The Taurasi Tales

Beyond her exceptional talent, Diana Taurasi’s impact touches everybody around her

By Gina Mizell & Cody Cunningham

Penny Taylor was naturally intrigued to meet the Phoenix Mercury’s 2004 top-overall draft pick. But the enthusiasm Diana Taurasi “put into just saying hello” was stunning.

“It’s an instant thing,” said Taylor, who became Taurasi’s longtime teammate and then wife in 2017. “You just feel like a part of her family the minute you meet her.  … It was just kind of shocking, in a way, to see someone who was that energetic and dynamic.”

That loyalty has been mutual. For nearly 17 years, Taurasi has orchestrated her historic career from the only WNBA home she’s ever known.

“Home” represents the Mercury organization, which she led to three WNBA championships while becoming the league’s all-time leading scorer.

“Home” represents Phoenix, and the city’s “rugged beauty” that Taylor said Taurasi has vowed to embody in her toughness and relentless playing style.

And “home” represents the people Taurasi has connected with along the way.

To celebrate Taurasi signing a multi-year contract with the Mercury, some of the most important people from her WNBA journey shared their favorite memories that illustrate her wide-ranging impact on The Valley, the league and basketball worldwide.

“What she does is just make sure that every single person is included and everyone is taken care of,” Taylor said. “This could be at practice. This could be on the court. It could be at dinner. It could be at the airport with the team. She’s always very conscious of everyone and making sure that they’re included that they’re in good spirits that they’re taken of (and) that they feel like a part of the team.

“I’ve always felt like that’s her greatest superpower.”

Corey Gaines, former Mercury coach

As a Los Angeles native, Corey Gaines heard rumblings about Taurasi as she blossomed from local prodigy to young WNBA All-Star. But he had not watched her play in person until guarding her 1-on-1 during a workout at the Spectrum Club in Manhattan Beach shortly after joining Paul Westhead’s coaching staff in 2006.

“She just starts raining down 3s, making moves,” Gaines recalled. “I’m older, of course, but I still had fresh legs. (She was) very physical, great size. …

“From that, I knew ‘The System,’ as we all know it, had a chance. But as Coach Westhead was saying to me, it would take her going to a different level (for it to work).”

The System referred to Westhead’s signature run-and-gun, high-octane offensive style that took time to implement that first season. But when the Mercury narrowly missed the playoffs, Gaines saw something click in Taurasi’s mind.

“She was like, ‘Oh, I get it now,’” Gaines said. “I understand what Coach Westhead was talking about. And, boy, did she understand.

“She took her game her game to a different universe, basically. She was a scoring machine doing it all.”

Led by Taurasi, the Mercury captured its first WNBA championship the following season. In 2009, with Gaines now the head coach, Taurasi was named WNBA MVP and led Phoenix to another title.

Today, Gaines can effortlessly rattle off the characteristics that make her the “pure essence of excellence,” from focus and hustle to consistency and character.

Gaines and Taurasi have remained in touch since he left the Mercury and Suns in 2016. The ultimate indicator of Taurasi’s impact, Gaines said, is how the NBA players he has worked with on the coaching staffs in New York, Detroit and Washington constantly ask what it was like to coach her.

“The greatest honor is when your fellow people who play the game, they want to know (about her) and they want to ask questions about how great is she,” Gaines said. “(That’s) better than any award. …

“She’s touched the whole world, in a way. When you cross over from country to country, male sport to female sport, you know you’ve become an icon.”

Ann Meyers Drysdale, Mercury Vice President

The sounds of two basketballs bouncing and two nets swishing were all that broke the silence on the practice court as two of the sport’s legends split the gym to work on their fundamentals.

During the mid-2000s, Ann Meyers Drysdale, the Mercury’s Vice President and then-general manager, would take to the court early each morning to refresh some of her dribbling and shooting that led to her Hall-of-Fame career 20 years earlier.

And while Mercury practice would not begin until later in the day, one player continuously arrived before the rest.

It did not matter that Taurasi was already making a name for herself as one of WNBA’s elite. She was determined to be the best.

Meyers Drysdale referred to it as Taurasi’s “Mamba Mentality: ‘I’m not going to let anybody out-work me.’”

Taurasi’s playful personality completely shifts every time she steps on the court. While the two basketball icons share a tight bond, their dialogue would halt during these early-morning workouts as Taurasi’s focus remained on one thing: “Her game.”

Taurasi would then follow each practice with 1-on-1 games and shooting drills with her teammates. She took full advantage of these opportunities to develop chemistry, build on her own game and be ready for the next tip-off.

“Nobody’s more prepared than Diana Taurasi,” Meyers Drysdale said. “She knows everybody. She knows all the plays and she knows all the positions. I’d sit and watch practice, she’d call out the play and she knew exactly where somebody was supposed to be.”

Meyers Drysdale described Taurasi’s basketball obsession and fierce determination to always find the next path to get better as “typical” for the WNBA’s all-time leading scorer.

“That’s what makes somebody great.”

Denise Romero, Mercury equipment and operations manager

Denise Romero was the Mercury’s original “Dee.” That is, until Taurasi arrived in 2004 and affectionately gave Romero, the equipment and operations manager with a tinier stature, the nickname “Little Dee.”

That stuck until Romero reached her mid-30s, when she started to feel uncomfortable that coaches’ children called her by the nickname. And as soon as Romero shared that she would prefer to be called “Denise” moving forward, Taurasi acted.

“Right away, she announced it,” Romero said. “She made sure no one else called me ‘Little Dee.’ She originally changed (my nickname), and then she changed it to what I wanted it to be.”

Romero, who started with the organization as a ball kid in 1997, has witnessed every Taurasi Mercury milestone. Whenever the shot clock is winding down, Romero said, “She’s the only person I want to see with the ball.”

Yet her most meaningful moments with Taurasi have unfolded off the court. Romero’s mother and grandmother used to cook meals for the players, which evolved into monthly dinners with Taurasi and Taylor. When Romero went through a difficult divorce, Taurasi “was totally a rock for me.”

“Even though Diana seems like the untouchable person, she’s the person who you go to for advice,” Romero said. “She’s the person you go to when you need to break down and have an adult conversation.

“She just has so much experience and she’s the most amazing listener, but also good at providing feedback. … I’m in awe of her all the time.”

So it’s no surprise that, whenever Romero sees the “Taurasi Way” street sign outside the arena on her daily coffee run, “it just brings so much joy to my heart.”

“Having her represent our city, that’s so big for us,” Romero said.

Eric Hallman, former Mercury equipment manager

The sweat on Taurasi’s back said it all.

While sitting at the scorer’s table during a Mercury practice, Taurasi stepped directly in front of then-equipment manager Eric Hallman. Hallman, who was running the clock, was initially annoyed that Taurasi had blocked his view.

But when he looked up, he noticed the sweat through Taurasi’s black t-shirt had created the shape of a heart.

“It was this encompassing moment of I’m doing what I love, she’s doing what she loves,” Hallman recalled. “And she’s literally sweating hearts.”

The moment is also representative of the friendship Taurasi and Hallman have built.

Hallman’s job is to take care of the players’ gear required for practices, workouts and games. But his bond with Taurasi deepened through conversation over postgame libations on the road, including at the Seattle home of off-court friend and on-court rival Sue Bird. Taurasi also regularly invited Hallman over to watch games during the NBA season, prompting awe at how she dissected the game.

Even since Hallman left the Mercury for the Portland Trail Blazers in 2015, Taurasi regularly checks in to say she saw him on TV, to offer congrats when he and wife Jill welcomed their first child and to meet for dinner when both are in Los Angeles.

“Diana has opened doors, even for me, without even knowing it by introducing and growing friendships that way,” Hallman said. “… Those things I’ll cherish, all because Dee is just the person that she is.

“She’s so welcoming and inviting and wants to make sure everyone that’s in the room is acknowledged and part of the conversation. That is something that is truly remarkable about her.”

Hallman called Taurasi’s driving And-1 fadeaway to seal the 2014 WNBA title “one of the most insane shots I’ve ever seen in my career.” Even more insane? When the team visited the White House, and Hallman realized he had something in common with former president Barack Obama.

“I’m like, ‘Holy cow, this man knows basketball, but also knows Dee and Penny, and I know Dee and Penny,’” Hallman said.  “… To be able to say that her and I are true friends is something that I’ll never forget.”

Vince Kozar, Mercury Chief Operating Officer

The X-Factor is one of the loudest, most passionate fan bases in the league. But as the game continued, one voice kept elevating above all others.

It didn’t take long for the officials to tell head coach Sandy Brondello, “Hey, get your bench to quiet down.”

And the command was specifically directed at one player.

Cheering on her teammates, trash-talking her opponents and, perhaps, not-so-kindly speaking with referees are all part of the passion Taurasi embodies on a nightly basis. That same fiery spirit she normally brought to the court continued to flow from the sideline during the 2019 season.

Taurasi’s health has rarely plagued her throughout her historic 16-year WNBA career. However, unexpected back surgery just prior to the 2019 season kept her out for the first few months, before struggles and reaggravations once she returned to the lineup forced her to shut down for the remainder of the year.

While she temporarily could not produce buckets and highlights on the court, she continued making an impact through her vocal support for her team.

“I remember the home games where she was the first off the bench to congratulate her teammates or try to encourage her teammates when it wasn’t going great,” said Vince Kozar, the Mercury’s Chief Operating Officer. “I remember her being at practice every single day, even if she wasn’t going to be able to participate. I remember going into the locker room at halftime, the coaches are still meeting in a different room, and she was always the first person to speak.”

Despite the physical and mental struggles she faced daily throughout that challenging season, Kozar said, “She never complained — not a single time.”

But beyond all others, the moment that stood out the most for Kozar was when Taurasi told him about her desire to go play the 2020 season in Bradenton, Fla. in order to make sure she could “still do this, meaning play basketball.”

“You don’t assume that someone who’s sort of been invincible on the basketball court ever has a moment of, ‘Can I still do this?’” Kozar said. “And when she said, ‘Do it right,’ it’s not just, ‘Can I play 12 minutes a game?’”

Taurasi wanted to prove not only to the fans, but to herself, that she still had the ability to lead a team. Taurasi, who is normally a private person in moments such as this, showed her humility and opened up “a window into maybe what that struggle was like for her,” Kozar said.

And at 38 years old, Taurasi proved she wasn’t done yet. She averaged 18.7 points, 4.5 assists, 4.2 rebounds and one steal during the 2020 season and, once again, propelled the Mercury into the playoffs.

“Not that you would ever expect anything less,” Kozar said, “but to see her persevere through that and then to see what she did in 2020 — to play at the level and to lead our team the way that she did — she just loves the game.”

Sandy Brondello, Mercury head coach

Sandy Brondello sometimes catches people talking behind their hands while the Mercury walk through the airport. That’s because they’ve just spotted Taurasi, live and in person.

“Some of them are too afraid to walk up to her and they give her this (shocked) face,” Brondello said. “She’s so accommodating. She’s always respectful and has time for them — men and women, all different ages. She’s just recognizable, as she should be.”

Taurasi “resonates with people from everywhere,” Brondello believes, because she combines awe-inspiring competitiveness and toughness with an engaging, quick-witted personality. And, of course, “because she’s the GOAT.”

Two moments stand out in Brondello’s personal Taurasi time capsule.

While diagramming that title-clinching shot for Game 3 of the 2014 WNBA Finals, Taurasi emphatically expressed confidence to Brondello about going to her right hand because the angle would be better based on where Phoenix inbounded the ball. And during Game 2 of the 2018 playoff semifinals against Seattle, Taurasi buried two 3-pointers “off really the same action.”

“They knew what was coming,” Brondello said. “I can remember saying, ‘Well, you want to run the same play?’ (She responded with), ‘Yeah, why not? It worked.’ But it’s her brilliance. It’s not the play. She’s just so smart, she knew the speed and she knows how to shoot the ball.”

Like Kozar, Brondello particularly admires how Taurasi returned to All-WNBA form following back surgery that kept her out for the bulk of the 2019 season. Taurasi completed a detailed routine of stretching and corrective work every day before even stepping on the practice floor, a testament to her discipline and commitment even at the latter stage of her career.

“That’s why I say that separates her,” Brondello said. “Because she’s willing to do everything to make sure that she’s still staying at a high level. … That second half of the year, just some of the shots that she made, it’s just like, ‘Why are we surprised? it’s Diana Taurasi.’

“I’d look at my coaches going, ‘Wow, that’s amazing.’”

Penny Taylor, wife and former teammate

Taylor recently needed to fill out a form covering her past 10 years of travel. It was a daunting task for an Aussie now living in the United States, and who has played and coached (and supported Taurasi) all over the world.

Yet something that always helped ground Taylor and Taurasi is that they would always return to Phoenix.

It’s where they first met with that enthusiastic hello. It’s where they won three titles together. And it’s where they’ve raised their 2-year-old son, Leo.

Taurasi’s relentless drive has not wavered. Neither has her basketball excellence. And Phoenix is where Taurasi’s remarkable WNBA career will continue.

Because home is Phoenix.

“It’s so emotional for us to think about,” Taylor said. “We feel like we are a part of it. The fabric of the city has grown around us in the time that we’ve been there. The way we’ve been able to win, the support we’ve had and just watching people come back every year — seeing kids grow up and still, as adults, appreciating us — it’s pretty special.”