Last season was a new and painful challenge for Diana Taurasi. But she’s back, healthy and ready to resume her hunt for perfection.
For Diana Taurasi, 2019 forced a different approach than the one she’s utilized to build one of the finest careers of any basketball player ever.
Taurasi’s got plenty of tricks to utilize — the shooting, quick and lethal once defenders give her even a moment of time and an inch of space, obviously ranks high among them. The handle, the elite ability to finish through contact, 360-degree view of the court at all times and the corresponding passing skills to maximize that vision — she provides her teams, whether UConn in college, Phoenix in the WNBA or USA Basketball through gold medal after gold medal, with everything one could ask of a guard.
And yet, the common emotional throughline for all of it is a simple one, a Diana Taurasi signature: her relentless pursuit of mastery. She simply doesn’t quit.
So what her back asked of her, demanded of her in 2019 as it failed to simply fall into line, vertebrae and discs refusing to bend to her will, was something very different.
“Nothing has ever set me back for this long,” Taurasi, who played just six games in the 2019 WNBA season and neither looked nor performed like she had throughout her career. “So to me it was just a different experience, a different process that I’ve failed at.”
It was obvious, watching her try last summer to will herself into the player she’d always been, that something was very wrong. The best scorer in league history shot 4-for-39. The premier 3-point shooter in league history missed 23 of 24 attempts from deep.
“You know, when you’re rehabbing, trying to get back on the court and rushing to play, it obviously never works out,” Taurasi said. “And I was in that pressure the whole summer trying to get back on the court, trying to get back on the court. It was a scab and I kept picking at it.”
So after Taurasi returned from Argentina, where she played in her family’s homeland — still trying to force her way through a process that required rest — she finally relented. She said she sat down and took a long, hard look at what it would take to reach her goals — a return to the WNBA, another gold medal with USA Basketball in 2020 at the Tokyo Olympics. And that meant starting over, throwing away all those months of launching shots in empty gyms last year.
Those are the moments she said were hardest to put aside.
“All the rehab is nice but we want a ball,” Taurasi said. “We want to play. So I had to take a step back from the court and just start from scratch and two months later it’s the best I’ve felt in months. So I’m just sticking to the plan and being patient. If there’s one thing I’ve learned: just be patient.”
She’s learned it, yes, but she’s also Diana Taurasi. I couldn’t even get out the question of whether she’d be ready for Opening Day of the WNBA season before “Absolutely. Absolutely, without question” came the response, quick as a Taurasi-launched pull-up 3.
And the Mercury, after playing possum at first in the offseason, made it clear that they plan to keep on building around Taurasi, not after her. DeWanna Bonner, Taurasi’s longtime teammate, is gone, but in her place is Skylar Diggins-Smith, a perfect backcourt partner, someone who wants nothing less than a WNBA title — always Taurasi’s season goal.
Back before the deal was finalized, Diggins-Smith said she’d already been recruited by several players, without naming who, and expressed her interest in joining those players this way: “I’ve heard from a few of the ones that you want to hear from if you want to be associated with something greater than yourself, if you know what I mean?”
Yes, what she means is the chance to play with Taurasi, and that is a gift to basketball fans as well. Taurasi turns 38 on June 11. Teams have moved on from players far younger, from players who posted numbers far better than Taurasi’s nightmarish 2019.
But the Mercury made it clear that they think there’s another championship run in Taurasi, at least, who is signed through 2020. Diggins-Smith, a versatile 4 like Jessica Breland, to go along with young players like Alanna Smith and Sophie Cunningham make for an interesting roster, one you can envision getting lifted to the top of the league once more by a healthy Taurasi, the opportunity for everyone to watch her bring her talent and force of will to bear upon another WNBA season.
Don’t mistake this for a farewell tour, however. Backs don’t always cooperate, but if Taurasi figures out how to manage the pain and recover, she has no real interest, or even a motivation, to retire anytime soon. What Diana Taurasi loves is to play basketball. What countless fans love is to watch her do it.
Now all that’s left is for her back to reward her for discovering, at this late date, patience.
And then? 2024? 2028? I asked her if she’s ready to play with Paige Bueckers, the UConn-bound phenom, at the 2028 games in Los Angeles — a homecoming for her. Sure, she’d be 46. You’re going to tell Taurasi she can’t do something?
“If Paige is willing to have a geriatric wing, I’m there, Paige,” Taurasi said with a smile. A smile, but she didn’t sound like she was kidding. And then, her new advice for herself and everyone else: “Be patient.”