What Is Diana Taurasi's Place Among the Basketball Greats?

On The Record podcast, Kelli Anderson reflects on the series of unfortunate events that nearly derailed Diana Taurasi’s career and her legacy in the sport of basketball.
Author:
Publish date:

Since the early 2000s, a Jordan-like competitive mindset has helped Diana Taurasi win three NCAA titles, three WNBA titles and four Olympic gold medals. Sports Illustrated is opening up the SI Vault and examining its most consequential work about the most legendary athletes in sports through its new podcast, The Record.

Like many other basketball greats, Taurasi's journey hasn’t always been easy. On this week's episode of The Record, Kelli Anderson reflects on her 2011 story titled, The Trials of Diana Taurasi, and tells SI's Jamie Lisanti about the series of unfortunate events that nearly derailed Taurasi’s career and reflects on her legacy in the sport of basketball.

Listen—and subscribe—to SI's The Record:

The following transcript has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

Jamie Lisanti: There's a line in your story where you reference Diana's skills and her vision and her competitive drive. And you say how they draw comparisons to basketball greats like Larry Bird, Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson. Diana was also very, very confident about how she would do in the men's game. Tell us a little bit more about those comparisons about how they came to be at that time in her career, and how they've held up nearly 10 years later to today.

Kelli Anderson: Well, I think the two players she was compared to most, at least in my experience, was Magic Johnson, because she was a great playmaker. She was a terrific passer. And she really delighted in getting her teammates involved. When she had to she would score. But if she didn't have to, she was just as happy to get assists and get her other teammates involved. And I think that was kind of a Magic quality. And she was also really fun to watch. She is an amazing passer. In terms of Michael Jordan, I think the comparisons run along the lines of: she just has this amazing competitive drive and will to win. And she makes things happen. She sees what's missing on the court or what our team needs to do to win this game. And she does it or makes it happen somehow. She certainly wasn't that kind of, Wow your socks off athlete—I don't think she was a dunker ever. She wasn't particularly fast, but she was very strong and very graceful. And she just had incredible basketball smarts and all of the things that added up to being the greatest player of all time in her particular sport.

JL: And even recently, UConn coach Geno Auriemma and Sue Bird, who is of course, another WNBA great, compared Taurasi to Michael Jordan specifically, in terms of his competitive nature and mindset. So exactly what you mentioned, that sort of all or nothing mentality. We've all been watching the Last Dance and got a glimpse into Michael and how he was with his teammates and how he could be really hard them. But it was always there because he wanted to win. And Diana had a very similar quality in terms of that. Did you get that sense when you were covering her, especially during this time when she was going through so much off the court?

KA: Well, first of all, I'd say that that the difference with Michael—I think she addressed this when Auriemma and Sue were talking about her—that as a teammate, she was a really different kind of character. She was, again, maybe that kindhearted a**hole. For her, it was about getting people involved and making sure everybody's on your side. In terms of her competitive drive, you see it on the court every day, not so much necessarily off the court, but she was kind of wound up in a lot of ways. You always feel like she was she was ready to go out and play and maybe prove something. Although she also had a very weird laid-back quality as well as being intense. I mean, the other thing that's interesting about her is she was so confident in her ability, but also really lovable. That's a really rare combination. I think people who are really good at what they do and really confident and sort of cocky about it are often really off-putting. And she just isn't, at least to those people, again, who are on her team.

JL: We talk about Michael and Magic and the comparisons there. But Diana has also put herself in the same conversation as players today, like Steph Curry or others, where she sort of says, I can do that, too. You know, where this is what I do. I do the same thing in a WNBA game. And so reflecting back now in 2020, nearly 10 years after writing your story, what are your thoughts about her legacy in the sport of basketball as a whole? You know, with the NBA players and the WNBA players?

KA: Well, one of the things, she said this in my story is that she gets asked a lot, How would you do in the men's game? And she said, give me a man's frame. And I think I'd do OK. And the Seattle storm coach said, you know, she's actually being modest. There are so many NBA teams that would love to have a player with her instincts. Again, as a basketball mind, as a basketball player, are there many players better than her at any level of the game? I mean, she doesn't have a man's frame, so she doesn't have that physicality. And I do think the very best players in the men's game really respect her. And they recognize that in her, that she is just like the LeBrons and Steph Currys, they recognize a kindred spirit, a kindred talent. And so she is one of them. And I think we saw that in the memorial service for Kobe Bryant when she got up to give a little talk. She had known Gianna. I think Kobe had brought her to a practice, the Phoenix Mercury practice at one point. And she recognized that look on her face of wanting the game. She just loved it. I think Diana recognized that that kind of passion. But she also was a really skilled young player. And in this talk that Diana gave, she mentioned something about how skilled Gianna was and said: Who has a turnaround step-back at 11? And then she kind of makes to the side like LeBron barely has it today. And there are two things that went on there. She lightened the mood. So, people laughed and she saw an opportunity and a need to lighten the mood in the room. So she did that. But she also signaled like, yeah, I can tease LeBron because I'm in his class. Everybody there recognizes that she's one of them. She is in that same class of a basketball player as Kobe and LeBron and Steph Curry. So that was really kind of a cool moment to watch.