BY: KELLI ANDERSON
No one loves the game more than the Mercury guard, a leading contender for WNBA MVP, but even she didn't understand what hoops meant to her until a string of harrowing events threatened to derail her career
It's a sun-baked August afternoon in Arizona, and Diana Taurasi, the WNBA's leading scorer, sits in the backseat of a Mercury official's car as it rolls south on state Route 347, heading to a practice and dinner at the Ak-Chin Indian Community 40 miles south of Phoenix. She is wearing her black Mercury workout gear and trademark bun, every auburn strand locked into place by a handful of elastic bands and a quarter can of Rave. She is, as always, ready and eager to play.
Taurasi has remained obsessed with basketball, even as her world has been rocked in the last two years by a DUI arrest, the murder of a close friend and an erroneous positive drug test that imperiled her career. On a recent road trip to Minnesota she found herself riveted by a rebroadcast of a Purdue-Indiana men's game from the early 1990s. "If there was a basketball rehab," the 29-year-old Taurasi, says as the desert landscape flies by, "I'd be the first one admitted."
She has given up hoops voluntarily only once. Taurasi was 11 and living in Chino, Calif. After three years in a youth league she decided that she hated the game and would focus on soccer, the sport her dad, Mario, a machinist, had played professionally in Argentina, the sport her family traipsed from pub to pub to watch in the days before DirecTV. It was only a year before basketball gripped her again, and she was watching every Lakers game on the tube, running to the driveway at commercial breaks to practice Sedale Threatt's shooting stroke at the NBA hoop above the garage. Her mom, Lili, patiently counted free throws—500, 1,000—into the night long after the neighbors' lights plinked out. These days about once a month a stranger will knock on Lili and Mario's door with an offer to buy that now dilapidated hoop. "No," Lili tells every would-be-buyer. "Too many memories."
Taurasi's addiction has created memories and so much more: celebrity, world travel, money—with her WNBA and off-season overseas contracts and bonuses, as well as an endorsement deal with Nike, she reportedly makes close to $1 million a year—and precious hardware. Has anyone collected more trophies in more places? Over the last 10 years Taurasi has won three NCAA championships, two WNBA titles, two Olympic gold medals, one world championship and four Euroleague titles. A 6-foot point guard, she has skills, vision and competitive drive that draw comparisons with the greatest players ever, regardless of gender: Larry, Michael and, especially, Magic. "People say, 'How would you do in the men's game?'" says Taurasi. "I say, Give me a man's frame, and I think I'd do O.K."
She's being modest, says Storm coach Brian Agler. "There are 30-some NBA teams, and there are 30-some NBA coaches who wish they had players on their teams with her instincts. She leads the league in scoring, but she is also one of the most unselfish players and one of the best passers. She's one of a kind."
On the court she is confident, intense, "ferocious," as Phoenix teammate Penny Taylor puts it. "Does she rub people the wrong way? Absolutely," says national team coach Geno Auriemma, who also coached Taurasi at Connecticut. "She is all the things you do not want to compete against. But she's also all the things you want in a teammate."
Taurasi's sister, Jessika Skillern, says she gets this trait from Mario: They both want people to enjoy themselves, to laugh, to be included. That applies when she's on the court as well. "I'm an a------ about getting everyone involved," she says. "A kind-hearted a------."
Taurasi plays in an era when a woman with her rare skills can enjoy a fine life. For four winters she lived lavishly in Russia while playing for Spartak Moscow Region Vidnoe, a team bankrolled by international businessman and former Soviet spy Shabtai von Kalmanovic, a Lithuanian with a passion for basketball that almost matched hers. "He was the most interesting man in the world," says Taurasi. "He had been so many places, seen so many people. He had endless stories. Underneath all that he treated us like family."
While with Spartak, Taurasi, former UConn teammate Sue Bird and a changing cast of other WNBA stars earned salaries that dwarfed their Stateside pay while living in a gated villa equipped with a sauna, an indoor pool and an on-call cook. Big wins were rewarded with cash bonuses or diamond jewelry, and trips to certain Euroleague games were followed by shopping excursions to Paris or Venice. Taurasi had never envisioned such a life for a female basketball player. "Private jets, the best hotels in Paris, shopping sprees—it was nuts," she says.
Life with the U.S. national team, which included business-class travel and dedicated team chefs, wasn't bad, either. At the Athens and the Beijing Olympics, the women's team shared five-star accommodations with the men's team. If the economy-class WNBA lacked glamour, it was still a dream job. Says Taurasi, "We get to do what six- and seven-year-olds do—for a living!"
Her living almost unraveled two summers ago, in the midst of her most decorated season as a professional. In the early morning of July 2, hours after a home win over Western Conference rival Seattle, Taurasi, who was driving three companions and leading a small caravan of cars from a nightclub to the Phoenician Hotel, was pulled over for speeding and erratic driving. When the officer smelled alcohol, he gave her several field sobriety tests and, eventually, a blood test, which revealed a blood alcohol level of 0.17, more than twice the legal limit of .08. She was cited for DUI, extreme DUI and speeding. Eventually the extreme DUI and speeding charges were dropped, and her 10-day jail sentence was reduced to 24 hours. But because Taurasi is one of the few household names in the sport, her arrest was headline news.
"That was tough," she says. "I went through the stages of grief: Why me? Everyone drives drunk! But after I put it in perspective, I realized that was probably the best thing that ever happened to me. I changed a lot after that. I don't drink and drive, that's the biggest thing." After a two-game suspension imposed by the team, Taurasi led the Mercury to its second title in three seasons and won her first MVP award, averaging 22.3 points and 5.8 rebounds in the playoffs.
Before departing for a fourth season with Spartak, Taurasi served her DUI sentence. It wasn't Tent City, Phoenix's notorious outdoor jail, but spending a full day behind bars made her realize that "once you make a mistake and put the control of your life in someone else's hands, it's scary," she says.
No scarier than what would happen a few weeks later. After taking a brief vacation in Israel with Kalmanovic and his daughters, Lia and Daniella, Taurasi flew to Moscow. On Nov. 2 she and a few teammates went to Kalmanovic's office to pick up Beyoncé concert tickets. His door was shut. "His door was always open, whether he was there or not," says Taurasi. "We all knew something wasn't right."
Soon one of Kalmanovic's drivers arrived with terrible news. The man Taurasi and Bird called Papa had been shot 10 times while sitting in his Mercedes at a traffic light, the victim of a professional hit. Taurasi and her teammates drove back to their villa in shock. On the way they passed Kalmanovic's car. "Cops were around, his body was still on the floor," says Taurasi. "It was very sad, very hard to deal with."
She played out that season with Spartak, winning her fourth consecutive Euroleague title. But in the end, she was overwhelmed by memories. "I felt I needed something different, so I went to Turkey," she says with a wry laugh. "And I got something different."
A few weeks after Phoenix lost to Seattle in the 2010 Western Conference finals, Taurasi joined Taylor on a new club, Fenerbahce, in Istanbul. All was going well—the team won its first nine Euroleague games—until Taurasi was called to a meeting with the team president in early December. She was handed a sheet of paper with the results of a drug test from Nov. 13. Most of the writing was in Turkish. "All I see is Positive, Modafinil," says Taurasi. "Which at the time I didn't even know how to pronounce. I was like, This isn't right."
Taurasi went back to her apartment, Googled modafinil and learned it was a psychostimulant used to treat excessive sleepiness. "Pilots use it for jet lag," she says. "I was in shock." She was suspended from the team. When her B sample came up positive, too, Fenerbahce terminated her contract and Taurasi returned to the States, facing the possibility of a two-year ban that would keep her out of the 2012 London Olympics. "She wouldn't get out of bed for two weeks," says Taylor, who also left Fenerbahce, in a show of solidarity. "She couldn't eat, couldn't sleep, couldn't function."
Taurasi shuttled between her home in Phoenix and the Chino homes of her parents and sister, keeping a low profile in both cities. "I was down, I was depressed, I was angry," she says. She kept quiet but didn't stay idle. She and her lawyer, Howard Jacobs, who has represented athletes in scores of doping cases, started building a defense. The Ankara lab, which was associated with Hacettepe University, had had its accreditation suspended for three months by the World Anti-Doping Agency in 2009. And modafinil had popped up several times in the BALCO scandal but had since become such an uncommon positive result that, according to the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency website, only one American athlete had been sanctioned for its use since '04. Yet Jacobs discovered that three other athletes besides Taurasi had tested positive for modafinil at the same lab within a month.
Once Jacobs was able to examine the lab documents, he was fairly certain he was looking at a case of a false positive. "There have to be certain criteria that are met to say that you have actually identified modafinil," says Jacobs, "and it looked to me that they did not meet those criteria." Two independent experts he consulted agreed. Furthermore, the chain of custody inside the lab was "virtually nonexistent," says Jacobs. "And it took a week for the sample to get from one part of Turkey to another, with no explanation."
Presented with Jacobs's defense, the lab retracted Taurasi's report, as well as the reports of the other three athletes who had tested positive for modafinil.
On Feb. 16, Taurasi got a call from the Turkish Federation with news of her exoneration. "As much as I was in shock that [I tested positive], I was probably more in shock [when I got that call]," she says. "Drug testing is one of the most unfair processes you can be put through. You give your urine, and you just have to trust in whatever goes on."
Taurasi, who says her legal fees ran to six figures, knows she is fortunate she had the resources to put up a proper fight. "Most people who are in that position, where it's a false positive or there is some mistake, they don't have the money to fight it, so they just take the two years and their career is pretty much over."
She was free to return to Fenerbahce but didn't. She took a month's vacation in Australia, went to the Women's Final Four for the first time since 2005 and spent time with her family. She got much-needed rest and allowed injuries that had plagued her for years time to heal. "I had a great time," says Taurasi. "It was actually a blessing in disguise."
This season Taurasi has her groove back: She's leading the league in scoring (21.2 points per game at week's end, along with 3.8 assists and 3.2 boards), in the running for her second MVP award and heading a Mercury team that clinched a playoff berth with a 93--77 win over the Sparks last Saturday. Having the game ripped from her for a few months hasn't made her appreciate it more—she already loved it more than anything else. What she has learned, she says, is that "basketball is everything, yet it isn't everything. It gave me a little heads-up on, What are you going to do when it's not there? Are you going to be miserable and depressed, have 10 comebacks? Or are you going to be O.K.? I now know I can live without basketball."
For now she doesn't have to. When it's time for the team to pile onto the bus and head back to Phoenix after dinner with a few dozen Ak-Chin community members, Taurasi's the player the fans can't let go of. Children and adults thrust all manner of objects at her: a purple foam finger, a ticket stub, a T-shirt, a dollar bill, a bare limb. "Your arm? Your mom is going to kill me!" Taurasi mock wails to a little girl as she signs a loopy dt 3 on her bicep. The girl grins, instantly inside Taurasi's circle.
Taken from Sports Illustrated