A different Diana Taurasi arrives at Tokyo Olympics

HER ICONIC BUN in place, Diana Taurasi sat on the sideline as Team USA took on the WNBA All-Stars, an uncomfortable yet familiar perch these past few years for arguably the greatest player in the history of women’s basketball. The Wednesday night game in Las Vegas earlier this month served both as a warm-up for the 12 players who will try to lead the United States to its seventh straight Olympic gold medal and as a 25th anniversary celebration of the professional league which that success has spawned.

Taurasi, the face of both, took neither a shot nor a pass.

Thirteen days before she was scheduled to start her bid for an unprecedented fifth Olympic basketball gold medal, a wonky hip provided the latest twist in a story that is destined for basketball history. Taurasi, 39, is the WNBA’s all-time leading scorer, a three-time WNBA champion, a three-time NCAA champion, a clutch and brash playmaker who commands your attention with a no-look pass here, a winning 3-pointer there, with an expletive-laced tongue-lashing and an icy glare in between.

As revered as the 10-time All-Star is for her on-court excellence, she also has established herself as the game’s top villain. She elicits hate in visiting gyms. Opposing players remind each other not to set her off, for her response might be the type of game that continues to build her legacy and demoralizes everyone in its path. The White Mamba, as Kobe Bryant called her, might strike.

“I wouldn’t like me either,” Taurasi says. “I completely understand. There’s some things about myself I don’t like. I’m a little too outspoken. I’m confrontational. There’s a lot of things … I understand why people don’t like me. And I don’t mind. That’s fine. That’s fine.”

Keep up with the Summer Games in Japan on ESPN: Read more »

• Medal Tracker | Results | Schedule
• 25 most compelling Tokyo athletes
• Recapping the opening ceremony

But behind her coarse on-court bravado is someone who has fiercely fought for her privacy. She’s not active on social media, a rarity for athletes these days. She loathes interviews about anything other than basketball. Quietly, she’s spent the past half-decade transforming her life off the court hoping to get this opportunity in Tokyo, knowing it might be her last.

She gave up late nights at the clubs. She stopped eating meat. She married her former teammate, Penny Taylor. She became a mom to Leo. She overcame injuries. She overcame isolation. She confronted the end. All the while, the daughter of Argentine and Italian immigrants fought to honor her parents’ sacrifices. Now she’s fighting to make her own son proud.

Like her or not, this is Diana Taurasi.

Taurasi’s at-home demeanor with Penny Taylor and Leo is miles away from her on-court persona. “She is the sweetest person in the world,” Taurasi’s mom, Lily, says. Courtesy Penny Taylor

SHE COULDN’T TAKE her eyes off of him. It was the first day of March in 2018, and Diana Taurasi was at a Los Angeles hospital soaking it all in.

Her son, Leo, had arrived minutes earlier, and now he was laying on Taylor’s chest.

“He’s beautiful,” Taurasi, then 35, remembers saying.

Leo opened his eyes and looked at Taurasi for no more than a second, then closed his eyes again. Taurasi was in love.

“That changed me,” she says. “Just that moment. Just that moment. That little moment. And I was done.”

Taurasi’s life as a parent, and all the emotions and commitments that come with it, had begun.

“It’s true, it’s crazy, when they say you love that kid more than you love yourself,” Taurasi says. “Like, there’s not many people you would do anything for. I would do anything for that little boy. He’s our life right now. He’s everything”

It’s a life few people saw coming for Taurasi. Her family always thought she would have a family of her own. They just didn’t expect her to start one until after she retired.

Neither did she.

Taurasi and Sue Bird, best friends since their days at UConn, joked a decade ago about being parents in the WNBA. The running punch line: Can we imagine finishing a WNBA game and then pushing a stroller to the car?

When it became reality for Taurasi, Bird jabbed: How’s that stroller feel?

Having children wasn’t a simple or quick decision for Taurasi and Taylor. For years, the former Phoenix Mercury teammates didn’t see eye-to-eye, which led to “a lot” of discussions about kids. They laid out their expectations, their concerns and their questions. It was a process, Taylor says, but they never got to the point where having or not having children was a deal-breaker.

“As with anything, you grow and you change, and your expectations change, and all of that, but we always loved each other,” Taylor says. “So it was kind of just the process for us to get to where we are now. And neither of us are great communicators, but we worked through it.”

They took the first step — getting married — on May 13, 2017. Taylor thought that was a “big thing” because she knew it wasn’t easy for Taurasi to share her world that intimately.

Still, Taurasi never thought having a family and playing basketball could coexist.

“I just thought all the things that I was used to doing, all those things were going to go away — how I loved to work out, just being on the court, playing, this and that,” Taurasi says.

One of the few who saw this life for Taurasi was her big sister, Jessika Skillern, who noticed Taurasi’s maternal instincts in her duties as an aunt to Skillern’s three children. They’d text and FaceTime, even when Taurasi was playing in Russia, a 10-hour time difference.

Skillern looks at her little sister’s life now, as unexpected as it might be, and sees her at peace.

At home, Taurasi is the good cop to Taylor’s bad cop. She’s a hands-on mom, a lot like hers was.

“Oh my goodness, she is the sweetest person in the world,” Taurasi’s mom, Lily, says.

On the court, trash talking and technicals go hand-in-hand with Diana Taurasi. Ron Hoskins/NBAE via Getty Images

Taurasi has learned to make Leo’s interests her interests, a trait she took from her late friend Kobe Bryant. She’s become more efficient with her time at the gym as well as at home. There’s no more binging four hours of Anthony Bourdain’s “Parts Unknown.” She does the dishes, cleans up Leo’s toys, starts the laundry and rests while Taylor looks on in amazement at how fast Taurasi works.

“Having Leo has just made me even more focused, even more determined,” Taurasi says. “And, maybe, it’s because I want him to see me play and I want him to see me play at a level where it’s respectable.”

As Leo has grown, Taurasi’s circle has shrunk. Now it’s just family and close friends, some of whom she’s known since she was 11 or 12. Earlier in her career, she’d need 50 tickets when she’d play in Connecticut or 40 when she played in New York. Now? None. She plays, she gets something to eat and she recovers.

Leo, now 3, has a better understanding of who his mother is, what she does and how well she does it. By 2, he could point to her on the court and tell everyone sitting around him that she was his mama and he knew the fans — at least the Mercury fans — were cheering for her.

“It’s like her two loves,” Taylor says.

A third love is on the way. Taylor is due to deliver their second child in October.

The way Taurasi has changed as a mother has left some of her longtime friends, teammates and adversaries more than a bit surprised.

“I’ve never seen her be soft and caring,” says Seimone Augustus, who won three gold medals alongside Taurasi before retiring in May and who played against her since they were 12. “So, I’m thinking Leo has a little bit to do with that, because she’s always been, like, tough, like tough-minded, physically tough.

“Now you can kind of see her taking it down a notch.”

None of this Taurasi 2.0 is a shock to Bird.

“I think being a mom is kind of the icing on the cake of change,” Bird says. “I think for some who don’t know and they only see the player that’s out on the court pushing people or spitting on the court, they can’t imagine her being like a nurturing mother. For those that know her, it’s not a surprise at all. She’s extremely nurturing.”

Or as Taurasi puts it: “I’m a kind-hearted a–hole. I think that’s the best way to describe how I go about life.”

Sue Bird has been there for all the different evolutions of Diana Taurasi, from UConn partier, to mom, to vegan. Now the two look to become five-time gold medalists together. Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

THERE WERE FOUR languages spoken in the Taurasi household in Chino, California, when Diana and Jessika were growing up: English, Spanish, Italian and food.

The last may have been the most important way for Taurasi’s parents, Mario and Lily, to communicate with their daughters and their friends. In Lily’s world, not eating the food in front of you is blasphemy. There were times when Argentine cuisine — Mario loves to barbecue — would be served for dinner and quickly be questioned by Diana’s or Jessika’s friends. They wanted something more comfortable, more American, like chicken nuggets.

“My mom’s like, ‘No, no, no, here, eat this.’ And they’re like, ‘No, no, it’s OK.’ And they’re like, ‘Thank you,'” Skillern says with a laugh. “And she’s like, ‘No, you’re eating it. Sit down, get your fork, get your plate, and you eat the food.'”

Mario and Lily moved to California from Argentina in 1978, four years before Diana was born, and brought a piece of their cultures — Mario’s Italian heritage and Lily’s Argentine — with them, as well as the marriage of the two that they created living in Rosario, Argentina. As they tried to navigate the complexities of the English language, Diana and Jessika were often left trying to figure out their homework on their own. It wasn’t by choice. Their parents just didn’t understand the language well enough to help.

There was nowhere more important, more sacred, in the Taurasi house than the dinner table.

It was where the family rendezvoused at 8 p.m. on weeknights after Mario, a former professional soccer player for Newell’s Old Boys in Argentina, got home from a two-hour drive in rush hour after working a 12-hour day as a machinist. He’d leave the house around 4 a.m. every day to beat traffic on his 60-mile trip to Northridge and would wait in his car until his shift started at 6 a.m.

When Mario arrived back home, if the girls were shooting in the driveway, he’d get out of his car, shoot some hoops with them and then they’d all go inside for dinner, where they talked about anything and everything. School. Friends. Current events. Basketball. Argentina. Italy.

It’s where the Taurasis bonded. It’s where Diana began to learn about the world. It’s where she learned how to debate and argue.

“We would just get a lot of different views on things,” says Skillern, who went on to play basketball at UC Riverside. “Coming from a different country, my parents obviously have a different perspective on a lot of things, and it kind of kept us grounded. We would sometimes be like, ‘Oh, Dad, the things that you’re saying, it’s not relevant because it’s not like that here.’

“But, really, we learned a lot of life lessons through that, and we got a bigger perspective on a lot of things.”

It’s also where her parents instilled their expectations for their children, the children of immigrants.

“There was no getting around that issue,” Skillern says. “My parents very clearly showed us but also very clearly told us, like, ‘Look, we moved here to have a better life for our kids. We didn’t want you to grow up like we did. We didn’t want you to have holes in your shoes and one pair of clothes. We moved here, we sacrificed to give you a better life.'”

Mario and Diana bonded over sports, the two spending hours in her room watching ESPN together, Skillern remembers. Even today, when Diana goes home, they’re on the couch together, a basketball or soccer game on TV.

Jessika estimates she talks to Diana about 10 times a day, and if both women don’t check in with Lily at least once a day, usually with a text, they’re in “big trouble.” Even when Diana was living in Russia, half a world away, “there’d be hell to pay” if she didn’t check in, Jessika says.

Taurasi has taken the lessons from her parents’ dinner table to all facets of her life, including in her communication with her teammates. Rich von Biberstein/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The conversations with her parents at the dinner table 20-something years ago still resonate with Taurasi, acting, in some ways, as her North Star. As she and her sister got older and started having their own families, Mario and Lily’s table continued to be the gathering place for family dinners on Sunday nights, a tradition that Diana has started with her own family. If Diana is in California on a Sunday night, though, there’s still always a place at her parents’ table.

“I wake up every morning and I feel like I owe them more, owe them more than I can ever give them,” Taurasi says. “They picked up and came to a country, didn’t know the language, maybe knew two or three people, because they knew there was just something better for our family here than in Argentina at the time. And they didn’t do that lightly.

“So, for me, my feeling is, whatever I’ve been able to give them, I owe 100 times more.”

It’s a feeling that persists inside Taurasi, even if she’s conquered every peak in basketball. The mindset impacts all parts of her life, whether it’s defending her name against false doping accusations, trying to communicate better with her teammates or being more honest in relationships with her parents. Taurasi knows when she’s not talking in practice that there’s something bothering her and she’s being selfish.

Her solution: “Stop being an a–hole.”

Watching her dad have the same routine working 60 hours a week for 40 years stuck with Taurasi, slowly building the foundation of her grit, toughness and work ethic that has been on display for the last 22 years.

“I think that’s why she is that way,” Taylor says. “When you have parents like that and they’re not telling you to do it, they’re actually doing it. And, so, you see it every day, I mean, she couldn’t have two better examples.”

Taurasi’s workdays are more than twice as long as they used to be. She spends about eight hours a day at the Mercury’s facility between practice, strength training, conditioning, physical therapy, stretching and cooling down. She used to be there for only three.

Taurasi hopes Leo sees how she works, just as she saw how her parents worked.

“He’s changed the way I go about my business on the court,” she says. “Now you’re representing not only yourself, but your child.

“I know we always talk about role models, and the only way you could do that is by doing it every single day. And hopefully, he remembers how, every single day, I came into the gym, I prepared myself, I respected the game, and, you know, hopefully he takes that with him.”

Years before Taurasi was a role model to her son, hoping he’d follow in her footsteps, she learned a valuable lesson of her own: You can be too big.

Taurasi had won three NCAA titles and was on her way to a second WNBA championship when one moment changed the course of her life forever. Robert Beck/Sports Illustrated via Getty Images

THE GAME WAS typical Diana Taurasi: 22 points, four blocks, a few assists in the Mercury’s 93-81 win over the Seattle Storm on July 1, 2009. She helped lead a comeback that night that ignited the Mercury’s run to a second WNBA title. It was the first in a six-game winning streak that propelled Phoenix from fifth in the standings at the end of June to second by the end of July.

It was the postgame, however, that would change the direction of her life forever.

Taurasi hit a Phoenix club to celebrate the win, and at 2:30 a.m. she was charged with extreme DUI for registering an 0.17 blood alcohol content — more than twice the legal limit of .08 in Arizona.

Taurasi was embarrassed. Her parents were disappointed. Her sister was shocked.

“That was an awakening,” Taurasi says. “That’s when I really just started changing the way I wanted my life to go.”

The DUI, and the subsequent day in jail that October, ended an era of Taurasi’s life, ushering her into, as Skillern says, “womanhood and adult life.”

“He’s changed the way I go about my business on the court. Now you’re representing not only yourself, but your child.”

Diana Taurasi

Taurasi was 26 at the time and surely felt invincible. She was in the middle of her lone MVP season, which would end with her second WNBA championship in three seasons.

She was in the middle of fulfilling everyone’s prophecy.

She came into the league just five years earlier as the No. 1 overall pick in the 2004 draft after winning three straight national championships at UConn. From the moment she set foot on the UConn campus in Storrs, she already was the best player on one of the best teams in college basketball, says Bird, who is two years older than Taurasi.

Taurasi the teen was such an important recruit for UConn that during her official visit, Bird and the upperclassmen were given specific marching orders.

“They were like, ‘Guys, you need to make sure she has a good time. Take her out,'” Bird remembers. “What college coach is telling kids to take a kid out? Nobody. They knew that she was special.”

Taurasi had come from such a strict home life in California that part of UConn’s pitch was to show Taurasi what life could be like on her own. It worked.

Leaning back on a couch in his office in Storrs, UConn coach Geno Auriemma smirks.

“I never asked what the good time was,” he says. “I never wanted to know what the good time was. To this day I have no idea what the good time was.”

2 Related

Taurasi didn’t party in high school, often opting to sit in her room and watch the Lakers on TV. Lily had a rule. Jessika could only go to a party on weekends if Diana went with her. When her sister’s bribe was enough to get Diana to agree to go to a party, Diana was usually ready to call their mom for a ride within an hour.

“She knew she had to wake up early for practice, so she wasn’t going to be out at a stupid school party,” Skillern says. “It wasn’t her thing, but when college came around, oh boy. I think that’s when the partying started.”

Playing in the Russian Premier League during her first five WNBA offseasons didn’t help.

“It’s hard not to drink in Russia,” says Augustus, who was Taurasi’s teammate on Dynamo Moscow for two seasons. “Everywhere you go, it’s like, ‘You want a shot of vodka?'”

And it didn’t stop until the DUI.

“I missed out on the party phase,” says Mercury teammate Brittney Griner, the No. 1 pick in the 2013 draft. “I missed that one. I was mad. I mean, I heard, you know, things. We were all, you know, crazy when we were young. We’ve had a couple of team outings. Yeah, it comes out every once in a while.”

Today, Taurasi will have a glass of wine or two with dinner from time to time, or a beer now and then. But she doesn’t drink like she used to. It’s part of her plan, part of the changes she’s been putting herself through to get to this moment, to these Olympics in Tokyo.

“Honestly, when I was young, I loved to go out and have a good time,” Taurasi says. “And at that time, I didn’t feel any different.

“But now those are things that not only I don’t want to do, I just physically can’t do that if I want to play at a high level. So those are the things that you weigh.”

Taurasi doesn’t bite her tongue around friends and family when it comes to preaching the benefits of her vegan lifestyle. Adam Pantozzi/NBAE via Getty Images

THANKSGIVING LAST YEAR at the Skillerns’ home was anything but traditional.

It wasn’t just the absence of turkey — Jessika’s kids don’t like the taste of it, so that had been eliminated from the menu years before. It was the absence of meat altogether: “Turkey Day” had gone vegan.

It was also the first holiday the family had seen Jessika’s father-in-law since he survived a major heart attack two months earlier. Health was, obviously, the topic du jour, and for Taurasi and Taylor, who have been vegan since 2015, it was a prime opportunity to preach their gospel of an herbivorous diet.

After dinner, Taylor, who had recently finished an online course on nutrition, sat Skillern’s in-laws down to talk with them about a healthier diet. She gave them books and other reference materials about going vegan, as well as starter recipes to get them going.

“Boy, they got on him about changing his diet and his health,” Skillern says. “They’re very vocal with our family, especially when there’s health issues involved, and you know it comes from a good place, comes from the heart.”

Taurasi’s and Taylor’s decision to go vegan has had a ripple effect throughout Taurasi’s family. Skillern went pescatarian. Taurasi’s mother went mostly vegan as she’s fought breast cancer and lymphoma (Mario’s grilled lobster is too good to eliminate entirely). Some cousins started to eat a plant-based diet, making Christmas another vegan affair.

After Taylor’s mother died from ovarian cancer in May 2013 in Australia, 19 months before her father died from lung cancer, the former Mercury guard went through a series of genetic tests. The results showed she was at high risk for both ovarian and breast cancer, leaving Taylor “really scared and really kind of powerless.”

She dug into the research, looking for ways to decrease the chances of cancer invading her body. Taylor’s conclusion was that a plant-based diet was the best way to go.

Neither Taurasi nor Taylor played in the WNBA in 2015. Taurasi decided to sit out after the owners of her Russian Premier League team, UMMC Ekaterinburg, offered to pay her to not play in the United States. And Taylor took time off after losing her father.

The two had met on the first day of training camp in 2004, both of their first days with the Mercury. And both were No. 1 picks. Taurasi went first in the WNBA’s amateur draft while Taylor went first in the dispersal draft that year after the Cleveland team folded.

“She turned vegan all right. She also turned a lot of her friends into like, ‘Shut up.'”

Geno Auriemma

Together, they formed a dynamic backcourt for 10 seasons. While Taurasi received the headlines and the spotlight, Taylor put together an enviable résumé herself.

She won three WNBA titles with the Mercury and one WNBL title in Australia. She was the WNBL MVP in 2001 and 2002, was the 11th overall pick in the 2001 WNBA draft at 19 years old. She won two Olympic silver medals — both at the hands of the Taurasi-led United States — over the course of her 19-year career that included stints in Italy, Russia, Turkey and China.

In 2015, Taurasi and Taylor turned 33 and 34, respectively. Their bodies needed more attention, so they began to phase out their omnivorous diets, ending with the elimination of eggs. Taurasi also started to get more sleep and put more of an emphasis on rest.

“We felt so much better,” Taylor says. “I think it gave us a lot of energy. We just went from there and we never looked back, and I think, at this point, I don’t see us ever changing the way we eat.”

Despite the protests.

“No, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no,” Lily recalls Mario saying when Taurasi broke the news to him.

Food was her parents’ love language. It spoke for Mario and Lily. The Taurasi house was full of affection, something Auriemma felt as soon as he walked in, but Lily’s milanesas or Mario’s homemade pasta were the kisses on the forehead.

Mario repeatedly asked Diana to explain what “vegan” was, so she told him she wasn’t eating meat or cheese anymore. That didn’t stop him from offering Diana a piece of chicken.

“He’s a little heartbroken,” Skillern says. “It was quite a bit of a struggle at first. It’s taken him a few years to adjust.”

Gone are the days of Mario filling Diana’s plate with his famous — at least in the Taurasi backyard — Argentine barbecue. Diana no longer eats five chicken legs at dinner, as her sister remembers her doing as a kid. His grill is now half-meat and half-veggies.

“That’s a pretty drastic change for a lot of people, but so is stomach surgery and cancer,” Taurasi says of her diet. “It’s something that for me, for our family, really works.”

Taurasi lost weight, down to 163 pounds, a weight that she says her 6-foot body is supposed to be at, and Taylor’s knees started feeling better. Taylor also was vegan during her pregnancy, and they raise Leo vegan.

“Honestly, I would have never, ever, ever thought that my sister would go vegan,” Skillern says. “Especially growing up. Argentinians, we eat meat.”

Publicly, Taurasi and Taylor don’t preach about a plant-based diet, but with their family — they ride Skillern about taking her kids to In-N-Out for burgers — and close friends, including Auriemma — they don’t hold back.

“I order a chicken dish, I got to hear about all the chickens that get killed, ‘That is disgusting,'” he says with a smile. “If I order beef, ‘Do you know where that came from? You know what’s going on with that?’ Holy s—, can I just enjoy my dinner?

“So, yeah, she turned vegan all right. She also turned a lot of her friends into like, ‘Shut up.'”

Then there was the time that Taurasi and Taylor took Griner to a vegan restaurant in Phoenix but didn’t tell her it was vegan. They told her the place had “chicken nuggs,” not “chicken nuggets,” as Griner astutely picked up on. She started eating, and Taurasi and Taylor watched intently, asking if they were good. Griner finally wised up.

“I was like, ‘Wait, what am I eating?'” Griner says with a laugh. “They’re like, ‘Oh, you’re eating tofu and soybean nuggets — vegan nuggets.’ I was like, ‘I hate y’all.’ But it was good.”

Now Taurasi eats the crust off Griner’s pizza, and going out for wings has been replaced by going out for avocado rolls.

“She’s a very smart person,” Taylor says of Taurasi. “When she felt the differences in [her] energy and the way she felt, to her credit she jumped on board. I never had to twist her arm or anything. She’s been great.”

After confronting the possibility that her career might be over, Taurasi proved to herself in the WNBA bubble that she was still one of the best players on the planet. Ned Dishman/NBAE via Getty Images

AS THE EARLY days of the pandemic ticked away in March 2020, Taurasi tried to stay busy with Penny and Leo at their Phoenix home. She converted their home office into a gym, filling it with free weights she snatched up from Amazon and a few her parents had laying around in their Chino garage. She rode her new Peloton bike. She shot hoops in the basket outside in her driveway.

Still, an uneasy feeling kept invading her space.

The world was shutting down around her. The death tolls were climbing. People were losing their jobs. And Taurasi, like many across the globe, started to fret about her life, about her career.

The WNBA season, which was supposed to start in a couple of months, was in limbo. The Tokyo Olympics, scheduled for that July, were in jeopardy.

The uncertainty ate at Taurasi. Days passed without answers and Taurasi’s mind started to wander. Injuries had kept her off the court for all but six Mercury games during the 2019 season — back surgery set off a chain reaction that left her with no feeling in her right leg. And now, with 2020 looking bleak, her mind went to the one place professional athletes — all athletes — try to avoid at all costs: the end.

“Are you going to end your playing career not really playing?” she asked herself.

Taurasi faced the possibility that her career could end in the most anticlimactic and unceremonious of ways: alone.

“I think when the day comes to walk away, I’m going to just be completely happy.”

Diana Taurasi

She thought of all those sacrifices she’d made and the major life changes she had embraced that had put her in position to make her fifth U.S. Olympic team. And feared they could all go for naught.

Taurasi had no outlet, no place to escape her doomsday thoughts. The Mercury had closed their facilities, commercial gyms were shuttered, caution tape was wrapped around basketball courts throughout the Phoenix area and rims in parks were taken off backboards.

She was, for the moment, lost.

When the question about whether the pandemic would end her career prematurely would loop through her head, Taurasi thought she could handle the worst-case scenario on some days. Sure, she could hang out with Penny and Leo full time. When the pandemic got under control, she could finally go on a Hawaiian vacation or hop a flight to Barcelona for a seven-day trip through Spain and then get on a train bound for Italy or road trip to the Grand Canyon whenever she wanted — do the things she has never had time to do.

For a fleeting moment, those thoughts made her happy. In some ways, the pandemic was a blessing in disguise for Taurasi the mom. She got to see Leo all day, every day, which meant she got to watch him grow. She saw the little things he was learning and saying instead of hearing about them from Taylor while she was on the road or at the gym.

But her inner “you suck” voice — yes, even the greatest think there’s more to prove — kept interrupting. She eventually snuck into a small gym where she could shoot, alone with her thoughts, trying to keep herself stable and her family safe. She had more titles to win. And the lure of Tokyo Games kept her hungry.

“Then I’m like, ‘No, I’m gonna play basketball,” Taurasi says. “Then once I kind of looked at it a different way, then I got into, you know, compete mode, run-through-walls mode.

“And then once I got to that mode, then it was all game over. There was no chance I wasn’t getting back on the court.”

All her work, all her perseverance, all her life changes had purpose again. Her career wasn’t about to end unceremoniously in the most anticlimactic of ways.

A couple of weeks later, the Olympics were postponed to 2021. A few months later, the WNBA announced it would start in July in a bubble, a prospect that at first caused some apprehension because Taurasi worried it might jeopardize her health and her family’s.

“She had a struggle,” Skillern says. “Was she going to go to the WNBA bubble or stay home and stay with her family and work out and know that she is around people that are being safe?”

But Taurasi did travel to Bradenton, Florida. She led the Mercury in scoring. And she returned to Phoenix feeling invigorated and optimistic that her career was back on track.

“The bubble was big for me in a way of just proving to myself that I can still play at a high level,” she says.

Now, over the next 10 days in Tokyo, she’s hoping to prove it to the world as well.

“That’s a pretty big responsibility,” Taurasi, now 39, says of representing her country. Andrew Weber-USA TODAY Sports

ON TAURASI’S iPHONE was a countdown that ticked down the seconds, minutes, hours and days until the Tokyo Olympics. Every week, Taurasi took a screenshot and sent it to Bird, the U.S. flag-bearer who is also going for a fifth gold medal, with a reminder: “We’re still here. The countdown’s still on.”

When Taurasi found out the 2020 Olympics were going to be pushed back a year, she yearned for the experience that has stuck with her from every Olympics: standing in the tunnel with the other 600 or so athletes from Team USA before walking out for the opening ceremonies. On Friday, she marched among the U.S. contingent as Bird led the way.

The United States plays Nigeria on Tuesday (12:40 a.m. ET) in its first game of group play, and the countdown that was almost aborted so many times has completed its mission. It ticked past back surgery and a hamstring injury in 2019, throughout a pandemic (even as recently as three weeks ago, Taurasi’s family wasn’t sure if she was going to go — or even if there’d be an Olympics), it survived a fractured sternum earlier this year, and now that ailing hip is the last thing standing between Taurasi and the “pinnacle of what we do.”

She has been practicing with her teammates in Tokyo and is hopeful she will be ready for the opener. She missed all three U.S. exhibitions in Las Vegas last week, and she hasn’t played in an official game since July 3.

If the United States wins another gold medal, its seventh in a row and ninth in the last 10 Olympics, Taurasi and Bird will become the first five-time gold medalists in Olympic basketball history regardless of gender, regardless of country.

“This is rarified air, for sure,” says Carol Callan, the women’s national team director who will be stepping down following the Olympics. “It speaks volumes about not just the longevity of their bodies, but the longevity of their spirit, of their passion.”

A fifth gold would be perhaps the crowning achievement in Taurasi’s life’s work.

“I’m biased because I coached her,” Auriemma says. “But if you say Jordan, Magic and Bird and those guys, however long that list is, you’re not going to name too many of those guys before you get to Dee.”

Whenever she talks about playing for the national team on the Olympic stage, there’s a humbleness, a respect, a reverence in her voice.

“The minute 2016 ended, my next goal was to make a fifth Olympics,” Taurasi says. “And it’s taken five years to get here.”

Growing up, she used to watch every Olympics with her family. She’s dedicated the past 18 years of her career — as long as she’s been in the WNBA — to the national team. She has made a concerted effort to be available for every training camp, world championship and college tour.

She still feels the weight of representing her country. “That’s a pretty big responsibility,” she says.

One day when she’s retired, she’ll look back on her career and “have a better understanding of what five means.” For now, though, her expectation has always been to be good enough to start. If she were going to be picked just to ride the bench and collect a medal, she’d readily give up her spot to a younger player.

Two years ago, national team coach Dawn Staley didn’t hesitate when asked if Taurasi was going to be her starting 2 guard. It’s likely nothing, hip permitting, has changed — especially after Taurasi became the only WNBA player to reach 9,000 points earlier this season.

Everything that Taurasi has worked toward the last few years, every change she’s made, has been with the Olympics in mind.

Now she’s almost there. Likely for the final time.

“She tell you? Tell me, tell me, tell me, because I ask her and she didn’t know,” Lily says. “I don’t know nothing about it because every time I ask her and she say nothing. Maybe she will go to the sixth medal? I don’t know. I don’t know.”

July 27: vs. Nigeria, 12:40 a.m. (USA Network)
July 30: vs. Japan, 12:40 a.m. (USA Network)
Aug. 2: vs. France, 12:40 a.m. (USA Network)
Aug. 3-4: Quarterfinals, TBD
Aug. 6: Semifinals, 12:40 a.m., 7 a.m.
Aug. 7: Bronze-medal game, 3 a.m.
Aug. 7: Gold-medal game, 10:30 p.m.

Note: All times Eastern

There’ll be two things missing for Taurasi in Tokyo: Leo and Taylor. Fans aren’t allowed, so her family is staying home. There was going to be a lot of extended family, too. Many in the Taurasi family and several close friends suspect this is going to be her last Olympics, so they all wanted to be there to see it. Some had even bought packages that turned out to be nonrefundable.

Taurasi has always looked at age as just a number. But age is also starting to catch up to her. The frustration of her recent injuries have been painted on her face.

If these Olympics are indeed her last and whenever she retires from the WNBA, when she walks off the court for the last time, she wants to feel the same way that Kobe Bryant did on April 13, 2016: completely and utterly satisfied.

“I think when the day comes to walk away, I’m going to just be completely happy,” Taurasi says. “I’ve seen people who’ve walked away and aren’t content, and I’ve seen people walk away, knowing they’ve done every single thing and left it all on the court, never left an opportunity to play basketball by the wayside, and those are the people that I just admire.”

Taurasi is always thinking ahead, Taylor says, but she’s also “very practical.”

“There’s not a lot of emotional fluff to her,” Taylor says. “She understands that we all have to stop at some point.”

She’ll take some time off whenever it’s over to get away from her life of the last three decades. She’s not good at juggling multiple things.

But Taurasi won’t be able to stay away from basketball. Coaching probably won’t be in her future, but basketball, in some way, shape or form, will. She has said in the past that she wants to own a WNBA team and invest in the game while others aren’t. There will be a Taurasi 3.0.

For now, though, there’s still basketball to be played. The Mercury are, as of now, a playoff team, and, most pressing, a fifth gold medal is within Taurasi’s reach.

“I’m in the best spot ever, I feel like,” Taurasi says. “I have my family that I worry about, my friends and basketball. Those are the three things that I only have energy for. The rest, it doesn’t bother me. I don’t even listen to it. I don’t look at it. I have no clue what’s going on in this section of the world that doesn’t matter.”

All that matters today is Tokyo — and yet another shot at gold.

Source link

Leave a comment