Diana Taurasi Can Rest Easy, but W.N.B.A. Can’t
When Diana Taurasi announced recently that she would not play in the W.N.B.A. in 2015, she did not have to explain herself to Sue Bird. After all these years, rest for rubles, Bird knew what Taurasi had earned.
Bird had spent enough time braving Russian winters with Taurasi, her old college running mate at Connecticut, before rushing back to suit up in Seattle in the spring-summer N.B.A. women’s annex.
“In your 20s, you’re on autopilot, you don’t think about it,” Bird said. “But between playing in Russia and the W.N.B.A., you’d get maybe a week off — and I’m not saying that to be dramatic. That’s how little time there was.”
Taurasi’s decision was also an unavoidable commentary on the state of the professional game in the United States, just now short of two decades old, not far removed from its developmental cradle. The growth of the W.N.B.A. notwithstanding, its long-term forecast remains partly cloudy and it may never provide a lucrative, full-time living for its talent.
But in acceding to the wishes of her Russian team, UMMC Ekaterinburg, and not playing for the Phoenix Mercury for the coming season, Taurasi was heeding a competitive global market. Perhaps the W.N.B.A.’s most well-known and entertaining player for the past decade, she would have made close to the league’s maximum salary of $109,500, plus potential bonuses. Her contract in Russia for the current season is about $1.5 million and the team offered her more to sit out the summer.
Playing for the women’s basketball cause would now seem to be secondary to the state of an individual’s career, and that, in the grander scheme, is progress.
“It does show that there’s opportunity out there,” Bird said. “But more so, this is about Diana being smart with her body and her career. It’s easy to be nearsighted but you’ve got to take in the full body of work. Do you want Diana to play two more years, or five?”
Taurasi is 32 and, like Bird, has been playing professionally year-round for a decade, saving time for the national team, too. There has never been any doubt where the good money has been, always abroad, where, Bird said, even the minimum salaried W.N.B.A. player can triple her pay.
With some Russian clubs, the owners’ largess wasn’t dependent on attendance revenues and television ratings. When Taurasi and Bird were teammates for the Spartak Vidnoe Moscow team from 2006 to 2010, tickets were free and the team paid for broadcast privileges. That’s not all that the owner at the time, Shabtai von Kalmanovic, doled out to make himself a big-time operator and paternal women’s basketball figure.
Von Kalmanovic, a construction magnate and onetime spy for the K.G.B., lavished his favorite players with cash bonuses for victories and diamond-studded jewelry. He took them on shopping sprees to Paris and Venice and on quick escapes from frigid Moscow to more hospitable climates, including trips to Israel.Tags: NYT, Russia, Sue Bird, WNBA