Even as Diana Taurasi arrived at the arena, she was hesitant about the wardrobe change.
But when she slipped on a No. 8 Phoenix Mercury jersey with the name “Bryant” on the back, she knew there was only one way to pay tribute to Kobe Bryant on his birthday. “Anything that he did in life, he just never quit,” Taurasi said.
Taurasi scored a season-high 34 points that night, Aug. 23, lifting the Mercury to a key one-point victory against Washington. All season, Taurasi has been living up to the “White Mamba” nickname Bryant gave her years ago, a remarkable feat given she is 38 and coming off major back surgery that sidelined her for nearly all of the 2019 season.
Taurasi’s regular-season numbers — 18.7 points, 4.2 rebounds, 4.5 assists per game — were on par with her recent healthy seasons and worthy of all-WNBA consideration. She compiled them for a Phoenix team that had won seven of its past nine games in the regular season, despite abruptly losing All-Star center Brittney Griner, who left the bubble last month for personal reasons, and guard Bria Hartley, who was putting up career-best numbers before a season-ending knee injury on Aug. 28.
Taurasi is reminding everybody that when they see her, they are still watching a legend in real time.
“Every time I see my life without basketball, I get a little scared, and I try to put a little more into it,” said Taurasi, who is the WNBA’s leading career scorer. “I try to savor all these moments. Even being here in Bradenton, with less-than-ideal conditions, and I’m still finding the beauty in the struggle of being here and playing basketball.”
The WNBA is playing this season inside a so-called bubble at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla. Its shortened 22-game regular-season schedule ended Sunday, with Taurasi’s Mercury earning the fifth playoff seed and heading for a first-round single-elimination game against the Washington Mystics on Tuesday.
The day after the Mercury’s 2019 season ended, the always-candid Taurasi expressed frustration about never feeling fully healthy after her May back surgery.
She leaned on her family and close circle of friends, including her wife, Penny Taylor; UConn coach Geno Auriemma; and Sue Bird, her friend and a fellow WNBA star. They helped her navigate doubts about rehabilitation and the uncertainty about whether the 2020 WNBA season would even happen.
“I’ve had some really good people just kind of keeping me sane,” Taurasi said.
The Mercury overhauled their roster after a disappointing 2019 season. They added Skylar Diggins-Smith to replace DeWanna Bonner, who left for the Connecticut Sun, as the third member of Phoenix’s “Big 3.” The Mercury believed that they had a championship contender if Taurasi was healthy.
Still, Mercury coach Sandy Brondello acknowledged that initially she was not sure how much Taurasi could play during the unusual season, with games almost every other day.
After all, it now takes Taurasi about two hours of preparation, with assistance from the medical and strength and conditioning staffs, just to get on the court for practices and games. She said her treatment involved cupping therapy, needles and a “scraping” technique, which can relieve muscle tension but also creates minor bruising.
“If you would see my body, it’d look like I got beat up in an alley,” Taurasi said.
Taurasi views that routine as a new competitive challenge, a satisfying way to get mentally charged to step on the court. She is also relishing her team’s overall resilience while, at times, having only seven players available because of injuries and other absences.
“It just confirmed everything that I thought about her,” said Diggins-Smith, a four-time All-Star. “She has a work ethic. She’s competitive. She’s a great leader, and she’s a winner. So it’s cool being able to play alongside of her. She definitely challenges me and pushes me.”
Yet when Taurasi felt a pop in the side of her body during an Aug. 8 game against Seattle, her first reaction was: Not this again.
She had a strained oblique, which was not serious but still left her bedridden for a couple of days. She watched a lot of ESPN and Bravo on television, and browsed home listings because she is “kind of addicted to real estate.”
Since recovering, Taurasi has keyed the Mercury’s run to the postseason.
She buried a career-high-tying eight 3-pointers in a Sept. 3 win against Indiana to clinch a playoff berth, and hit seven shots from behind the arc in two other games. She pulled down 12 rebounds in an Aug. 30 win against Minnesota. She dished out seven assists three times during the last two weeks of the regular season.
Brondello praised Taurasi’s leadership after Griner left the bubble on Aug. 22, which was a turning point for the Mercury. Taurasi has averaged 21.2 points over those nine games, playing a free-flowing style that allows her to use the additional space to attack the basket, shoot from deep and create for others.
Taurasi said that production uptick came out of necessity.
“We’re each in a corner where we have to do it,” Taurasi said. “You can’t say, ‘Oh, well, this person will do it.’ No, because we don’t really have that many bodies at this point. You have to get it done, or we won’t win.
“I think everyone’s taking that pretty serious, and I have, too.”
About four weeks ago, a photograph popped up on Taurasi’s cellphone: The NBA All-Star Damian Lillard was wearing a white T-shirt featuring a purple goat with a No. 3 on the chest as he walked into Game 1 of the Portland Trail Blazers’ first-round playoff series against the Los Angeles Lakers. When that shirt honoring Taurasi went on sale about two weeks later, the website struggled to handle the influx of traffic before selling out its inventory within hours. (Taurasi is widely revered as the GOAT — greatest of all time — in women’s basketball.)
Taurasi does not even have the shirt yet, because she had no idea it was being designed behind the scenes. But the enthusiastic response makes her feel validated in the basketball world.
“I never played for that type of fame,” Taurasi said. “I never played for the money. I literally played for the love of the game. I played because I love to compete. I love being on the court.”