Refreshed, stronger Diana Taurasi still at the peak of her profession

Refreshed, stronger Diana Taurasi still at the peak of her profession

STORRS, Conn. — The shorthand way of describing why Diana Taurasi did not play the 2015 WNBA season for Phoenix was that she took off the summer to rest.

Except that’s not exactly what happened.

“I did three months of heavy working out in the summer, Monday through Friday, just weekends off,” Taurasi said Sunday at the first day of USA Basketball’s national team training camp. “I didn’t necessarily take any basketball time off. But I got to work on things I needed to work on, strength-wise, stability-wise.”

In other words, last summer wasn’t about just taking a breather and texting snarky comments to motivate Mercury teammate Brittney Griner (although she did both).

“She’d text me, ‘Are you going to show up tonight?'” Griner said, laughing, about last season. “Even when I had, like, a career high in blocked shots, she’d say, ‘You couldn’t get a couple more?’ She demands the best. Although, she gives you compliments here and there. You have to listen for them.”

Last year’s WNBA season, admittedly, was a little quiet without Taurasi. She announced in February 2015 that she would not play in the summer for the Mercury, the team that drafted her No. 1 in 2004 and with whom she has won three WNBA titles.

There was a fair amount of hand-wringing about what this meant for the league, having a player of Taurasi’s stature acknowledge that she had to take a break, and that financially the best time to do it was during the WNBA’s season.

But this is neither a new issue for the WNBA, nor one that is going away anytime in the foreseeable future. That is the world in which professional women’s basketball exists. However, the long view of it is that Taurasi made a decision that was pragmatic not just for her own good, but also for the Mercury, and for Team USA.

This year has so many things tagged to it: It’s the WNBA’s 20th season, the 20th anniversary of the U.S. team’s 1996 charge through the Olympics and the 40th anniversary of the first Olympics to have women’s basketball as an event. And, of course, it’s a chance for the United States to win a sixth consecutive Olympic gold medal.

And in 2016, Taurasi wants to show that she’s still at the peak of her profession. So spending last summer away from playing in the WNBA was, in her mind, an absolute necessity. It got her very ready for her better-paying overseas job in Russia with UMMC Ekaterinburg, where Griner is also a teammate and Mercury coach Sandy Brondello is an assistant. UMMC will be competing in the Euroleague quarterfinals in March, and Taurasi is prepared for all that could be happening in 2016.

“When you step back on the court and you feel good, you feel younger again,” Taurasi said of how she feels now. “Not only physically, but mentally, too. There’s a certain fun that comes with not being there for a while. Because you start missing it again. I consider it probably the best thing I’ve done in the last couple of years.

“Now, I can’t wait to get to the gym in the morning. I can’t wait to get to shootaround, to go to practice, to play the game.”

Then Taurasi surveyed the reporters surrounding her, many of whom have covered the UConn Huskies since Taurasi’s college days (2000-04) — and even before that.

“You guys should think about taking a UConn season off. You guys look horrible, what’s going on with you?” she joked. “[UConn hasn’t] lost a game, what’s so hard? You guys should be drinking martinis right now.”

Said as only Taurasi (or perhaps her coaching alter ego, UConn and Team USA maestro Geno Auriemma) could say it. Taurasi the wisecracker definitely was missed last WNBA season, along with Taurasi the superstar player.

Seattle’s Sue Bird best described what last WNBA season was like with Taurasi sitting out.

“It was weird without her,” said Bird, who has played in college, overseas and on the U.S. team with Taurasi. “She’s still going to be the best player when she comes back to the WNBA. And that’s great for our game, to have as much talent as possible out there. She sells tickets, and people want to watch her play.”

Taurasi, Bird, Griner and 13 other Olympic hopefuls are here through Tuesday in one of the rare periods they will have to work together before the Rio Games in August. There are plenty of big names not here because they couldn’t get away from their overseas teams or are currently injured and/or rehabbing an injury. Even so, this was a chance to watch the dynamic click into place again, that combination of talent and teamwork that has resulted in five consecutive Olympic golds.

Taurasi has been part of the last three, and barring an injury, she is as sure a bet to make the 2016 squad as anyone. She also will be hoping to lead the Mercury to another championship, which would tie Houston’s four titles. The Comets no longer exist, but they are still at the top in that regard.

“Four is the magic number,” Taurasi said. “They set the standard and they’re still the standard in our league of greatness, consistency, great talent playing together.”

And it would seem fitting that a Taurasi-led team would equal — and perhaps one day break — the Comets’ record. Even the star of the team that has become Phoenix’s biggest rival, Maya Moore of Minnesota, is eager to see Taurasi return this season.

“For the players and the fans who know the game and know Diana, you realize what you’re getting back,” Moore said. “Facing her, you just know that you have to be ready at all times to try to make it as hard as possible on a great competitor who has just mastered getting her teammates involved and giving them confidence.”

Moore’s coach, Cheryl Reeve, who is a U.S. team assistant, knows that once again, the Lynx will have to deal with the player who most confounds the average scouting report.

“I look at our series in 2014,” Reeve said of the Western Conference finals, which Phoenix won 2-1. “For two games, we were able to do some things to slow her. But then she solved it, and they went on and won.

“And it’s never just about stopping Dee, though, because of her ability to get so much out of her teammates. She’s so smart and selfless. And mentally tough. It’s a tremendous combination.”

The mental part, though, is something that Taurasi could tell was slipping just a little before last summer’s break from the WNBA. She has always been a player who is particularly proud of whatever team she’s representing. But by the same token, that also has worn her down a bit.

“The business we’re in, you do get in that vicious cycle of sometimes you just put the jersey on and you don’t know what team you’re playing for anymore,” Taurasi said of going between the WNBA and overseas. “… Maybe a little bit, it got vanilla for me. And I don’t think that’s how you play your best basketball.”

Taurasi will turn 34 in June, and she’s not in denial about the inevitability of time. She’s watching the Kobe Bryant farewell tour knowing that eventually she’ll be saying goodbye, too. But not anytime right away.

“I have two more years on my Phoenix contract,” she said. “And I’ll probably go back to Ekaterinburg. I still feel like I’m playing at a pretty high level. Until then, I won’t put a timetable on anything.”

The 2015 summer that Taurasi spent making herself feel stronger and refreshed will, in her estimation, help prolong her career. It will ensure she’s still dishing out assists, nailing big shots, coming through in the clutch, and tossing off one-liners for at least a few more years to come.

Sunday, she fake-griped about the giant murals of Moore and former men’s player Ray Allen that are inside UConn’s practice facility.

“I may have to take my donation back,” she joked. “I’ve already contacted my bank. I think I want it back in euros.”

And of Bird, she said, “The only place we haven’t played together is the WNBA, and I was trying to recruit her this year. But that didn’t work. She just signed back with Seattle. I offered her a Range Rover; I was giving her perks. But she wanted to stay in the rain.”

This stand-up routine came after she’d worked out with the other Olympic hopefuls, looking as if she was just as excited to be there as the first-timers.

“She brings the most out of you. But when she’s on the court, everybody also can relax a little, because she has that calming factor,” Griner said. “When she’s there, you know everything is going to be OK.”

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