PHOENIX — Diana Taurasi is back — back from another triumphant season in Europe, back in the WNBA after taking a year off, and back for a shot at a fourth Olympic gold medal.
A month shy of her 34th birthday, she leads what looks to be a powerhouse Phoenix Mercury team in search of its, and her, fourth WNBA title.
“Diana’s a pretty special player,” said Mercury coach Sandy Brondello, who also coached Taurasi in Russia last season. “She’s the best player in the world, but I haven’t seen her play as well as she did this past offseason (in
Taurasi led the Euroleague in scoring and, as Brondello put it, “willed” her team _ UMMC Ekaterinburg _ to the championship. It was Taurasi’s seventh Euroleague title.
Now in the midst of a grueling stretch — the Euroleague season, most of the WNBA season, the Olympics in Rio, and the completion of the WNBA schedule — Taurasi said her decision to sit out the last WNBA season was “huge.”
She said she had played “11 years of nothing but basketball” with two weeks off a year and needed a break.
“I had little injuries that I could play through but when you don’t feel good physically, it starts draining on you,” Taurasi said. “and mentally I needed a little bit of a break. I just needed to recharge, mentally and physically. … I
had one of my best years in Russia. Now I’m back here and ready to go.”
Not to say that sitting out was easy.
“I was sitting back at the beach and I’d get my `Mercury alert,’ Phoenix at Tulsa,” she said. “I’m glad I’m not in Tulsa, I’ll tell you that. But then it would be hard. I’d watch the game and I’d know what we were trying to get done
and if it wasn’t getting done, I’d feel like, `No, we have to do this.’ … Now I know why fans act crazy, because I was that crazy fan for a summer.”
After winning multiple times in every major basketball competition for more than a decade, Taurasi said she has lost none of her competitive drive.
“I’ve just really always enjoyed coming into the gym,” she said. “I don’t know if it’s the behavior of shooting, dribbling, the challenge of getting a whole team on the same page. For as many championships that I’ve won, I’ve been on a lot of teams that haven’t won one.”
Taurasi is just back from Europe and had yet to practice with the Mercury. Neither had Brittney Griner, who played on the same team as Taurasi in Russia.
They are good friends, as evidenced by Griner interrupting Taurasi’s news conference by slipping in from behind the backdrop to offer her a piece of lemon.
“When I first got here,” Griner said, “I was pretty close to D. I kind of latched onto her hip. I kind of knew her pretty good, but this past overseas season I learned a little bit more about her, a little more personal things, and
how funny she is. She’s hilarious. Everybody talks about how funny I am, and I’m a kid, she’s the same. But when she’s on the court, she’s all-go.”
Taurasi and Australian veteran Penny Taylor rejoin the Mercury after a year’s absence, forming what Brondello called “a big five” lineup that includes three All-Stars from last season — Griner, DeWanna Bonner and Candice Dupree.
Every one of them could average 20 points on another team, Griner said, but each of them has to sacrifice a bit when surrounded by so much talent. Taurasi said she couldn’t care less what her individual statistics are.
“When you’re young, you want to put up the numbers, you want to be `the man,’ she said. “That doesn’t get me excited anymore.”
And she understands the magnitude of what winning four Olympic gold medals — in Athens, Beijing, London and Rio — would mean.
“Not many people have four,” Taurasi said. “Not many people get the opportunity to do that, to stay healthy and be lucky enough to be on the team. So I’m really thankful for people putting me there.”
Taurasi said she doesn’t know how much longer she’ll play.
“I feel if I put a timetable on it, I’ll be selling myself short,” she said, “and I feel like I’ll know when I’m done. I’ll know when I don’t have what I need to put into it. I know I have to put everything into it, and the minute I don’t, I’ll know that.”
The Mercury open their season Saturday at the reigning WNBA champion Minnesota Lynx.