Throughout international and WNBA career, Penny Taylor always the consummate teammate

We're nearing the end of the "Adventures of Penelope Jane," that searing saga of the friendly but fearless, sharp-shooting, screen-setting, rebounding, beloved basketball heroine of the desert.

Well, that's our Americanized version of Penny Taylor, an integral part of three Phoenix Mercury championship teams who will retire from the WNBA at season's end. Phoenix fans affectionately claim her as their own, while fully respecting that she is an Australian whose influence on her country's national team is also a huge part of her sporting legacy.

Taylor, 35, is averaging 12.8 points, 3.9 rebounds and 3.6 assists for the Mercury, who are trying to secure the last playoff spot. She certainly could keep playing in the WNBA longer if she chose. But she believes it's time to stop.

"It's my body telling me," Taylor said. "I don't ever want to be a hindrance to a team. I want to make them better, and never be holding them back in any way.

"I feel like I'm still contributing, and I love that I can still play, with this group especially. Because I love this team and the coaching staff. But I want to make the decision for myself, and the time just feels right."

"Penny is one of the nicest people I've ever met. But the competitive nature that we each have, I'll always remember that about her." Tamika Catchings on Penny Taylor

It's the exact answer you'd expect from a player who has always put team first, even though nobody thinks she's "holding back" the Mercury. To the contrary, there will be a void without her. But it's about the most Penny Taylor thing ever that she would opt to exit just a little bit early than too late.

"Penny is one of the nicest people I've ever met," said Indiana's Tamika Catchings, who also is retiring at season's end. "But the competitive nature that we each have, I'll always remember that about her. And from the international standpoint, her being a role model for players who come from Australia."

Ah, yes: "nice." A very bland adjective, right? Yet it's impossible to talk about Taylor without that word. However, she isn't some generic brand of nice.

Anyone who has spent even a little time around Taylor can remember a particular nice thing she did for them. For players -- both teammates and foes -- it's some kind words when they were soaring or struggling. For coaches, it's how she was always very low-maintenance.

For fans, it's all the times she has posed for photos, smiled, listened to their stories, and made them feel like they were part of the Mercury's success. And, yes, even the media have experienced countless "nice Penny" moments. Such as when the Mercury had clinched their first WNBA Finals berth in 2007, and the celebratory music playing in their locker room was so loud reporters couldn't hear the quotes. Taylor jumped up, saying, "Let me go turn down the music real quick."

Yet, as Catchings said, Taylor also will be remembered as a fiercely determined competitor.

"It's the grit on both sides of the court," Chicago coach Pokey Chatman said. "A lot of times when you talk about 'grit,' you're talking about defensive players who don't have a skill set offensively. But that's not Penny.

"She's a threat inside and outside, and you have to guard her out to the 3-point line. And she plays so well with others. I have to coach against her overseas, too, and it's the same thing. I'm a huge fan of her, and it's because she has the toughness and the skills."

A natural fit

Penelope Jane Taylor was born in May 1981 in Melbourne, Australia. Her parents both were natives of England before they moved Down Under; her mom as a young teen, and her father when he was an adult. They met in Australia, and Taylor said there was a definite English influence in her upbringing and that of her siblings.

"Even now when people meet me, they say my accent is a little different from other Australians," Taylor said, adding with a laugh, "I very rarely say, 'mate,' for example, which for most Australians is every second word."

Taylor's parents introduced her to basketball at age 4. She took to it, but acknowledges she probably would have done the same with any sport because she was so competitive. But basketball fit the eventual 6-foot-1 Taylor perfectly.

She went to the Australian Institute of Sport and played in the country's women's pro league, the WNBL, plus made the national team, the Opals.

Taylor was drafted into the WNBA by Cleveland about a month before her 20th birthday in 2001. It seems crazy in retrospect to think a player as good as Taylor went as late as the No. 11 pick, but that was a talent-rich draft, including another Aussie teen: No. 1 selection Lauren Jackson.

Taylor was to become one of the league's elite; a case could be made that she deserved a spot on the league's top-20 players list voted on earlier this 20th anniversary season.

She spent three years with Cleveland, then was the top selection by the Mercury in the dispersal draft when the Rockers franchise folded after the 2003 season.

Like with all the Australians in the WNBA, Taylor's desire to play against the best in the world helped motivate her to travel around the world to pursue her career.

"A lot of us are pretty ambitious," Taylor said, "so you don't really have a choice. It's what I wanted to do, and I couldn't expect my family to drop their lives and go with me. It was my dream.

"I wouldn't call it a sacrifice because I wanted to do it. I never felt anyone begrudged me that. Not my parents, or my sister and brother. I was very lucky that they were unselfish like that. I'm sure it wasn't always easy for my mom and dad, but they never said anything. They were always supportive."

Both of Taylor's parents have passed away after battling cancer; her mother in May 2013 and her father in December 2014. Taylor sat out the 2015 season in part to take time, emotionally, to recover from those losses.

"She's a threat inside and outside, and you have to guard her out to the 3-point line. And she plays so well with others. I have to coach against her overseas, too, and it's the same thing. I'm a huge fan of her." Sky coach Pokey Chatman on what makes Penny Taylor so good

But the past few years also have presented Taylor with some physical challenges. She tore her ACL in March 2012 while playing in Turkey, which cost her both the WNBA season that year and the chance to play at the London Olympics.

She had setbacks after her initial surgery and wasn't able to return to the WNBA until late June 2013, appearing in just 12 games that season. There were difficult periods during 2012-2013 that Taylor really wondered if she'd ever get back to playing at a high level. Although she said the silver lining of being away from the game meant she got precious time with her mother in her last months.

Then in 2014, everything came together just right again, as Taylor helped Phoenix win its third WNBA title.

That championship was particularly meaningful to Taylor because she was playing for an Australian coach with the Mercury, Sandy Brondello, and alongside another Aussie, guard Erin Phillips.

Michele Timms and Brondello had led the first wave of Australian players when the WNBA began, and Taylor has always been grateful to them as the pioneers. They would be the first to say, with great pride, that Taylor has carried that torch well.

'Australian attitude'

Taylor was never the designated "star" for the teams on which she won her most prestigious titles: the three in the WNBA, and a gold medal in the 2006 world championship. For Phoenix, that star was Diana Taurasi; for Australia, it was Jackson. Yet you can't picture any of those championships without Taylor. She has always filled in whatever role was needed.

"I just think that's the way you're supposed to play," Taylor said. "I don't really care about anything other than winning."

In 2007, when Phoenix won its first championship, Taylor averaged star-like numbers at 17.8 points, 6.3 rebounds and 2.9 assists in the regular season. She bumped that to 19.3, 7.9 and 3.8 in the playoffs, with Phoenix beating Detroit in five games to take the title.

The 2009 WNBA Finals also went five games, with Phoenix prevailing over Indiana. That already had been a challenging season for Taylor, who played just 14 regular-season games due to injury. Then Taylor took an elbow to the mouth in Game 2 of the Finals, suffering a laceration inside her mouth and the displacement of two front teeth. That didn't stop her from playing the rest of the series. For the 2009 postseason, she averaged 14.3 points, 3.5 rebounds and 3.4 assists.

"I've always wanted to be tough, and tried to be," Taylor said. "Maybe it's that Australian attitude that we like to have."

Taylor just grins whenever you talk about her "calmness" or how she's a contrast to the emotional Taurasi on the court. As Taylor once put it, "People will say to me, 'It looks like you're really in control.' But I feel I'm as fired up and just as ferocious as Diana. I guess on the exterior, it doesn't look like that."

No, but it always has looked like Taylor would be one of the first people you would pick as a teammate, no matter the sport. What will she do when she's done playing? It seems likely we'll see her in coaching; she loves basketball too much to leave it and is eager to keep studying the game.

The recent Olympics were difficult for Taylor and the Aussies, who were upset in the quarterfinals. And it has been an up-and-down season for the Mercury, although they might still end up being a threat in the playoffs.

Whenever Phoenix's season ends, Taylor will take some time to relax and pursue a few other things.

"I want to cook better," she said. "I've been a vegan for a year, and that's something that really interests me, learning more about nutrition. I look forward to some beach time, some surfing."

Is she a good surfer?

"No, I'm horrible," Taylor said, laughing. "But I love being around the water, and I think I can improve."

So the "Adventures of Penelope Jane" really aren't ending after all. But Taylor will be missed a great deal by everyone who has followed the WNBA.

Something she said back in 2007, when the Mercury were on the path to their first title, explains why Taylor has thrived in her career and her life, regardless of all the miles traveled and time spent far away from Australia.

"I've always loved different cultures and parts of the world," Taylor said. "I've never woken up in some country and thought, 'My God, what am I doing? Why am I here?' I feel wherever I am, I'm surrounded by friends."