November 02, 2009

Sports Illustrated will announce its choice for Sportsman of the Year on Nov. 30. Here's one of the nominations for that honor by an SI writer.

The WNBA is not water-cooler conversation, at least not any water-cooler at which I've quenched my thirst over the years. An unusually high number of males, young and old, seem compelled to tell me that they don't watch the sport, much in the same manner that someone boasts that he doesn't watch Dancing with the Stars or Gossip Girl. (I don't watch those shows either, and I do feel compelled to tell you that.)

But though I am hardly a loyal women's hoops follower, I have the same response to the anti-WNBA-ers: Have you seen Diana Taurasi play?

I don't feel comfortable with my overall knowledge of women's basketball to declare that the Mercury swingwoman (is that a word?) is the greatest player ever. But she is the most recent link on the evolutionary chain that passes through Ann Meyers (now Taurasi's general manager), NancyLieberman, Cheryl Miller, Sheryl Swoopes and Lisa Leslie. (Chamique Holdsclaw has been limited by injuries, and let's give Candace Parker another year or two to see if she's in that class.)

It is no coincidence that wherever Taurasi goes, hardware appears. UConn won three straight NCAA championships and compiled a record of 139-8 with Taurasi leading the way in the early years of the century. Within the Nutmeg State, she became the diplomatic successor to another UConn star, Rebecca Lobo; even now, I wager, either could get elected governor by acclimation. Taurasi led Team USA to Olympic gold in 2004 and 2008, won three of the last four scoring titles and was the league MVP in 2009.

The 2009 WNBA championship was her second with Phoenix.

In the decisive Game 5 finale, Taurasi scored a game-high 26 points and made four of her last five three-point attempts. Why? Because that's what she does. It's part of the cutthroat brio that defines her. She's the same way off the court, aggressive, open-minded, free with her opinions. Forced to make the predictable comparison to a male player, the one that most closely fits is Magic Johnson. If the WNBA could get Taurasi in front of a microphone often enough, more fans would come around ... and stay to watch her play.)

The free spirit in her, however, has been a bit too free on occasion. She was arrested several hours after a July 2 game this season and charged with DUI for driving with a blood-alcohol level of 0.17 percent, more than twice Arizona's legal limit. She plead guilty to DUI on Oct. 12; charges of extreme DUI and speeding were dropped. Taurasi spent a day in jail after a judge suspended nine days of her sentence.

Characteristically, she never ran away from the controversy, never waved it off with a I've talked about that enough, never hid behind platitudes. Taurasi said that she made a mistake and conceded that it hurt her. "You know, the last month has been an incredible high," Taurasi told reporters after Game 5. "But rewind two and a half months ago and I was probably as low as I can get. I'm the type of person who wakes up every day happy. But it was tough to wake up happy every day for a couple of weeks."

We don't pick perfect people to be our Sportsman; if we did, the award would be vacant every year. We pick people who put it on the line on, dazzle us with their talent and demonstrate their passion for the game to us, transferring some of it to us in the process. That is Taurasi. Geno Auriemma, her college coach, once declared his confidence before an NCAA tournament game with this simple observation: "We have Diana, and you don't." We all have her now and it would behoove you to watch once in a while. You just might be talking about it the next day.

Agree with this selection. Give us your Sportsman pick here.

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