Taurasi working like a dog, and loving every minute

STORRS, Conn. -- There's a scene in "A Hard Day's Night'' where the Beatles are preparing to rehearse and they're teasing Ringo, who's being all fussy about anyone else touching his drums. John starts into, "If I Fell,'' and the rest join in while the stage crew is scampering about setting things up, not paying any attention to them.

It's my favorite part of the movie. Even though the song has simple lyrics, harmony and pace, it's beautiful; you can listen to it a million times. And the Beatles are smiling, relaxed -- like, "OK, this is what we do: music.'' It's so purely joyful.

This popped to mind after watching Connecticut senior Diana Taurasi shooting with a few teammates in an otherwise empty Gampel Pavilion recently.

Now, you're thinking, "Oh, God, please stop it; you're comparing Taurasi to the Beatles?'' Maybe you wonder if you've stumbled into the "Boneyard,'' UConn's Internet fan site that at times features gushing tributes of such purple prose that the authors make Beatles fans at the "Ed Sullivan Show'' seem restrained by comparison.

Or, if you are one of the worshipful, you're saying, "Hah! How many national championships did Paul McCartney win on a bum ankle?''

But here's all I'm getting at: Taurasi truly loves to play -- when everybody is watching and when nobody is. She doesn't make things more complicated than they are. Her approach to the sport, and life for that matter, is happily pragmatic.

"If you go around getting mad at every little thing that happens, you're in for a long season that's going to be horrible,'' she said. "If you make it fun, if you make it light and not like a 'job' -- well, that's how I try to go all the time. On the court and off. I'm going to enjoy every day, be positive.''

This is what she does: basketball. Last season's Naismith national player of the year and Wade Trophy winner keeps it simple, but you could watch it a million times. (OK, not if she's beating the crap out of your team, but you know what I mean.)

Taurasi's game at times certainly can be flashy, breathtaking. But mostly what you see from her is ruthless efficiency: she takes the best shot available, makes the smartest passes.

Sure, she's very aware there is a perception that she is a Primo Hot Dog. That she and coach Geno Auriemma are two peacocks in a pod, always in full plumage.

"I think we're a lot alike, we're competitors,'' she said. "People go straight to 'We're cocky and arrogant,' but the thing is, we're not. We want to win.''

But then she added, "If that means being 'cocky and arrogant,' well, whatever it takes.''

It would be easy to pounce on that statement ... and miss her point. Which is, if you want to perceive her as that, it's your choice and not her worry. The character trait she already had, and that Auriemma has reinforced, is that you do not have to apologize for being confident. Don't waste time on self-doubt ... but know that there's always something you can do better.

It's a good philosophy that, like most things, is far easier to articulate than to practice. Especially for girls and women in
athletics, who for all the progress, still face an incessant drum beat of skepticism/ridicule/hostility from some quarters.

Then you have Taurasi, who is not alone in this category but is one of its most shining examples: the neuroses-free female athlete. She says, "I don't care,'' in a way that's guileless, not remotely mean-spirited. She's a soaring balloon that can't be punctured.

When she was in fourth grade, her parents signed her up for a basketball league in Southern California. She played constantly. She played right through what are supposed to be the terrible times of adolescence. The fact that basketball could lead to something so good ... well, that was a fortunate by-product of just doing what was fun for her.

Credit her parents; they let it be fun. They provided a good deal of air for that balloon without needing to hang on to it.

It came time to pick a college and Taurasi went all the way across the country to Storrs. Does she miss mom and dad? Very much.

"But you have to make sacrifice sometimes,'' she said, "and they know that.''

Besides, she can find a way to be comfortable no matter where she is.

"I'm the type of person who adapts easily to any situation,'' she said. Then she laughed, "I obviously knew it was in the middle of nowhere when I got here, that's pretty much met my expectations.

"But I wasn't coming here for the nightlife. I came here to play basketball and get an education. I think when you're in an environment like this, it helps you concentrate on that.''

It was a place of the highest goals, and she wanted that, too.

"People talk about how we're physically tougher than anyone, but mentally I think we're tougher,'' she said. "And that's from Coach every day in practice putting us in situations where you can't win -- you just can't. We'll do drills eight against four. Press-breaker against seven guys.

"My freshman year, I let it all bounce off me, but I really cared. Knowing every practice was going to be hard. And I would think about it the whole day. But you know what, that's what makes you.''

Taurasi's rookie season, the Huskies lost both Shea Ralph and Svetlana Abrosimova to injuries before the NCAA Tournament. Then Taurasi shot 1-for-15 in the NCAA semifinal, which UConn lost to Notre Dame.

And what did Auriemma tell her? Keep shooting. But he already knew she would.

UConn has won the past two NCAA titles. In 2002, it was a team so heavy in talent and personality, no one player had the spotlight on her at all times. Last year, that changed, with Taurasi carrying more of a load than any previous UConn star -- and that's a heck of a list -- ever had all by herself.

Sometimes in the months since, she said she'll think, "We won a national championship with this team. How?''

That doesn't mean she thinks her teammates aren't very good. It means she's realistic about the difficulty of winning it all when you have a lot of talent -- which UConn did -- but not much experience. And it shows the respect she has for other teams' abilities.

Taurasi thinks what kept the Huskies afloat -- even through the churning rapids of being down to Texas in the national semifinals -- was that they never panicked. She knows that her teammates couldn't have kept their cool if she didn't.

"I get mad in situations where no one sees me but them sometimes -- just to let them know that I DO get mad,'' Taurasi said. "But when there's a lot of people watching, it's not worth it. It's not going to help. In games, I needed to make plays and take the pressure off them, keep them not stressed.''

So she has learned to be an exceptional teammate, something some great players never are able to do.

"My freshman year, I had ... I wouldn't say a hard time getting along with people, but they just didn't understand the way I was trying to use what I wanted to use,'' she said. "Now I think I have a better understanding of my teammates and that respect level with everyone is so much higher. Coach taught me a lot -- that you can't think of yourself first.

"And it's strange, but when you think of others first -- and there's no better example than when we won the past two years -- when you invest more in other people, that's when everything comes back to you.''

She's beginning her senior season. Last year's very-able rookies, such as Ann Strother and Barbara Turner, are now national champions, too. Juniors Jessica Moore and Ashley Battle have become consistent role players. It's far from a one-woman team.

Yet Taurasi still will always seem as if she's lit in neon. She'll be up for all the awards, written and talked about by everyone involved with women's basketball.

"I don't dislike it -- who wouldn't like all these things?'' she said. "But at the same time, I don't look at it like I'm 'here' and everybody else is 'down there.'

"As much as I've changed in some ways these three years, I think I'm the same person. ... I know I am. This is not
that big of a deal because when I go home it's no big deal.

"My parents don't care. It's 'Dee, take out the trash, set the table.' It doesn't matter. My friends at home and my friends here, they don't care, either.''

Of course, they do care and it is a big deal ... but people don't have to treat her that way because she doesn't need them to.

Taurasi is genuinely having a wonderful time. She's got another season of taking UConn fans on the ride with her, and then she'll do it for some other fans when she turns pro.

If she took -- or will take -- your team out along the way, maybe you don't like her. That's perfectly natural, perfectly OK. That's just sports, which is something Taurasi thoroughly understands and couldn't live without.

"You just grow up with it,'' she said. "It's something that's so second nature, you have to have it. It's like breathing, it really is.''

Mechelle Voepel is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's women's basketball coverage. She can be reached at mvoepel@kcstar.com.