PHOENIX -- Diana Taurasi has played much of her basketball in extreme climates. Summers in Phoenix, which at its hottest can sap anyone's strength. Winters in Russia, which at its coldest can drain anyone's willpower.
"You could even say that started in Connecticut," Taurasi said of the significantly chillier place she went to college after growing up in the sunny Los Angeles suburb of Chino, California. "It does affect your mentality, your everyday life, and it changes your personality a little bit."
Yet Taurasi has a love for all the places she has played, learning to deal well with their extremes. But she has tried to back away from another extreme. She gives everything to basketball, physically and mentally. But knowing there is more of her playing career behind her than in front of her, she wants to best conserve what's left in the tank.
"Probably in the last year or so, I've had a little more of the inner turmoil about, 'What is the balance?'" said Taurasi after a recent practice at Talking Stick Resort Arena. "Because my 'balance' has always been about 150 percent on the court. Practice, shootaround, games. And when you get older, that almost backfires on you. I'm still looking for that balance, to see what works the best. I've definitely had some more conversations with myself at night."
Taurasi, now in her 13th season in the WNBA, is poised to become the league's career scoring leader this summer. She is 144 points shy of Tina Thompson's record of 7,488 and might pass that in June, the same month she turns 35. The 6-foot guard also has topped 1,500 assists and 1,500 rebounds in the WNBA. Taurasi could stop right now and be considered by many the best player in women's basketball history.
Her competitiveness has never waned, though it sometimes gets her in trouble. Taurasi recently was suspended one game for a forearm to the head of an opponent. The hit wasn't very hard, more like a veteran sending a message to a younger player. The league opted to punish Taurasi, but most observers would say it was Dee being Dee.
Exactly who is Dee, though? Women's basketball fans are probably sure they know. She has been one of the most successful players in the sport since she began her college career at UConn 17 years ago.
Taurasi still has the body language of the most confident kid in class. She still gives officials that special stinkface reserved for non-calls when she is sure she was fouled while shooting. She gets her share, and then some, of technicals. And she still goes for the quick quips. They bubble out of her in part because she's naturally funny, and also because a wisecrack can be a trusty life preserver if the subject gets too deep.
Those adjectives that have been attached to her since her UConn days -- cocky, brash, swaggering? They're not all wrong. But they describe the armor that Taurasi wears as a competitor, not the skin that she lives in.
"We both found something in each other that made us each a better person, a better teammate. And you don't get to find a lot of people like that in life."Diana Taurasi, on how she and Penny Taylor were there for each other through hard times
Taurasi doesn't get upset if people who don't know her can't tell the difference. To the contrary, she has always been OK with being thought of as just a basketball player: the hero to one side, the villain to the other. Yes, two more extremes. But there's so much more to her.
Taurasi just signed what's essentially an until-retirement contract with the Mercury. She hopes to play through the 2020 Summer Games; it would be her fifth Olympics. She is under contract for one more season in Russia, with UMMC Ekaterinburg, and thinks that will conclude her overseas career.
She's at that point as a professional athlete where there has been some reflection, and maybe just a little melancholy.
"Oh, yeah. To say it doesn't happen would be a lie," she said. "There's a kind of rewiring of your brain for getting ready for a game, for a road trip -- the things that worked for you before don't work as well.
"Or the things you could always rely on before aren't necessarily there all the time. And then you try to focus on things you can control."
But also on what you have to look forward to. Taurasi still has some great basketball in her. She's the happiest she has ever been in her personal life, too. On May 13, she married Penny Taylor, who also had a long, distinguished basketball career in the WNBA and overseas.
"She expects more of herself than any coach or team ever could," Taylor said. "But I think the one thing I've maybe done is give her a little more balance. Just in understanding that as much as we all love our sport, and we all have these goals we want to achieve, there is life away from the court."
See Former WNBA Teammates Diana Taurasi and Penny Taylor's Adorable Wedding Pic! https://t.co/VNHvWtxbGj
— People Magazine (@people) May 17, 2017
Taylor retired after the past season and now works on the Mercury coaching staff, having played in Phoenix for 10 seasons as Taurasi's teammate. They've also been on-court adversaries, during the Olympics and world championship, with Taylor playing for her native Australia.
"We've had such a great relationship for the last seven, eight years," Taurasi said. "Penny has helped me get to this point more on the personal side. She's been that steadying personality.
"Getting married, it gives us a little boost, for the rest of my career, for her coaching career, for our lives together, for our relationship to grow. It's the next progression, and it's exciting in so many ways."
Making the commitment
Taurasi and the Mercury lost their season opener, as she shot 1-for-11 for three points. She made no excuses, although there was an obvious one: Her wedding was just the day before, set before the WNBA schedule came out.
Taurasi acknowledged it was a very busy, happily distracting time, with friends and family in town, but basically attributed her shooting woes to basketball being basketball.
"I've had a lot of nights like this," she said. "You play enough basketball, you're going to play like s--- sometimes. Today was that, times 10. It's almost like when you have a night like that, you have to recalibrate a little. You have to do it wrong to get it right again."
Taurasi has always been consumed by sports, and she gives all she has to whatever team she's playing on. In the WNBA, that has been in Phoenix, where she appreciates everything, even the tough love.
"There have been times when Phoenix has dropped the hammer on me," she said. "And times when I wasn't the easiest person to be around -- as a teammate, as a professional. And they've helped me grow and showed me what being part of an organization means. How your actions on and off the court really affect what we're trying to get done here. That's taught me a lot."
"I couldn't have hoped for a more loyal, caring or attentive person. All it showed me was what I knew about her already -- that she was always going to be there for me, and I hope I showed her the same thing."Penny Taylor on wife Diana Taurasi
Taurasi has spent most of her time playing overseas in Russia, and the real concrete of her relationship with Taylor was set into place during some of those years.
"Especially when I was young, that was something I never thought about," Taurasi said. "I was so entrenched in basketball, getting married ... having any relationship, let alone a healthy one -- you know, it just didn't seem to be in my equation.
"And then for whatever reason, when Penny and I started dating, things just fell into place. It wasn't easy, though. We were playing in different countries for the first few years of our relationship."
Taurasi said she is forever grateful to coach Pokey Chatman, then at Spartak Moscow (and now with the Indiana Fever), for giving her the time to visit Taylor in Turkey during their respective overseas seasons.
"We would play and I would take a flight from Moscow to Istanbul, and Pokey would give me two days off," Taurasi recalled. "Then I'd fly back to Moscow. Practice for four days, play two games, Pokey would give me two more days off.
"It was commitments and sacrifices like that that made the relationship grow. Because it's like anything: If you don't put the effort in, it just kind of dies."
Taurasi and Taylor both came to the Mercury in 2004, when Taurasi was the first pick of the regular draft, and Taylor the first pick of the Cleveland Rockers' dispersal draft. Each played huge roles in Phoenix winning WNBA championships in 2007, 2009 and 2014.
"We always talk about life and your professional career -- a lot of it is luck," Taurasi said. "Being in the right place at the right time, but also being prepared for it."
Taylor previously was married to Brazilian volleyball player Rodrigo Gil. After their divorce, her friendship with Taurasi evolved into a relationship as they helped each other through the most difficult times of their lives.
In 2009, Taurasi had a DUI arrest in the midst of a brilliant season when she was chosen the WNBA MVP and the Mercury won their second title. Taurasi took responsibility and has always acknowledged she learned a painful but valuable lesson.
Later that year, while Taurasi was playing in Russia, Spartak owner Shabtai Kalmanovich -- a businessman and former KGB spy who had a passion for women's basketball -- was killed in what police called a professional hit. He was a complicated person with a background out of a John le Carre novel, but he also was a father figure to Taurasi.
Then in late 2010 and into 2011, Taurasi had a legal battle after being wrongly accused of doping while playing in Turkey. She was fully exonerated after flaws were found with the Turkish lab's procedures. But it was an expensive, traumatic process in which Taurasi felt her character was under attack.
"We've had such a great relationship for the last seven-eight years. Penny has helped me get to this point more on the personal side. She's been that steadying personality."Diana Taurasi on life with Penny Taylor
Meanwhile, Taylor suffered a knee injury in 2012 that cost her that WNBA season and kept her from playing for Australia in the London Olympics. Then she lost both her parents to cancer, her mother dying in May 2013 and her father in December 2014.
"All I could really do is be there and support her, but I was a person that could barely take care of myself some times," Taurasi said. "So we had a lot of moving pieces. But at the end of the day, we both found something in each other that made us each a better person, a better teammate. And you don't get to find a lot of people like that in life."
Taylor said, "When things get tough, you see who people really are. And we have been tested over and over again. I couldn't have hoped for a more loyal, caring or attentive person. All it showed me was what I knew about her already -- that she was always going to be there for me, and I hope I showed her the same thing."
Getting the fun back
Taylor always said during her playing days that although her exterior appeared far calmer than Taurasi's, they had the same competitive fire inside. Taurasi is grateful for Taylor's influence.
"Because -- if you haven't noticed -- I'm a little bit of an off-the-cuff, winging-it type," Taurasi deadpanned. "Where Penny is more calculated and thoughtful. She's more of a planner than I am, which has made me more of a planner. Which has really helped me in the last four or five years play at a high level."
Taurasi sat out the 2015 WNBA season -- the year after the Mercury won their third league championship -- as part of that planning. After close to year-round playing since 2004, Taurasi needed scheduled relaxation and recovery.
Taurasi also manages her mindset to try to make the most of her career's closing years. Longtime friend/sometime teammate, Seattle guard Sue Bird, has helped with that, as has Geno Auriemma, their UConn and USA Basketball coach.
"There was a time there when we played a lot of basketball together -- in Russia, in the Olympics and world championship -- and Sue was basically calling me crazy," Taurasi said. "Because I couldn't stop. I couldn't stay away from the gym. Mentally, I couldn't turn it off, either.
"I'm one where, if I see something that works, especially with Sue ... I try to learn from other people. I did take a little bit of her attitude, 'The game's over, let's go enjoy dinner.'"
Auriemma, who is so much like Taurasi, told her he saw she had lost a crucial part of her on-court personality.
"I don't know how many times he's texted me, 'You have to have fun out there. You don't have fun playing basketball anymore,'" Taurasi said. "When you play so much basketball -- you're taking off one jersey, putting on another -- sometimes the fun does get lost a little bit. And when you get older, you're going to become a little crankier. When you experience winning, you know how to do it right. And when you see it's not being done right, it bothers you."
But Auriemma said at some point, Taurasi had won so much that simply the act of winning could not be her sole motivation.
"Do you need more trophies, money, medals or adulation to validate who you are?" he said of what he told her. "Because you already have all that. So unless there is a certain sense of joy for playing, like there was when you were a kid, then in your heart, you're just a miserable human being who is doing something because they are really, really good at it.
"This is a kid who was the Magic Johnson of women's basketball. No one ever had more fun playing the game than Diana. I couldn't help her be a better ball handler, shooter, passer, or play defense better at this point in her career. She is way beyond anything I could do to help her technically. But I always felt that I had a special connection with Diana, and that if I've said, 'This is what I see,' she would take it to heart."
She did. Last year at the Rio de Janeiro Olympics was almost certainly the final time Auriemma and Taurasi will work together as coach and player. And it was golden for them in every sense. The United States won its sixth consecutive Olympic tournament. Subsequently, Taurasi was named USA Basketball's Female Athlete of the Year for the fourth time.
"I've never seen her happier than I did at the Olympics in Rio," Auriemma said. "And I've never seen her play better, or be a better teammate or leader, or enjoy what she's doing more. It brought me back to when she was 18 years old, and I coached her for the very first time."
'Wiser, experienced, content'
That kid is still in her, but we also witness a grown-up, thoughtful, reflective Taurasi. She can see things now that perhaps she couldn't before.
"I think what I went through with my parents really opened her eyes as well," Taylor said. "That we don't all have endless times with our families, our parents especially. Even though she's away so much of the year, she really takes time to be with her family."
Taurasi thinks children might be in the future for her and Taylor. Although with trademark Taurasi wit, she laughed and added, "Obviously, the situation we're in, it's a lot more planning than one honeymoon night."
As Auriemma said, Taurasi has nothing left to prove in basketball. Now it's really about being in the moment, appreciating it but knowing it still requires a lot of work. That part never changes.
Taurasi is such a master at her craft, she finds ways to make up for legs that are heavier, for the spring in one's step that can't be there at 34 the same way it was at 24. You watch a Mercury practice: Taurasi is as engaged as ever. She listens intently to instruction from coach Sandy Brondello, and then later points out something she has seen in regard to better setting up center Brittney Griner.
"This is a kid who was the Magic Johnson of women's basketball. No one ever had more fun playing the game than Diana."Geno Auriemma on Diana Taurasi
Griner, who also played with Taurasi in Russia, has benefited as much as any teammate from Taurasi's presence, saying, "If I wasn't here in Phoenix, I would have been doing anything in my power to get here.
"Without Dee, I don't think I'd be where I am right now. She's always quizzing me, teaching me, making me see more than just my spot, but the whole court, reading how the defenders are guarding me. She's really packed in a lot of information."
So the natural question is: Will Taurasi someday want to coach? Her first instinct is no. Will she want to transition into a television-analyst role? Again, she leans toward no.
"I really enjoy watching ex-athletes go up there and give their insight," she said. "The ones that are so brutally honest, I just love. But I don't know if that's for me.
"I think when I'm done playing, I'm going to need a little hiatus from basketball and kind of find myself on a lot of different levels. And I know myself in this way: Whenever I'm done, I'm just done. There's not going to be a parade with a float going downtown."
But let's not really think about any of that now. There are still years of basketball ahead for her. Those who value witnessing athletic greatness are glad of that. And whether they cheer for or against her, no one wants the clock on Taurasi to tick away too fast.
"There is the 18-year-old Diana that I thought was going to transform the game," Auriemma said, and that's what happened. "Now, there is the 34-year-old Diana that's going to be doing the exact same thing, but in a much wiser, experienced and content way."