MOHEGAN INDIAN RES. - Diana Taurasi has never acted her age in her life.
She was 21 going on 40 when she stepped on the court for the UConn women’s basketball team. Now at 36, the veteran Phoenix Mercury guard and WNBA all-time leading scorer plays like she 26 with a bounce in her step, a joy for life, and a passion that does not waver.
“I actually feel like I can do more this year than in the past,” Taurasi said Thursday after the Mercury practiced ahead of tonight’s contest against the struggling Connecticut Sun at Mohegan Sun Arena. “Physically, I feel great. That time off ... People take for granted that playing year-round takes a toll on you mentally. The game of basketball is only great when you can be creative and clear-minded and play with a fun soul. Sometimes it becomes work. Right now, that’s not there. It’s fun.”
While she didn’t have much fun in Dallas Tuesday night when she played just four minutes due to illness in a loss to the Wings, Taurasi is winning the battle against Father Time much like she’s won so often at the college, professional, and international levels the past two decades in a career that will finish with her induction into the Naismith Memorial Hall of Fame in her first year of eligibility following her retirement.
Even with limited playing time in her last outing, the Chino, California, native is seventh in the WNBA in scoring (19.6) and sixth in assists. How many other players are in the top seven in both categories? None.
“I take it week by week, year by year,” Taurasi said. “My measuring stick on whether I want to be on the court or not is whether I want to compete or not.
“I’m plugging away. Now I’m playing for health insurance.”
Part of the reason she’s feeling healthy is she did not stay overseas last offseason. After one month in Russia, she returned home.
“If I didn’t play overseas I would have had a better WNBA career,” Taurasi said. “Just taking four months off and coming in fresh into the best league in the world makes a world of difference.”
But it wasn’t like she wasn’t busy.
In May, Taurasi and her wife, former Phoenix teammate Penny Taylor, celebrated their first wedding anniversary and did so with their first child. Taylor gave birth to son, Leo, on March 1.
“He’s so happy all the time,” Taurasi said. “It’s been incredible. He throws up on himself, he drools on himself, he (craps) up to his neck, so much fun stuff. It’s amazing to see how every day he learns something new. Every day he does something a little different. He’s an amazing little boy.”
For almost two decades, basketball fans in Connecticut have watched Taurasi grow up.
She was UConn’s second three-time All-American and first two-time national Player of the Year, guiding the Huskies to three straight national championships. The final two in 2003 and 2004 were won without an All-American as a teammate. The Huskies have had at least two WBCA All-Americans on their other nine NCAA title teams.
But she was just getting started. After being the No. 1 pick in the 2004 WNBA Draft, she’s led Phoenix to three WNBA titles. She also owns four Olympic gold medals and three FIBA world championship gold medals playing for USA Basketball, along with numerous titles overseas.
Her fire has never flickered.
“It’s innate,” Taurasi said. “You meet a lot of people that are passionate and you meet a lot of people and you’re like, ‘Why are you even out here?’ Maybe it’s the people you’re around, your family, the culture.
“You have people that have it all, but don’t have ‘It.’ It’s like, ‘What more do you need? They’ve given you everything, every single tool to be an amazing athlete.’ But they don’t have the passion or drive. And if you don’t have it, it is a waste of talent.”
Entering tonight, Phoenix is 14-7 and in second place behind the Seattle Storm (15-6) in the Western Conference and overall standings. The top eight teams overall make the playoffs with the top two teams receiving byes to the best-of-five semifinals.
The Mercury won two single-elimination games each of the last two years to get to the final four. They’d like to do a little less work come playoff time this summer.
“It’s huge,” Taurasi said of getting a bye. “If you’re in one of those spots, it’s cushy.”
In late September, Taurasi is expected to take part in her fifth world championships when the FIBA World Cup is held in Spain.
USA Basketball has been a part of her life since she made her first team in 2000 - a U-18 squad coached by Geno Auriemma.
“There is the honor of playing USA Basketball, the pride of playing for your country, a responsibility to do it if you can still play at that level,” Taurasi said.
“I think I’m playing OK. If there’s no age requirement, I should make the team.”
She should be joined in Team USA’s backcourt by her former UConn teammate Sue Bird, who is 20 months older.
“Sue’s the best point guard in the league. She’s the best point guard in the world. Why shouldn’t she make it? Taurasi said.
Ten of the 12 players from Team USA’s gold-medal winning 2016 Olympic club are still part of the national team pool. By the time the Tokyo Olympics come around in 2020, only ex-UConn standout Breanna Stewart and Brittney Griner will be in their 20s from the 10 holdovers.
There will be new blood, but how much?
“I’m sure they’ll make some tough decisions, which always happens with USA Basketball,” Taurasi said. “When you have a pool of so many great players, young, old, experienced, inexperienced, there comes a moment when they have to make hard decisions. They’ve always done a great job of making the right decisions and carry that process along.”
After the World Cup, Taurasi said she’ll take a family vacation in Barcelona and enjoy life at home with Taylor and baby Leo.
She also plans to attend a UConn football game in the fall, saying with a laugh, “There’s a big game against Temple.” She hasn’t been to Rentschler Field since 2004.
But she still pays close attention to Auriemma and his Huskies. Even before Thursday she had already heard how incoming freshman guard Christyn Williams predicted that UConn would win the 2019 national championship.
“I think she’s a bold and confident young lady,” Taurasi said. “But why not? That’s the reason you go to UConn - to win championships. Whether she says it or not, that’s the expectation.”
Phoenix’s appearance at the casino tonight is its only one of the regular season.
But don’t worry. The good news for basketball fans everywhere is that Taurasi has no plans to go anywhere for awhile.
“I love coming back here,” Taurasi said. “I get to see a lot of familiar faces and friends I went to school with. I catch up with Coach Auriemma and his family.
“I could retire right now and be happy for the rest of my life. But I still love playing basketball. Why would I retire?”
Not when she’s having the time of her life.