by Yaron Weitzman | @YaronWeitzman
Winning a championship, at any level, is supposed to be hard. And yet, no matter where she plays, that’s all Diana Taurasi seems to do. At the University of Connecticut, she was able to lead the Huskies to three consecutive NCAA titles; since being drafted by the Phoenix Mercury in 2004, the 6-0 guard has captured two WNBA titles (and led the league in scoring five times); and then there are the two Olympic Gold medals that Taurasi currently owns.
This summer, she’ll be looking for a third, and this time, there will be a familiar face barking instructions at her from the sideline—UConn coach Geno Auriemma will be an Olympic head coach for the first time in his career.
We recently spoke with the Mercury guard and proud Nike endorser, who will be rocking the revolutionary Nike+ basketball product this summer, from the set of a shoot with the Swoosh in Phoenix about her reunion with Auriemma, the upcoming Olympic Games and more.
SLAM: Do you still get excited about being an Olympian and part of Team USA?
Diana Taurasi: Yeah, especially as we get closer to going to London. The closer we get, the more excited I feel. For me, it’s the idea of going and representing your country. I think that’s the ultimate payment, and, if you get an opportunity to win a Gold medal, you get to go down in history, which is something that every basketball player wants.
SLAM: So when you’re playing for Team USA, is your motivation and incentive coming from a desire to win a Gold medal for your country? Or is it about wanting to cement your place in history?
DT: I think you have both sentiments. Obviously, though, you want to represent your country in the best possible way. For me, when I’m playing for the United States, I’m playing for the place where I grew up and the place where I learned how to play basketball, and I’m representing every American who plays basketball, coaches basketball and who loves basketball. Really, you’re representing everyone in the country who’s involved with the sport.
SLAM: If the US women don’t win the Gold medal in London, the team is going to be viewed as a failure. Is it tough or more annoying to play with those expectations?
DT: [Laughs] It’s a lot of pressure and a lot of expectations to put on a team that’s going to be together for three weeks. But we’ve always been able to come together as a group and really focus on the goal, which is to win a Gold medal. That’s the mindset that Coach Auriemma has with us, and I think that’s the mindset that each player will have.
SLAM: Are you excited to be playing for Geno Auriemma again?
DT: It’s a dream come true. When I graduated in ’04, I thought that was going to be the last time I got to play for him, so to have this opportunity to be coached by him now on the national team is great. And no one deserves to be the coach more than him. He’s the best basketball coach in the world, men’s or women’s. I’m just very fortunate to be playing for him again.
SLAM: What makes him such a great coach?
DT: He just knows how to tap into a player’s personality to make sure he gets the most out of her. He still helps me now. Every time I’m around him, I take away something new that makes me a better basketball player, and person. It’s special what he can do.
SLAM: What are some specific examples of how Coach Auriemma helped you?
DT: For the last 12 years of my life, no one has had a greater impact on me. When I first got to UConn as a freshman, I was kind of a shit head. Actually, not kind of—I was a shit head, and Coach let me know about it every day. Things like how to work hard, what dedication is, what it meant to be a great teammate and how to win, those are things that he taught me. Freshman year, I probably spent more practice time on the side on the bike than I did on the court. I always wanted to do things my way, and he let me know that we were going to do things his way, which, at that point, was something that I didn’t understand. He taught me at a very early stage in my career that you always put the team first no matter what, which was a lesson that I—and that a lot of young players—need.
SLAM: In 2009, you received a DUI charge, and then in ’10, you had a false positive drug test in Turkey. What was that time period like?
DT: It was definitely a rough stretch in my life, but I had a lot of great people who had my back, from Coach Auriemma, to my family, to my really close friends in the basketball world, to Nike, who never flinched. A time period like that is definitely the type of thing that will lead you to tighten your circle a little, but when you don’t have anything, that’s when you really see who’s there for you. I learned a lot.
SLAM: Changing subjects, I’m curious about how you react when you hear people criticize women’s basketball, and specifically, the WNBA.
DT: If you don’t like it, you don’t have to watch it or shit on it. I don’t like country music, but I don’t go around shitting on that.
SLAM: So it sounds like it bothers you.
DT: It does. We talk about the United States being so forward and so progressive, but when you talk about women’s basketball, it feels like it doesn’t get much respect at any level. And it’s sad, because we have the best players in the world, playing at the highest level, and for whatever reason, the sport doesn’t get the respect it deserves.
SLAM: Do you ever get feedback about women’s basketball from NBA players?
DT: That’s the funniest part; I feel like the people we get the most respect from are those guys. The Olympics is a perfect example. They come to all our games and talk basketball with us. They just respect our work ethic and dedication and passion for the game, the same way we respect their profession.
SLAM: Is it common for the men’s and women’s Olympic teams to interact?
DT: Yeah, we have a great relationship with them, and actually do a lot of things together. In Beijing in 2008, Sue (Bird) and I played cards with Carmelo and Chris Paul and just gave them a whooping. Actually, I’m sure they’re going to want a rematch while we’re in London.
SLAM: What’s it like to have your own Nike shoe?
DT: Getting that was one of the coolest moments I’ve ever had. I grew up buying Barkleys and Jordans, so to have a shoe with your name on it…there aren’t a lot of dreams that basketball players have while growing up, and that’s a really cool one to fulfill.