Why Diana Taurasi is working so hard to stay on court this season and beyond

Diana Taurasi enters her 19th WNBA season as the league's leading scorer, with 9,693 points. But she has battled injuries each of the past four seasons and has overhauled her training regiment to stay on the court. Christian Petersen/Getty Images

PHOENIX -- Diana Taurasi made her way through the empty weight room, free of distractions, free of conversation, free of noise. It was after 4:30 p.m., and Taurasi was in her fourth hour of training for the day. Inside the Phoenix Mercury's practice facility after wrapping up an hourlong scrimmage, she bent her knees and swung a kettlebell down through her legs and back up, again and again. Taurasi's face remained blank aside from the intention behind her eyes.

Her teammates had all scattered. DJ Quik's "Bombudd II" calmed the air as Taurasi continued getting herself ready to do the only thing she has ever done at least one more time: Her 19th WNBA training camp was days away, but Taurasi has been at it like this for months.

"Everything I do my whole life is to make sure I can be on the court," Taurasi told ESPN. "And it's exhausting."

But, the 40-year-old said, it's necessary.

"I think that's probably the biggest thing to committing to playing during the summer," Taurasi added. "It's really committing to play for nine months. I'm not going to play without all this. I just know how much work you have to put in to be at a certain level, and if you don't, it's going to show."

Mercury coach Vanessa Nygaard simplified it: "Time's undefeated."

And so the player who used to close down bars and clubs early in her pro career is now closing weight rooms. It's the new reality for Taurasi, who knows that tuning her body from head to toe daily is what it'll take for her to not just get on the court, but stay there. Just as she retooled herself once before to become the player WNBA fans voted as the league's greatest of all time, the hours now spent in the training room, weight room and hot tub and on the court -- and knowing when to rest -- will keep her playing as a quadragenarian after battling injuries each of the past four seasons.

"At this point," Taurasi said, "if I half-ass it, it's not going to look pretty nor will I feel good about it, and I'm just selling myself short and my teammates short."

TAURASI'S JOURNEY TO Friday, when the Mercury open the season at the Los Angeles Sparks, began in January after her family's annual trip to Australia to see wife Penny Taylor's side of the family.

In December, Taurasi was finally able to return to the gym after a quad injury suffered toward the end of a roller-coaster 2022 season had completely healed. Once Taurasi was back, it was on.

She trained six days a week, taking off only Sundays. Her sessions started in the training room -- 90 minutes of massage, acupuncture, cups and soft tissue work. Then exercises and Pilates in the weight room -- all before she even took the court for individual work. Taurasi's days usually ended in a state-of-the-art pool room, first in the underwater treadmill and then in the hot tub. Taurasi won't do the cold tub.

Saturdays were reserved for high-volume shooting. Taurasi often challenged herself to making 10 3-pointers in a row from various spots on the court, sometimes shooting for 15 to 20 minutes straight.

This was Taurasi's life Monday through Saturday, every week, from January until May. The results came slowly at first. Days became weeks. Weeks became a month. One month turned into four.

Going to the gym day after day wasn't easy, especially in February and March when the season was months away. There were plenty of days when she didn't want to work.

Just a few weeks ago, Taurasi sat on the couch at her Phoenix home with Taylor, watching CNN, complaining that she didn't feel like practicing. Taylor acquiesced to Taurasi, telling her not to go. What's one day? They could sit on the couch, watch the news and drink coffee, Taylor said. It was 1:15 p.m. Taurasi was due on the trainer's table by 1:30 p.m.

What did Taurasi do?

She hopped off the couch, drove the two minutes from her house to the Mercury's practice facility and was in the training room on time.

"I'm just f---ing too competitive of myself," Taurasi said. "Anytime I'm like, 'Oh, I don't want to do this,' I go to the gym. It's probably not healthy."

"She gives me a different perspective of what 40-year-olds can do. When I see 40, I don't think professional basketball player, but Diana has definitely proven that wrong." Mercury forward Brianna Turner on Diana Taurasi

It's why she's back for a 19th WNBA season and also why, barring a major injury, she'll be back for a 20th and likely a run at a sixth consecutive gold medal at the Paris Olympics in 2024.

Taurasi isn't one to discuss private goals, but she points to signing a two-year contract in February to remain with the Mercury through next season, when, coincidentally, the Olympics take place. Taurasi believes she's at her best when she's being driven by something.

Returning this season, though, was a result of last season, and, Taurasi emphasized, didn't have anything to do with Brittney Griner returning to the Mercury after she was detained in a Russian prison for 10 months last year. The 2022 season was supposed to be the summer the Mercury made a run to a fourth WNBA title after adding Tina Charles and Diamond DeShields to complement Taurasi, Griner and point guard Skylar Diggins-Smith.

But their supposed superteam unraveled quickly: Griner was detained in Russia beginning in February 2022; Charles asked for a contract divorce from the Mercury after 16 games; Diggins-Smith didn't get along with, well, anyone on the team; and injuries decimated the roster, including Taurasi, who missed the last five games and the playoffs.

"Personally and as a team, that's just not the way I wanted to go out," Taurasi said. "I still wanted to play. I still love to play. I still felt really good. I feel like there were times I could do anything on the court that I wanted to and there were times where I didn't feel that way.

"So, now, the goal is to do that every night."

ANNALISE PICKREL STOOD nearby as Taurasi swung those kettlebells, watching with an eagle-like stare. The Mercury's new strength and conditioning coach monitors Taurasi's every move with a mix of awe and fear, knowing she's the first line of defense in protecting Taurasi from herself.

Minimizing injuries will be a key part of keeping Taurasi on the court. Since 2019, when she had offseason back surgery, Taurasi has dealt with at least one injury every year. That season, it was more back trouble and a hamstring injury. Then came hip trouble in 2020, chest and ankle woes in 2021 and the quad last season. Pickrel, a former pro basketball player in Australia who played for Michigan State from 2011 to '14, has operated around two fundamental goals: make Taurasi better, and keep her on the floor.

"There's no research or normative data on a female athlete of that age at this level," Pickrel said.

To find the answers, Phoenix has gone beyond the physical. The Mercury analyzed Taurasi's blood, bone density, hormones, circulation and strength testing.

The answers are divided: Off the court, it's about preparation and recovery. On the court, Taurasi's season will be defined by two of the most hated words in sports: load management.

For Taurasi, it means cutting back at practice. There might be days when she doesn't take part in a drill or does it just a couple times and then shoots the entire practice. And there are days when she won't be allowed to get in extra shooting. But even as the WNBA season stretches to 40 games this summer, they're looking to limit practices, not games.

"Over the course of the season, game days are her performance days," Pickrel said. "Practice needs to be not like the game, which I think in the past she's so used to being the one in every drill."

After two decades of a professional career, most spent playing year-round, the game has taken its toll on Taurasi's body. The back, she said, has been an issue since she suffered a stress fracture in college. But as Pickrel studied Taurasi's body, it was difficult to discern whether the soft-tissue injuries were age or strength related. So she has focused on balancing Taurasi's body during the final five weeks before the season in an effort to avoid offsetting injuries.

"It's a race of longevity at this point," Pickrel said.

"At this point, if I half-ass it, it's not going to look pretty nor will I feel good about it, and I'm just selling myself short and my teammates short." Diana Taurasi

In an ideal world, Taurasi would alternate between "high" and "low" days, which will be measured by a KINEXON device players wear that tracks their movement. Seeing the data helps Taurasi understand the need for a day off, but she said she doesn't need a monitor to tell her she's tired.

The goal, Pickrel said, is for Taurasi to stop before she's too tired. But the idea of "low" days is a strange concept for Taurasi.

"Before it was just f---ing high [days] for 10 years," she said.

Pickrel and Nygaard will play the bulk of the bad cop role, telling the WNBA's all-time-leading scorer she can't practice or shoot more, and teammate Brianna Turner won't mind telling Taurasi when to sit one out.

"It's going to be a lot of negotiating with Dee," Turner said. "I'll probably be like, 'Dee, we need you. You don't need to be in this drill,' so I'll probably throw my 2 cents in there."

Adds teammate Shey Peddy: "I'm glad I'm not the one to have to tell her to come out because she going to cuss somebody out eventually."

Pickrel is preparing for the first time she tells Taurasi she's done -- and the 10-time WNBA All-Star rebuts. And Taurasi will. As much as she's known for steely play in crunch situations, Taurasi is equally known for being stubborn, hard-headed and insistent. But she has softened in recent years. The once-defiant Dee just wants to be inside those four lines that surround a court.

She knows when they double down and tell her she's done, she's done.

"I know I have to do it just so I can come back tomorrow and play with that energy and be fresh," Taurasi said. "You got to find a different way to manipulate being on the court."

KETTLEBELL WORKOUT COMPLETE, Taurasi moved on to the next task, one designed to improve her balance. Then she switched to one of many band exercises before laying face down on a balance ball and lifting her torso. Most of the workouts, which also included a series of yoga poses, focused on Taurasi's core. Each exercise had its purpose: Make sure Taurasi was ready to take the court.

About 15 minutes before the scrimmage was set to start, Jay-Z's "Hard Knock Life" played over the speakers, a fitting anthem for Taurasi at this moment.

"Hustlin' is still inside of me, and as far progress,
"You'd be hard-pressed to find another rapper hot as me ..."

On the court, Taurasi didn't look like she has lost a step. She sprinted off picks, running a two-man game with Griner during the scrimmage. One assistant said this is the best Taurasi has looked in years.

"I feel great, knock on wood," Taurasi said. "I feel like every time I say I feel great, something happens. That's what happens when you get old; you pick up a kid and you throw your back out. You sleep on your wrist and you can't move your wrist the next day."

For an hour, Taurasi cooled down with her phone, the music and Pickrel.

After Taurasi finished up in the hot tub, a custodian made the rounds behind her, shutting off a TV and flipping off the lights in the pool room.

Towel wrapped around her, the end of another day in sight, Taurasi walked across the gym. Toward tomorrow. Toward her 19th season, Toward 10,000 points. Toward, she hopes, a fourth WNBA title and sixth Olympic gold medal.

"She gives me a different perspective of what 40-year-olds can do," Turner said. "When I see 40, I don't think professional basketball player, but Diana has definitely proven that wrong."