Saturday, July 24, 2010
Limited rest taking toll on Taurasi
PHOENIX -- Even after a late-night arrival following an unusually laborious All-Star weekend, Diana Taurasi is full of energy, tossing balls as high as she can against a wall on the sideline, racing out to high-five teammates at the end of every drill.
After practice, Taurasi is the only one left, at the far end of the Phoenix Mercury's practice gym, hoisting one jumper after another.
This kind of enthusiasm and love for the game have turned Taurasi into one of the best basketball players in the world.
It's also why she may need to take a break.
Wearing down after seven years of playing basketball year-round, Taurasi is thinking about taking next season off. Not from her overseas teams, though. She makes too much money overseas. So a break, if Taurasi takes one, will be from the WNBA, a league that's struggling to stay atop its star players' priority list.
"It's going to be a matter of how I'm feeling, looking at the next five years," Taurasi said. "I don't know if I can continue the pace I've done the past seven. It's been pretty tough."
The loss of Taurasi would be a blow to the WNBA, a league that's still going strong after 14 years but needs to hold onto the handful of big-name players it has.
Arguably one of the best college players ever after winning three straight national titles at Connecticut, Taurasi has brought her star power to the WNBA. She's the reigning league and finals MVP, has won two WNBA titles, three scoring titles and is a five-time All-Star.
Taurasi is perhaps the most recognizable name in the league and if she opts out next season, she'd leave a void and perhaps open the door for others to follow suit.
"Our overall concern is that our players can stay as healthy as they can be and have a schedule that is fulfilling and allows them to play at the highest level," WNBA president Donna Orender said. "Whatever those decisions that need to be made to enable that to happen, we're going to work with them to make that happen."
A concern for the WNBA is that if a player wants to take time off to rest, it makes more financial sense to play overseas.
For the 2010 season, the WNBA's minimum salary for rookies is $35,880 and the maximum for any player is $101,500. The high end of the scale is a good living, but pales compared to foreign leagues, where top-name players can earn up to five times as much.
From the beginning, the WNBA was set up to give its players a chance to play in other leagues. The season is played during the summer, opposite winter leagues in Europe and other places, and the league has always been receptive to its top players starring somewhere else as well.
Problem is, particularly for high-level players such as Taurasi, there's no real break to the year.
She's spent the past five years playing in Russia and is headed to Turkey this winter. Taurasi also is a prominent member of the U.S. National Team, which takes up more of her time with camps, world championships and Olympics.
It's a schedule that leaves Taurasi with about two weeks off during the year, but not all in a row and with travel days mixed in.
She isn't alone.
The majority of the WNBA's players -- up to 75 percent -- play entire second seasons in places such as Europe, Russia, Australia, even China. Some players get a break in the schedule if their teams are eliminated from the playoffs early, but those such as Taurasi who compete for championships just about every year rarely get any time off.
The WNBA has tried to take some the strain off by pushing back the start of the season by two weeks -- except this year, because of the world championships -- to give players a little extra rest.
It still might not be enough for players, particularly veterans, who have spent their careers playing nearly nonstop on opposite sides of the globe.
"Now our class is seven years in. We've been playing overseas for four, five years and coming back here as well," said Minnesota Lynx guard Lindsay Whalen, who entered the league the same year as Taurasi. "You have to start evaluating taking care of your body, what each individual wants to do."
Assessing the long-term financial situation also comes into play.
"Usually, if you don't have an internship or a job here in the States, you go to Europe," said Los Angeles Sparks forward DeLisha Milton-Jones, who's played in Russia, Italy, the Czech Republic and South Korea. "Also, you have an opportunity to stay in shape and see the world at the same time. That's an offer you just can't refuse, sometimes."
Still, it'd be nice not to be stuck in the play-all-the-time mode, to relax for a few months, let the body heal, be at home with family and friends instead of in a foreign country.
In other words, to have the NBA's schedule.
"The NBA would be ideal for any basketball player, I think," Taurasi said. "You play nine months here in the United States then you get three months to go to Hawaii and that must be nice. That's not what we're in, but I've enjoyed every moment it."
However, the never-ending treadmill has taken its toll.
Because of Taurasi's headlong enthusiasm for basketball and winning, she plays every game as if it were the seventh game of a championship series, diving for loose balls, sliding under bigger players for charges, slashing down the lane without fear.
At 28, Taurasi is still all out, all the time, but the relentless pace is starting to, well, hurt. She's played through a series of nagging injuries the past couple of seasons and missed a game last month with a bruised back after taking a hard fall.
At this rate, she might not last much longer.
"The ballplayer she is, she loves the game, but she's going to break, basically," Mercury coach Corey Gaines said. "You can only do it so long and she's been doing it for a long time."
The end of it could be near.