‘Every day I walked in here to play’: Taurasi, Griner reflect on 2019 season
PHOENIX — Writhing on the ground, tears welling in her eyes, Phoenix Mercury center and six-time all-star Brittney Griner simply hoped it wasn’t serious. With excruciating pain emanating from her left leg following a collision with Chicago Sky guard Allie Quigley, her mind quickly raced to the darkest of scenarios. The catastrophic ramifications of a ligament tear or bone fracture went far beyond that night’s plans, a playoff matchup with the Sky, but it was the only thing Griner could imagine.
“Not right now… this can’t happen right here,” Griner thought. “(Is) this really going to happen the very first playoff game?”
Griner, arm draped around fellow Mercury superstar Diana Taurasi, limped back to the Phoenix locker room as the game’s second quarter waged on behind her. The initial prognosis was positive, with tests revealing no major structural damage, yet the pain remained intense. Somehow, through some combination of pure determination and the wonders of modern medicine, Griner mustered up enough courage and grit to reenter the game, battling through the seething pain for a few minutes midway through the third quarter before ultimately calling it a night.
Griner, who led the WNBA in scoring with an average of 20.7 points per game, acted as the galvanizing force for a Phoenix squad decimated by injuries. Whether it was Taurasi’s hamstring, Sancho Lyttle’s knee, Essence Carson’s calf, or any of the other seemingly endless injuries that had defined their season, Griner withstood it all to lead the Mercury to their fourth consecutive playoff appearance. And yet, not even she could escape the apparent curse that had been placed on her team.
“I don’t know if we need to come up here and burn some sage or something, get the bad spirits out,” Griner said, jokingly, but also not. “I have never been through a season where this many people on the team I’ve been on had this many injuries. I mean, we had that one game, I think we had two people on the bench. I was just like ‘What are we doing? What is happening?’ So yeah this was definitely a first, and hopefully a last.”
Taurasi’s season ended much like it began, with the WNBA’s all-time leading scorer watching from the sidelines. The 37-year-old Taurasi battled a litany of injuries in her 15th season in the league, recovering from back surgery throughout the 2019 season before ultimately suffering a hamstring injury that eliminated any chance of a meaningful return to action. She set career lows in nearly every statistical category, including games played, points and field goal percentage, and yet her focus never wavered. She worked tirelessly to get fully healthy and return to the court, knowing that her presence could make or break a team with legitimate championship aspirations.
“Every day, I walked in here to play,” Taurasi said a day after the Mercury’s playoff loss to the Sky. “Every rehab session, every on-court workout, every practice, every massage session, every acupuncture session, every shockwave into my ass machine that I had to do, everything was to play last night. I wasn’t even thinking about the Olympic team, I wasn’t thinking about next year. It was literally, short-term goal is playing, and it just didn’t happen for me in that timeframe.”
Despite the setbacks, Taurasi took something away from what was functionally a lost season. With so much of her season spent in street clothes, Taurasi eventually assumed a role most closely mirroring a player-coach. It was not uncommon to see her pull aside specific players during timeouts, working them through whatever nuanced thought she was trying to impart. Her perspective of the team was unlike that of any other Mercury player or coach, so her insight was valuable when dissecting Phoenix’s season.
“In stretches in life, you forget about the details,” Taurasi mused. “You get so worried about everything else, the wins, the losses, the travel, the appearances, injuries, that you forget the details are the things that get you through. Those are the things that make the foundation of a team, and I don’t think the details were handled as well as we usually do, and it showed in games. I think it showed in the second half, when other teams cranked it up and the intensity rose, and we just crumbled a lot of times.”
Not every aspect of the Mercury’s season was a disappointment. The team unearthed a number of useful contributors thanks to the plethora of roster spots opened up by injuries. One of those contributors is rookie Sophie Cunningham, who quickly gained her fair share of fans with her strong play and Taurasi-esque intensity. As she embarks on the next chapter of her basketball career, she has already begun to experience the jarring realities of relying on basketball as a source of income.
“Looking at my bank account, I’m going over there every single time until I’m steady,” Cunningham said of her plans to play professional basketball in Australia during the WNBA offseason. “I don’t know where I’ll be going next year, hopefully my game will improve, and I can go make some really good money. It’s a good life experience. It’s good for me to get cultured. I mean I was in Missouri my whole life, it’s not like I don’t know how to interact with people, but it will be good for me, not just basketball-wise but culturally, too.”
As the Mercury start building toward the 2020 campaign, the belief still exists that this team is brimming with championship potential. The core of a team that came within one win of a WNBA Finals berth last season remains intact, and the team is confident a healthy season can produce similar results. One player in particular is certain that given the chance, this team will respond to the challenges.
“You have years like this,” Taurasi said. “They either motivate you to come back next year and be better as an individual, as a team, as a player, as a teammate, or you kind of crumble. I know these women don’t crumble. We’ll come back next year and try to give it another shot.”