A humble winner, persistent Penny Taylor joins Hall of Fame

By: Jay Dieffenbach
Penny Taylor

Penny Taylor’s basketball journey has been as challenging and complicated as it has been fulfilling and wildly successful.

Her story can be told by her primary descriptors: humility, persistence and a crazy will to win.

Always an elite talent, Taylor blazed a trail through the Australian basketball world, then came to the United States and established herself as one of the game’s all-time greats – a resume forged largely with the Phoenix Mercury that includes a three-championship exclamation point.

Penny Taylor’s long and wonderful trip concluded at the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame in Knoxville, Tennessee, on June 11, where, along with Delisha Milton-Jones, Becky Hammon and five others, she will take her well-earned position among this exclusive group.

“It just feels great to be valued,” Taylor said – in her typically understated way — recently. “It’s nice to be recognized for what you did and what you achieved.”

Penny Taylor

The early bite

Taylor said she began playing in Melbourne at the age of four, although she also played soccer, Aussie Rules Football and cricket.

“But I broke my leg playing soccer,” Taylor said, adding that the injury triggered a primal fear that basketball could be taken away.

She stopped playing soccer.

Taylor’s parents – she calls them “exceptional people” — helped lead her toward basketball and cemented the foundation for a long career.

Primary among Mom and Dad’s traits?

“The persistence,” Taylor said. “My mom just went that extra step for us in every way. We weren’t well off. We struggled a lot. We didn’t always get everything we wanted; we had what we needed.”

Despite not knowing the sport particularly well – they moved to Australia from the U.K. — her parents wholeheartedly encouraged Taylor.

“It was watching them do that for us,” Taylor said. “I’ve always appreciated that, but even more now as a parent. How did they do that? How did they manage it all with three kids?”

The kid attending Upwey High School on Burwood Highway in Melbourne wasn’t without role models.

“Michele Timms was so aggressive and passionate, so I really looked up to her,” Taylor said of the Australian national team star – and a future teammate there.

“And of course, Michael Jordan was my favorite. I just had him plastered all over my wall. And I was obsessed.”

Taylor’s insatiable pursuit of championships fit with Jordan’s killer instinct.

Winning titles, Taylor said, has “been my goal my entire career, whether it’s in Australia, Turkey, Italy, Russia – it’s always the same goal.”

A self-described “competitive streak” led her through the ranks of club ball in Australia and she began playing in the WNBL – Australia’s top league — as a teenager. In fact, she led the league in scoring and was named WNBL MVP – twice.

Australia’s national team holds a special place for Taylor.

“There was no WNBA, so playing for the Opals, my national team, was the whole goal,” she said. “The whole reason to play and everything that I looked forward to doing.”

A three-time Olympian, she led the national team to the Olympic gold medal game twice – both times falling to Diana Taurasi’s Team USA.

And Taurasi, now Taylor’s wife of five years, has had a front-row seat for Taylor’s excellence.

“I think ‘07, (Penny was basically) the MVP of the world.”

But Taurasi also targeted Taylor’s natural shy demeanor, a characteristic that holds true today.

“Penny was always so unassuming. …” Taurasi said in the days leading up to Taylor’s induction, “if there was attention, she’d run away so fast.

“To this day, just thinking about doing the speech for the Hall of Fame, she doesn’t want anything to do with it.”

Taylor also helped Australia to a gold medal and two bronze-medal finishes in the former FIBA Women’s World Championship, which is now the World Cup.

Penny Taylor, Diana Taurasi, and Leo

Taylor comes to the U.S.

Taylor – not yet 20 years old — became a first-round pick (11th overall) of the Cleveland Rockers in 2001, but immediately realized the road to stardom would be rocky.

“The physicality, the athleticism” of the WNBA players was a shock, Taylor said.

“We just didn’t have that in Australia. … It was just next level. … My first three weeks in training I couldn’t touch the ball. Because the physicality of my defender, just finding the strength.

“I was 19, too, so I hadn’t really reached my peak strength-wise. And people just jumping over me — just the speed. It was intimidating; it was just all a lot to learn.”

With an on-court wisdom belying her age, Taylor adapted in rapid fashion.

“My ability to learn quickly” was the key, she said. “I didn’t try to outjump people, be faster than people. I had to find a lot of shortcuts.”

She joined the Mercury in the 2004 dispersal draft (No. 1 selection overall) and became a key to Phoenix’s run of three championships (2007, 2009 and 2014).

Taylor was much more than a passenger on those powerhouse teams, too.

An All-WNBA first-teamer in 2007, she flexed her considerable skills in a dominating postseason performance – 19.3 points, 7.9 rebounds and 3.8 assists per game.

The Paul Westhead-coached Mercury took down the Detroit Shock as Taylor’s 30 points (including 16-for-16 from the free-throw line) in the decisive Game 5 on the road brought the city its first WNBA crown.

After WNBA title No. 1, Taylor missed the 2008 season. She returned in 2009, and the Mercury won title No. 2.

The 2009 title team, coached by Corey Gaines, also won a Game 5, this time from the Indiana Fever, and Taylor was part of a fearsome triumvirate that included Taurasi and Cappie Pondexter, both of whom averaged better than 20 points per Finals contest.

Taylor, meanwhile, was hitting a staggering 24 of her 39 field-goal attempts and 24 of her 27 free-throw tries, scoring 15.6 points per game in those Finals.

The constant, year-round globe-trotting basketball grind – a reality especially particular to WNBA players the past couple of decades – can wear down even the best.

At her July 9, 2017, ceremony to celebrate her career and unveil her jersey in the rafters, Taylor recounted the double-duty lifestyle of WNBA stars. Her first five years, she spent winters playing in Italy; the following five years saw her in Russia, Turkey and China.

Humans aren’t meant to endure year-round basketball and travel, and Taylor found herself undergoing a challenging rehab following surgery for a torn ACL suffered in 2012 during a Euro League game for her Turkish club.

Taylor’s injury was devastating, too, for Australia’s hopes at breaking through and winning gold at London in the 2012 Olympics after winning silver medals in the prior three Olympic tournaments.

But Taylor was driven to return, and she attacked the long comeback.

Mercury president Vince Kozar watched the painstaking process.

“Seeing just part of what she went through to get back on the court after tearing her ACL in 2012 is the kind of thing that makes me emotional,” Kozar write via email. “I wish I had the words to capture the resilience that took, through every setback, through all the procedures and pain, to get back on the court for this team and this city in 2014.

“And what happened? The same thing that Diana will tell you always happens – we won. To take care of herself, Penny couldn’t play every WNBA season. Penny plays in 2007 and we win a championship. She takes 2008 off and we miss the playoffs. She returns in 2009 and we win a championship. She tears her ACL in 2012 and gets back on the court in 2014 and we win a championship.

“Diana is the greatest player in the history of the game and every championship she has won was with Penny by her side.”

That third championship run in 2014 showed Taylor had plenty left in the tank. She put up better postseason numbers (11.4, 5.1, 4.9) than regular-season numbers across the board and teamed with Taurasi, Candice Dupree, DeWanna Bonner and Brittney Griner to bring the trophy back home.

Penny Taylor

A Mercury icon

Taylor, 41, belongs on the Mercury’s Mount Rushmore. She’s top four in franchise history in win share, assists, steals, free throws made and attempted, minutes played and points scored.

She’s No. 1 in offensive rating and, unofficially, probably No. 1 in franchise impact.

Hall of Famer Ann Meyers-Drysdale, who lends her expertise to broadcasts of Suns and Mercury games, has a real affinity for everything Taylor brought to the court.

Meyers-Drysdale had a game similar to Taylor’s, having averaged 17.4 points, 8.4 rebounds, 5.6 assists and 4.2 steals per game over four years at UCLA.

“I saw her come into the league in 2001,” Meyers-Drysdale said. “A lot of people didn’t know who she was. When Phoenix picked her (2004 dispersal draft), there was a sense about her … when she came here, she just changed things.”

With Westhead, the “Guru of Go,” Taylor fit seamlessly. Meyers-Drysdale said it played into Taylor’s game perfectly – including Taylor’s tenacious nature.

“There’s such poise about her,” Meyers-Drysdale said. “She is tough. You don’t want to tangle with her. Penny had an edge. Penny is so sweet (but) Penny had the killer instinct.

“She was as good as anybody else in this league.”

Kozar has seen the Penny Taylor Mercury Experience virtually from the start.

“Penny was a connector on the floor, she made everything work, she made everyone better,” Kozar wrote via email. “Then, layer on top of that, that she could do literally everything – shoot from distance, midrange, get to the basket, finish, get to the line, pass, cut, defend, understand angles and schemes.

“Then, on top of that, her basketball IQ, her locker room presence, her willingness to do anything for the team, on or off the court.”

Taylor finally has some time to reflect on her many points of pride: “Representing my country, being captain of the Opals. I feel really grateful and super lucky I’ve done a lot. Very happy with what I did.”

Luck? Taylor made her own luck. Coincidentally, her career WNBA scoring average was exactly 13 points per game — a natural fit for her decision to wear the No. 13, now retired to the Footprint Center rafters.

Her coach for Taylor’s final title, Sandy Brondello, has known Taylor since Taylor was 18 years old.

She talked about Taylor’s grit at a retirement ceremony in 2017, citing Taylor’s “competitive fire … it is as fierce as ever.

“She was the silent assassin. When her team needed to score, Penny would rise to the occasion.”

Brondello then turned to face Taylor and said: “I hope you realize what a great impact you had on so many people. … Young and old.”

Today, Taylor is able to see what all basketball fans have known for years: She has had an amazing career that has touched people across the globe.

“It’s really just now that I look back and go, ‘Wow, you know I did OK and I got to do some fun things and win a lot,” she said.

Penny Taylor

Taylor is not done with basketball.

“She still watches every single game and we text through most of them,” Kozar wrote. “She understands the game and the people and what it takes to win better than basically anyone – and still none of that does justice to who and what she is.”

Taylor and Taurasi are raising two kids, son Leo and daughter Isla, and that challenge is as big as any Taylor has faced.

But she has her eyes on the horizon, too.

After an attempt to balance coaching and motherhood, Taylor stepped down from her job as Mercury assistant and now is dialed in as a full-time mom.

“I’m in the trenches of little kids,” she said. “I’d like to get back into coaching and being a part of a team. … having that competitive side of me put to good use again.”

Taylor, Milton-Jones and Hammon were joined by ex-coaches Paul Sanderford and Bob Schneider, current DePaul coach Doug Bruno, contributor Debbie Antonelli and veteran player Alice “Cookie” Barron.

In the 2004 Olympics, Milton-Jones teamed with Taurasi to win gold for the US, while Taylor and Australia settled for silver and Hammon’s Russia squad took bronze.

At the ceremony on Saturday, Taylor – always the one who sees the whole field – called for Mercury star Brittney Griner’s release.

Taylor also took a moment to celebrate her time with Taurasi, wishing the Mercury standout a happy 40th birthday.

“If you continue to work hard,” Taylor said, looking toward Taurasi, “you too may be up here.”

As Taylor finds herself immortalized, Taurasi offered an honest opinion:

“She doesn’t need the praise from anyone, she doesn’t need the accolades. She just loved the game and did everything for it.”

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