I stop fighting on the floor. If you don’t play with that edge or that competitive spirit, you’re just another player out there,” she says. “I can only speak for myself, but when I don’t play with that fight then I’m just ordinary.”
The Arizona sun will eventually set on Taurasi’s career. And when it does, she’ll be remembered as anything but ordinary. It’s hard to picture what basketball will look like without her. She thinks about it sometimes, wondering what else she could possibly do to fill her time and take the place of her basketball obsession. Taurasi says she’s always been fascinated with architecture, the clean lines of things, and that maybe that’s something she’d like to pursue. But then the whistle blows, the ball is tipped, and the thought fades far back into the corners of her mind.
Whatever she ends up doing once her playing days are over, Taurasi is confident it will find her and not the other way around. She can’t envision basketball not being part of it in some shape or form. For now, she’s content being back in Phoenix with the Mercury—where it all began, where she grew up, and where one day, she’ll finally have to say goodbye.
“It’s going to be simple and quiet. No fireworks. No big ceremony. Just quiet,” she says, mulling it over in her mind.
No dropping 60 in a game like Kobe did during his final season?
“I didn’t say I wouldn’t do that,” Taurasi interrupts quickly. “I just said it’s going to be quiet.”
Lyndsey D’Arcangelo is a freelance writer from Buffalo, New York. She tweets @darcangel21