Already the WNBA’s all-time leading scorer and a three-time WNBA champion, Diana Taurasi will be going for an unprecedented fifth basketball gold medal at the 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.”
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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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.