Taurasi finds healing in hoops

PHOENIX -- The first time Diana Taurasi put her hands on a basketball … you figure it had to be like when Schroeder of "Peanuts" fame first touched the keys on his piano. The most pleasant version of true love: the kind that brings you only joy, not heartache.

Sure, Taurasi has lost a few painful "big" games in her basketball career, but those didn't break her heart by any means. She gets mad sometimes while playing the sport, but she's never angry at basketball. Those few times in her amazing career that things didn't go her way, her response was never: "I need a break."

To the contrary, it's, "I want to go play more now."

"There's something about it; I'm addicted to it," Taurasi said on the eve of the WNBA Finals, in which her Phoenix Mercury will meet the Indiana Fever in Game 1 Tuesday (ESPN2, 9 p.m. ET).

"I'm completely addicted to the basketball, the court, the locker room, being a teammate -- I love every aspect of it. I don't just live it when I'm in the gym; I live it every day. It's a part of me."

After Taurasi led the Mercury over Los Angeles in the Western Conference finals on Saturday, Sparks center Lisa Leslie praised Taurasi as the best player in the women's game.

"Coming from her -- who for probably a decade was the most dominant and best player -- it's probably the highest praise you could get from another athlete in our world of women's basketball," Taurasi said.

Taurasi is atop that world now, and has been for a while. The WNBA will announce its MVP on Tuesday, and it's basically a foregone conclusion it will be Taurasi. Phoenix had the best record this season, with Taurasi as the league's leading scorer.

At age 27, Taurasi has three NCAA titles and two Olympic gold medals, and she hopes to soon add a second WNBA championship.

But what she was thinking about in the early morning hours of July 2 was this: Have I just done something that could take basketball away from me?

"A season of ups and downs? Smiles and frowns?" Taurasi said, laughing because she hadn't intended the rhyme. "But that's kind of how life is -- it's never perfect. It sometimes doesn't go as scripted. And this year hasn't gone as scripted."

The Mercury beat Seattle on July 1, and then the rivals on court became the close friends they are off-court. Taurasi was out having a good time with her pals. She kicks herself now, of course, because it's always so obvious. She should have gotten a cab or called a friend or had a designated driver.

Taurasi was pulled over around 2:30 a.m. and later charged with three drunken-driving related offenses and cited for speeding. The police report states her blood-alcohol level was 0.17, more than twice the legal limit in Arizona.

Her case is still pending; it has been postponed three times and the hearing now won't be until October, after the WNBA playoffs are over. Taurasi knows that will be a difficult thing to go through, but she isn't letting it consume her.

"I went through a stage where I was thinking about it every day, and it was driving me crazy," she said. "At this point, I'm going to concentrate on the moment, whatever is happening right now. And when the season is over, I'm going to have to face those legal problems and take whatever penalties come my way."

All of that may sound like just another "athlete who's sorry for getting in trouble" story. Except it's really more than that. Taurasi doesn't turn icy when you ask about the incident and its aftermath. She has never denied she made a huge mistake in judgment. She hasn't used worn-out platitudes like, "I just want to put this all behind me."

If anything, Taurasi is remarkably open and straightforward talking about something that has caused her great personal embarrassment. Certainly, she's aware of the seriousness of what she did, realizing she could have hurt herself and others. She understands that it easily could have been avoided.

Taurasi's fans tend to be as passionate about her as she is about basketball. Many of them have come to her defense, saying that in the annals of athletes making the police blotter, Taurasi's offense is not as serious as many. There was no accident and no one was injured. And, some fans say, look at what so many male athletes have done…

Stop there. Taurasi doesn't say any of those things. She doesn't play any comparison games with the men; she has never done that. She realizes women's basketball has only a handful of stars, and she's one of the biggest. The WNBA sells itself as the squeaky-clean, fan-friendly, role-model sports league.

Yes, probably millions of people have been guilty of bad judgment on a late night out with friends. But Taurasi is well aware that everything she does is bigger than her: At all times, she is representing her family, UConn, the Mercury, the WNBA … even all of women's basketball.

"What went through my mind was: 'You disappointed yourself more than anyone else,'" Taurasi said. "Everyone always worries, 'What are other people going to think?' Well, if you don't feel it, it doesn't matter what anybody else thinks. But I genuinely, really, down deep inside was as disappointed as I've ever been in myself about anything.

"It definitely changed me. Not changed me like I started going to church every Sunday. But it made me realize every decision I make from here on out is gonna reflect on me. Whether that's really 'me' or not. I don't like to base a person's character or personality on one moment in their life, because I think that's a little severe. But a lot of the people who don't know you might take that as the only thing you've done in your life. That's not what I wanted it to be like."

That answer wraps up a lot of what people find so enchanting about Taurasi. Who else in women's basketball is so consistently real the way she is? For that matter, how many people in any aspect of the public eye are like that?

And her reaction has only reaffirmed all the things the people who love her -- including legions of fans -- feel.

"I've known Diana a long time; we came to Phoenix at the same time. We've been through at lot together," said teammate Penny Taylor. "We've played against each other in [the World Championship] and the Olympics. And I have nothing but respect for her.

"She's taken responsibility. She's never once said it was anything other than she'd made a terrible mistake. She's my friend, and I'll always support her."

Because Taurasi hasn't tried to minimize what happened, it has to some degree minimized itself. It hasn't defined this season for Taurasi -- her outstanding play has.

Asked about the prospect of having to go against Taurasi to win her first WNBA title, Indiana's Katie Douglas smiled ruefully.

"Well, it's not one of the things I most enjoy," Douglas said. "She's playing at such a phenomenal level right now. We're going to have to find some kind of game plan just to get her off that level. I'm not sure what we're going to do."

When they're being honest, most coaches and players say the same thing. Nobody wants to say, "We can't stop her." But they know they really can't.

"She does a lot of things that, if you don't really know the game, get overlooked," Douglas said. "People don't always realize how physical and aggressive she is. Because everybody always focuses on her offensive arsenal, her other abilities get overshadowed. But, by all means, she is a very complete player."

Taurasi could have been satisfied with how she'd always done things, because it worked. But it wasn't enough for her.

"The last year and a half, I've really made an effort to get better," she said. "I think I went through those first three or four years in the WNBA where I would work hard, but I really didn't know what going that extra bit was.

"This past year in Russia, I brought over a personal trainer, and I said, 'I'm going to get as fit as I can.' I really, really mentally focused on what I wanted to get done. When you put the work in, you see the results, there's no getting around it."

Taurasi has the same sense of humor as her college coach, Geno Auriemma. She has heard a lot of chatter lately that she has improved as a defensive player. But she points out that she has always been good at that.

"If you do one thing really well, that's what people notice," she said of how her scoring gets most of the notice. "But these people who are called 'great' defensive players -- it's probably because they can't shoot. If you can't dribble, shoot or pass, you better play some good defense."

As with Auriemma, Taurasi is best heard, actually, rather than read. That statement comes across as hilarious when she says it. For those who find Taurasi to be cocky, well … if you knew her, you likely wouldn't use that word.

"I've always had a good opinion of Diana … but being on the same team with her superceded even that," said Phoenix guard Temeka Johnson, who came to the Mercury this season. "She's been phenomenal -- she's so helpful, and her work ethic day in and day out is unbelievable. And she still finds time to have fun and enjoy the game.

"Anyone would love to have her on their team. Sometimes people get 'confident' confused with 'cocky.' I'd just say she was a very confident player. You know what? If you can put anybody in front of her that can just completely stop her, then that's when you can say something. Until then, there's nothing anybody can say."

That's the thing -- it's hard to find peers who would say anything bad about her. Does she talk trash? Sure. Does she give what she gets on court? You better believe it. But true ballplayers know what they see.

"She's a great scorer and can do multidimensional things on court," Douglas said. "But I think she's just a great teammate."

Think about this: How many athletes in any endeavor might get to be considered both the very best player and the very best teammate in their sport?

"Diana is very passionate about basketball, and I would pick her to be my teammate every time," Phoenix forward Tangela Smith said. "Because she's a winner. She is going to do battle for herself and her team, and I love that about her. You know she always has your back when you're out there."

Taylor has that Australian mentality that being called a good teammate is the highest compliment you can get. And she, too, says that as skilled a player as Taurasi is, it's how she interacts on a team that is her biggest strength.

"I think there are certain people in the world who are meant for one thing, and she's meant for basketball," Taylor said. "It is through and through what she is, what she loves.

"I can't say in any way I'm on that level; I love what I do and love that I'm able to do it. But there are just some people who have a calling, a purpose. And the fact that she does it with such style -- more than anything, it's that she makes everyone else enjoy what they're doing more."

It's one of the things Auriemma talked about when he was asked his reaction to Taurasi's difficulties this summer. He spoke of her being the life of the party, the jokester, the person others want to be around. He knows what that's like, because he's exactly the same way.

But sometimes you mess up. All it takes is one wrong decision to potentially erase so many right ones.

"The one person that scared me the most, and who I put off talking to the longest was Coach Auriemma," Taurasi said of dealing with the aftermath of the DUI charge. "Because he knows me better than anyone else. He knows all my strengths, my weaknesses, what I'm afraid of.

"And he was disappointed, but he also had my back 150 percent. He said, 'Life is fragile, and our careers are fragile. If you don't take care of them, they'll start cracking and they'll fall apart.' You have to nurture those things every day, and that's what I've been trying to do every day from that point on."

For most of July, after the arrest and the DUI charge and a two-game suspension from the Mercury, she saw basketball as more of a sanctuary than ever before -- and she needed that.

"For that month, I wanted to stay in the gym day and night; it consumed my brain and my entire day," she said. "Because it was the thing that I was afraid was the closest to slipping away from me."

Then, softly, and in a voice different than her usual jaunty and jovial tone, Taurasi added, "Really, basketball is the only thing that I've been the most loyal to all my life."

But that's not really true. Because it's not just "basketball" -- the sport -- that she has been loyal to. It's every teammate she has played with, and even everyone she has played against because of the respect she shows to competition.

It's Auriemma, who lured her all the way from California to give a great college program its greatest player. It's the media who see her as the well that never runs dry. It's the fans who can say, "Fine, you want to crap on women's basketball? Watch Taurasi, and then say women 'can't play.' We dare you."

You could say it's a loyalty that has gone both ways. Basketball has always been there for Taurasi, and it was again. She has had perhaps her finest season at a time when she had her biggest stumble.

She fell. She wishes it hadn't happened, but it did. She got back up. She kept on playing. And she's the better for it.

Mechelle Voepel, a regular contributor to ESPN.com, can be reached at mvoepel123@yahoo.com. Read her blog at http://voepel.wordpress.com.