Saying she was “made for quarantine” because of a decade playing in Russia, Phoenix Mercury guard Diana Taurasi still understands the sacrifice that WNBA players are making to play an entire season in Florida due to the coronavirus pandemic.
“I know being in an apartment by yourself for many months and not having many people to talk to,” Taurasi said Saturday after the Mercury’s second preseason practice at IMG Academy. “For me, that’s nothing unusual. And you take solace in being on the court for two hours. That’s the only part of life that’s normal for us being in here.
“It’s a huge sacrifice that we’re all making to be here, leaving family and friends. When we’re on the court, we’ve got to make the best of it. These are times we can actually enjoy and really pour ourselves into each other. It’s not going to be easy, but that’s when you rely on each other.”
Taurasi, who turned 38 on June 11, is in Bradenton without her wife Penny Taylor and 2-year-old son Leo, who remained in Phoenix primarily for their safety. Taylor gave up her job as a Mercury assistant coach for this season, replaced by Chasity Melvin.
“It literally was an hourly decision of coming or not coming,” Taurasi said. “Ultimately we decided it would be safer for them to stay in Phoenix. For four months now, we’ve quarantined in the house with just us. As safe as the bubble is, you’re automatically exposed to 200 plus people. Just for the safety of Penny and Leo being so little, it was probably the best decision, but a hard decision. It’s a long time to be away from your family.”
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Taurasi, WNBA career scoring leader, is returning to full-time basketball for the first time since fall 2018. She played in only six games in 2019 coming off back surgery and due to a hamstring injury. This is her 16th WNBA season, and her intention is to play at least through 2021 for the now delayed opportunity to play in a fifth Olympics.
“This is like an Olympics, Final Four, World Championships,” Taurasi said. “You see all the teams. You do your job then you have to find a way to stay mentally sane for the rest of the day. It’s different now. You have FaceTime. My first couple of years overseas, you literally didn’t even have internet. You make the best of it.”
Taurasi played in Russia and Turkey from 2005-06 (during the WNBA offseason) through 2016-17 including on six EuroLeague championship teams. She sat out the 2015 WNBA season to play exclusively in Russia for a season, for financial reasons and to take a break from year-round basketball.
This season, Taurasi is on a Mercury team with two other All-Star caliber players — center Brittney Griner and point guard Skylar Diggins-Smith — and at least five new teammates including Diggins-Smith.
“These are times where you need a lot of people to lead,” Taurasi said. “That’s what we tried to do with putting this team together with people who have high character. But it’s fragile. Any little thing of irresponsibility, any attitude of thinking your actions don’t affect the next person. At any minute this thing could shut down if you make a wrong decision. I think we’re all pretty serious about that and take that responsibility to heart. That’s why up to this point it’s worked for us.”
Cunningham to report soon, Breland’s status uncertain
Mercury coach Sandy Brondello said nine of the Mercury’s 11 players are in Bradenton and that guard Sophie Cunningham would be joining soon, perhaps this weekend.
The status of forward Jessica Breland is unreported as the WNBA works through medical exemption issues. Breland missed a season of college basketball in 2009-10 due to Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
If Breland, acquired in a February trade, cannot play this season for medical reasons, the Mercury would have a 10-player roster of Taurasi, Griner, Diggins-Smith, Brianna Turner, Bria Hartley, Nia Coffey, Alanna Smith, Cunningham, Shatori Walker-Kimbrough and Kia Vaughn.
Like Taurasi, Brondello believes players used to the variables of life while playing internationally will adjust to the WNBA bubble.
“I just to back to my own experiences living in Russia,” Brondello said. “It’s so cold, you’d go to practice and go home. You really didn’t leave too much from your apartment. Obviously not every country overseas is similar to that, but it prepares them in some ways. But how do you really prepare for a pandemic? That’s one for the books. But the WNBA has done a great job of putting us in a safe environment so we can have a season even though it’s a little bit reduced.”
The 22-game regular season (down from the planned 36) will begin July 25 with each team playing the 11 others twice. A revised schedule will be announced once national TV broadcasts are set.
Brondello said the Mercury will scrimmage with other teams during the preseason and that she is guarding against doing too much conditioning at the outset to protect against injuries.
“You could see the chemistry, it’s coming quick,” she said. “We’ve got a very mature group. Now it’s more about conditioning. It’s slowly building them up. We’re not to be 100 percent conditioned at the start of the season, but I think we will be at the end and that’s when it really matters. We’ve got a very versatile group. It’s great to see them develop that chemistry you need to be successful in this league.”
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