Diana’s Decision

Phoenix Mercury all-star opts out of 2015 WNBA season in favor of Russian contract

By Alex Chambers - Feb. 26, 2015 (Photos by Devin Millington.)

There are some days basketball fans just want to forget; yet those days somehow live on in infamy. And the Phoenix Mercury certainly has a few of these types of days in their 18-year history.

For some, that day might be May 21, 2004, when University of Connecticut star Diana Taurasi made her debut with the team, but lost to the Sacramento Monarchs despite putting up 22 points. Or possibly May 18, 2008, when Candace Parker put up 34 points in her Los Angeles Sparks debut, only to spoil the Mercury’s home opener. It could be the day history repeated itself: the May 27, 2013, home opener, when the visiting Chicago Sky blew out the Mercury 102-80. And, let’s not forget Sept. 5, 2010, when the Seattle Storms’ Sue Bird nailed a dagger 3-point shot at the buzzer that dashed the Mercury’s hopes for a third trip to the finals.

Unfortunately, there is now one more day to add to that list: Feb 3, 2015, the day the team’s all-star guard announced she would be sitting out the 2015 season.

Taurasi announced that she would not play the 2015 season following an agreement between her and UMMC Ekaterinburg, her Russian team. This agreement requires her sit out the entire season so that she can return to Russia next season well rested.

While no specific details were released, it appears that UMMC is compensating Taurasi for her losing out on her WNBA salary (compensation is rumored to be around $300,000). When you compare her reported $1.5 million UMMC salary with her $107,000 WNBA salary, it’s obvious she won’t be missing much.

WNBA president Laurel Richie was quick to say that she respected Taurasi’s decision. While Phoenix’s all-star center Brittney Griner Tweeted, “I support Dee’s decision 100%,” her other teammates stayed relatively quiet on social media – perhaps a sign that they’ve accepted the reality that with or without their leader, they still have a championship to defend.

Unlike 2012, where Taurasi as well as several other starters sat on the bench, 2015 still looks promising, with Brittney Griner, 2014’s defensive player of the year; Candace Dupree, who averaged 74-percent shooting during the 2014 finals; and DeWanna Bonner, three-time sixth woman of the year. And, although she has not yet been signed, Penny Taylor is likely to return. Add in a plethora of new signings to create a competitive roster come training camp, and you have a team that is more than worthy of chasing glory – again.

However, in order to truly appreciate why Taurasi would want to sit out the entire season, (with or without monetary motivation) it only takes look at her regular schedule.

While many athletes in the WNBA play overseas, Taurasi’s schedule is a little more unique. For example, in 2014 she was celebrating a championship with her Russian team April 29 after a grueling eight-month season. Two weeks later, Taurasi was on the court for the Phoenix Mercury’s home opener May 17. She played all through the regular WNBA season, into the finals, culminating with her third championship Sept. 12. Then, another two weeks later, Sept. 27, she was in Turkey for the FIBA World Championship games, where she helped USA basketball grab the championship and qualify for the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio. And days later, she was back with her Russian club pounding the court.

This is all she’s known: She was drafted to the WNBA and has been playing overseas since 2004, she’s been with USA basketball since 2000 and has played in three Olympic Games (2004, 2008 and 2012). She has more than 30 awards, multiple NCAA, WNBA, Russian league and Euroleague championship trophies, not to mention three Olympic gold medals. This is an athlete who has played, non-stop, at the absolute highest level since graduating high school.

It appears as if Taurasi, who will turn 33 years old in June, realizes there is truth in Lao Tzu’s saying, “The candle that burns twice as bright, burns half as long.” At her current pace, she knows that the physical toll of time on her is not a question of how, but when.

By taking a season off to rest, Taurasi is not only giving herself a break, but investing in her chances of playing basketball for many years to come.

Taurasi is not the first marquee player to skip out on the WNBA; her UMMC teammate and three-time WNBA champion Deanna Nolan left the league in 2008 to strictly play overseas. Nolan’s gotten quite comfy playing in Russia and has no intention of returning (she even has a Russian passport). Unlike Nolan, however, Taurasi has also had this opportunity, but has returned to the WNBA every year. It’s unlikely that she will skip out on the league indefinitely; if she wanted to, logic would dictate that she would have done it by now.

Not only did Taurasi let the Mercury know of her decision well in advance, but she also directly addressed her fans in an open letter that began with, “This is a letter to say I will see you in 2016.” No long-winded introductions needed; Taurasi says it like it is.

Fans shouldn’t worry too much about Taurasi not returning. Remember: this is a player whose former coach, Pokey Chatman, once admitted to lying to Taurasi about the gym being unavailable just to get her to rest. This also is a player who, after getting her championship ring in 2009, looked right in the camera and said, “I’m married to basketball.”

It’s highly unlikely that Taurasi is using the 2015 season to signal her exit from the league. For a basketball addict like her, the only way she’ll probably ever retire is when they physically drag her out of the gym. Yes, much like the prodigal son, the Mc Rib and Arnold Schwarzenegger in The Terminator, Taurasi will indeed be back.

As for the Mercury, their chances of a championship repeat in 2015 are going to be tougher. Losing players like Erin Phillips (who signed with long-time Mercury rival the Los Angeles Sparks) will sting a little. But they are not out of the running. They will still be a contender in the West and will put up a fight to keep the championship trophy here in the valley.

Phoenix Mercury fans need to have faith. Taurasi will return. And, to balance out those days that live in infamy, there are the other days that athletes and fans remember with pure elation, like the days in 2007, 2009 and 2014 when the Mercury brought home championships.

Next year, fans will be able to add another joyous day to that list: the day Taurasi returned to Phoenix for the 2016 season.

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