UConn to Phoenix to Athens, Taurasi's feet stay on ground

Olympics: Nothing goes to the ex-college star's head, even being the only first-year member of the U.S. women's basketball team.

Athens Olympics

8 Days To Go

Aug. 13 - 29

August 05, 2004|By Milton Kent | Milton Kent,SUN STAFF

WASHINGTON - Lisa Harrison really wanted to hate Diana Taurasi.

As the member of the WNBA's Phoenix Mercury with the longest tenure, Harrison had every right to resent all the attention lavished on Taurasi, who has swooped into the league and the Valley of the Sun and taken both by storm as a rookie.

Adding insult to injury, Harrison is a proud Tennessee graduate and Taurasi led Connecticut to a third straight NCAA title in April over the Lady Vols in the latest chapter of women's basketball's answer to the Yankees-Red Sox blood feud.

Yet Harrison, like seemingly everyone else in the league, is firmly in Taurasi's corner, so much so that Harrison gave up her No. 3 jersey to the rookie.

"I met with her and I told her what she's going to mean to this organization and what she's going to do for this team," said Harrison. "And she's done it. She's lived up to it. I can't say anything bad about her, as much as I would like to - other than that she's from UConn, I really can't."

Taurasi, the first overall pick in April's draft, has tried her best to remain as carefree and unaffected as she was at Connecticut, accepting the attention as part of the territory.

"People, when they don't know you, they try to ... say you're one way, when most times, you're like everyone else," Taurasi said before Sunday's game against the Washington Mystics. "I mean, you can play basketball a little bit better, but other than that, I'm just like everyone else. I do everything that everyone else does."

For those who have known Taurasi, her nonchalance about her fame is no different in the professional ranks from college.

"The best thing about Diana is her personality," said Seattle Storm guard Sue Bird, who played with Taurasi at Connecticut. "She's such a free spirit. She goes with the flow. Nothing really fazes her, really.

"If you go to Connecticut, you deal with a lot of media and a lot of pressure and expectations, so for her, this is just more of the same. Yeah, it's in a new league and it's another level, but it's pretty much the same. I think the hype was well-deserved, and she's handling it well. She's just playing, and she has fun when she plays."

Taurasi, a 6-foot-1 guard from Chino, Calif., is playing so well that she was the only first-year player named to the U.S. Olympic team.

The Olympic team will play an exhibition tonight at New York's Radio City Music Hall against a team of WNBA All-Stars, though Taurasi may not play because of a hip pointer that limited her to four minutes and no points in Sunday's 82-62 loss to the Mystics.

With such backcourt players as Dawn Staley, Shannon Johnson and Katie Smith, all of whom have extensive international experience, Taurasi isn't likely to see a lot of time in Athens, but this figures to be the first of a number of Olympic appearances.

"I'm looking forward to the Olympics," Taurasi said in an e-mail interview. "I don't really know what my role will be, but I'm willing to do whatever coach [Van] Chancellor asks of me."

Taurasi, the Most Outstanding Player in the past two NCAA Final Fours, has benefited from the cult of celebrity attached to Connecticut in women's basketball. In a highly publicized stunt, she and tennis star Serena Williams picked outfits to wear to the ESPY awards show last month.

"We didn't really go shopping," said Taurasi. "We just went to a suite in a hotel and began to try things on. ... Some of the things, man, they were out there!"

None of the hype would matter if Taurasi couldn't back it up. But so far, through two-thirds of the WNBA schedule, what she has done is play better than any other rookie in the league.

She leads all first-year players in scoring with an average of 16.5 points (sixth overall) and is 11th overall in assists at 3.6. And the Mercury, which won just eight games last year, already has won 12 and is tied for the fourth and final Western playoff spot, with nine games to play after the Olympics.

Just as importantly, Taurasi has become one of the WNBA's most visible players without earning the enmity of veterans who have played well for years, but labored in relative obscurity.

"She wants to learn," said Smith, a two-time Olympian. "She still has the respect for the veterans, and that's what's nice. She has that respect, but she won't back down. She wants to come out and play, but she has the respect for the game and for the people who are ahead of her or who have been there."

By the beginning of October, a long, dizzying year of basketball played on two continents and in three disciplines (collegiate, professional, international) will end for Taurasi.

Until then, there are games to play and friends and fans to win over.

"I'm not tired," she said. "Basketball is basketball and I enjoy playing it every day. If I didn't, I wouldn't be here now. There's nothing I'd rather be doing than playing ball and I wouldn't have it any other way."

Games at a glance

When: Aug. 13-29

Where: Athens, Greece

Sports: 28

Countries: 202

Athletes: 10,500

Events: 296

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