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[cut]This week, Diana Taurasi will turn 28 years old.
That makes her a young woman by nearly every standard. But for a basketball player, she is approaching middle age.
As she begins her seventh year with the Phoenix Mercury of the WNBA, she knows her place among the greatest women basketball players of all time will be secured in the next five years.
But that is not how she thinks.
All that matters to her is the next game, because Diana Taurasi is the girl who loves basketball.
Taurasi loves basketball so much that she left her California home when she was 18 to play the game in Storrs, Conn., a rural backwater of a town that's home to the University of Connecticut.
She loves basketball so much that she plays it in fiery Phoenix in the summer and frigid Moscow in the winter.
The game has always given back to her. Taurasi has three NCAA championships, two Olympic gold medals and two Sports Illustrated covers, not to mention two WNBA titles with the Mercury in the past three years and an MVP award.
In addition to winning the championship in 2009, it was last year that Taurasi needed the game the most.
Early on a July morning, Taurasi was pulled over by Phoenix police. The police report said Taurasi was speeding and that her Range Rover was drifting. She told an officer she had had "a few drinks" at a club.
Results of a blood draw showed she was driving with a blood-alcohol level of 0.17 percent, more than twice the legal limit.
In the days that followed, she called her actions stupid and said she was embarrassed. Then she turned back to the game that has always been there for her.
She worked harder than she ever had. She went on a diet for the first time in her life. She grabbed rebounds like never before and played defense like nobody knew she could.
By the end of the summer, her sixth year with the Mercury, she had earned her first league MVP award and her second WNBA championship.
In 2009, Taurasi taught us that if you love something so much and for so long, sometimes it loves you back.
In 2010, she wants more.
"Yes, I want to win another one. Of course," Taurasi said. "We've had some changes on the team, but I feel good."
Childhood and family
Taurasi may be the best female basketball player in the world, and is arguably the best ever.
Though her skill is obvious, she said it is the work ethic instilled by her family that makes her game transcendent.
Her father, Mario, was born in Italy but grew up in Argentina after his family immigrated to South America when he was 5.
Mario married Liliana, an Argentine, and they moved to California.
While Taurasi was growing up, her mother was a waitress at Sizzler, and her father was a machinist.
Asked about her father's career, she laughs.
"He wasn't a machinist. He still is a machinist. He's been working manual labor since he was 12 years old. His family said, 'We're poor, go to work.' "
Spanish was Taurasi's first language, and it is still the one she speaks with her parents.
Taurasi grew up in Chino, which is in Southern California but is not "Southern California."
Hers was a working-class neighborhood with neat yards and houses stacked next to each other. A trip to the beach from her inland home was more than an hour long and involved four freeways.
She played soccer as a kid, but it was basketball that made her special.
"I was full-grown, the same height I am now, when I was a freshman," the 6-foot-tall Taurasi said. "It always came easy. It always seemed simple to me."
She was the best basketball player, boys included, at Don Antonio Lugo High School, but she gave no consideration to leaving the girls team and playing with the boys.
"No way; that was my team. And we weren't very good; that team needed me," she said. Then she raised her fist. "Go Conquistadors!"
'Most pivotal day'
March 30, 2001.
"Oh, no. I hate that day, I hate that day, I hate the day," she said immediately upon just hearing the date.
Taurasi was a freshman for the University of Connecticut Huskies and was playing in her first NCAA tournament.
She was just 18, and she was awful. She took 15 shots and made one. She tried 11 three-pointers and made none. Then she fouled out. And then her team lost.
She pores over the box score and remembers every moment of the game.
"That was the most pivotal day in my basketball career," Taurasi said. "That changed everything."
She never lost in the tournament again, winning championships with UConn in her sophomore, junior and senior years.
Then she was drafted by the Mercury and moved to Phoenix. Her residence here is the only home she has ever bought.
All hoops, all the time
Taurasi's life is devoted to basketball.
She plays, practices or works out seven days a week. "I never take a day off," she said. She didn't say it like it was a good thing. She didn't say it like it was a bad thing. It's just what she does.
Last season on a typical morning, she would wake up at 8, have a bowl of Special K, leave the house to buy a large cup of coffee and be at the Mercury facility by 9. She had her ankles taped and was on the court by 9:45. She practiced from 10 to noon.
This year, she is following the same routine.
The afternoon means weight training and more cardio.
Taurasi dieted seriously for the first time in her life last year. She gave up her beloved fast food and nearly completely eliminated red meat. She finished the 2009 season at 154 pounds, almost 25 less than in college.
Sitting next to a practice court during the WNBA Finals, she summed up her life simply:
"This is where I go. This is where my fun is. I've been doing it my whole life."
One week after the WNBA season ended in October, Taurasi was on a plane to Moscow, where she would remain until May 9.
For six years, Taurasi has played for Spartak, a team in the Russian capital. Some games are played in shiny new arenas, others look like a cross between a high-school gym and an old Cold War movie.
"You pull up to a building, and you wonder, 'Where is the gym?' " Taurasi said. "It's up four flights of stairs, there's maybe 500 people, and they are all smoking. There are no rules in Russia. And they are drinking, and they are all just mad because you are beating their team."
But for Taurasi, it's beautiful. "For these people, it's really just the game."
Russia is where Taurasi makes serious money.
The maximum salary for a player in the WNBA is just under $100,000. The salary cap for the entire team in 2009 was $772,000.
Taurasi did not want to get into specifics, but a few years ago, Sports Illustrated reported that she was making $500,000 for Spartak. In October, Taurasi smiled and said that number was a few years old.
This year Taurasi scored 29 points in the final game as Spartak won its fourth consecutive Euroleague title.
Told that she had a terrific game in the semifinal with 37 points and 12 rebounds, Taurasi seemed surprised at the possible implication that she did not play well in the final.
"Come on now," she said with a smile. "I played great in the final, too."
A humbling mistake
The DUI incident last summer was sadly familiar: another high-profile athlete breaking the law.
But almost immediately, Taurasi broke from the familiar script, taking full responsibility for her actions.
Her fans appeared to forgive her almost immediately - possibly because of her talent and outstanding play. But maybe it was also because of the way she owned up to the transgression.
"It was so stupid of me. A screw-up," she said, noting how lucky she was that she did not hurt anybody that early morning.
Taurasi asks only that people do not think of her as just another sports star acting as though the rules don't apply to her.
"It was a human mistake, and a bad one, but that's what it was."
Taurasi faced drunken-driving-related charges, including extreme DUI, in the July 2 incident and was suspended for two games.
In October, she pleaded guilty to a drunken-driving charge. She spent one day in jail after the judge suspended the other nine days of her 10-day sentence.
Now that she is back from Russia, she is finishing her alcohol-education classes and her speaking engagements for the Governor's Office of Highway Safety.
Steve Nash of the Phoenix Suns is an acquaintance of Taurasi, and last season he watched how she dealt with adversity.
"The way she handled it is the way anybody who makes a mistake should handle it. She was honest and humbled," Nash said. "The mistake was bad, but I think it was the way she handled it that showed her true character."
Joy in the game
In a playoff game against the San Antonio Silver Stars last season, Taurasi was racing up the court on a one-woman fast break. For a moment, she pulled her shoulders back as if she was slowing down.
Her defender relaxed, and Taurasi blew past her toward the rim for an easy layup.
As she turned to head back up the court, a smile flashed across her face, then she dipped her head down to run back on defense.
"I'm thinking: 'Got you, got you, got you,' " Taurasi said later. "That's the type of move you work on in practice when nobody is watching, and then you try it when everybody is watching. That's the best."
The one part of Taurasi's game that stands out more than any other is her joy for it.
Nash finds that inspirational. For every professional basketball player, there comes a time when you can lose that joy.
"The travel, the time away from home, the practices and the shoot-arounds," Nash said. "The media, bus rides, the hotels. It can grind to the point where you lose sight of how much you love the game."
But to Nash, it's clear that Taurasi never loses sight of that love.
"When she's playing, she has a sparkle in her eye; she's totally in the moment," he said. "Whenever you see someone who loves what they do, it's inspiring."
Taurasi wants more success this season, but last year her love for the game was there when she needed it most.
"It did love me back. . . . The hardware, the championship, is something, but the most love I got back was from my teammates and my coaches and the fans. It mattered."[/cut]