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LAS VEGAS -- It's interesting how things work out, isn't it?
It was nearly a year ago, late July 2010, when Diana Taurasi pondered out loud -- in front of reporters with notebooks, no less -- that after seven years of nonstop basketball, it might be time to take a break.
Those sentiments reverberated throughout the WNBA, as league officials and followers wondered whether it might lose its biggest, brightest star for a season. Well, Taurasi got her break. But certainly not in the way she would have imagined and definitely not under the circumstances she wanted.
It has been five months since the news broke that Taurasi had tested positive for a banned substance, the mild stimulant modafinil, while playing overseas in Turkey. Her Turkish team, Fenerbahce, terminated her contract, and Taurasi returned home to the States to defend herself, having maintained her innocence from the outset.
Less than two months later, Taurasi was cleared of doping charges and the World Anti-Doping Agency was investigating the laboratory that processed her sample.
This week, for the first time since the controversy that nearly swallowed her career and ruined her reputation, Taurasi is back with the U.S. national team as part of the squad's three-day training camp in Las Vegas. It is her first time on the court with teammates since she left Turkey, and after months of individual workouts with Phoenix Mercury coach Corey Gaines, she admitted she was "anxious" to get back onto the floor.
"I missed being in the gym, missed being with my coaches and teammates," Taurasi said. "The last month and a half I have really wanted to get going again."
U.S. coach Geno Auriemma, who coached Taurasi at UConn, has known her as long as anyone in the gym this week at UNLV.
He believes the layoff has been good for her, the break she needed all along.
"Believe it or not, it's helped her," Auriemma said. "When I saw her at the world championships [last fall], I thought she was playing only on adrenaline. That there was a look in her face that said, 'I'm tired.' The feeling that I get right now, when I'm watching her, is that she's just hungry to play and she's rested.
"Diana is Diana," Auriemma said. "Whatever team she plays on is going to win. Not playing for X number of months doesn't change that."
Mercury general manager Ann Meyers Drysdale certainly hopes that's true. Phoenix opens training camp next week.
"I know the break helped her," Meyers Drysdale said. "She probably hasn't had a break from playing this long since her AAU days, and she had not been healthy for a long time. This was a blessing in disguise."
But it would take an awfully strong brand of optimism to call the past few months a blessing for Taurasi.
She saw her reputation sullied and her integrity questioned, and even when she was vindicated, she had lost months of a basketball career that clearly means everything to her.
But she gained as well. She rested her weary body, took a month's vacation in Australia, spent time with family and friends and became an aunt for the second time when her sister had a baby last week.
"The time has helped me decompress," Taurasi said. "I forgot how much pressure and stress I put on myself to play at a really high level. You go into every season and you give of yourself emotionally and physically to every team you are on, and it's not easy. I think it wore on me mentally and physically. And you don't know it until you stop, because when you are in it, it's all you can think of."
U.S. point guard Sue Bird has been Taurasi's close friend since they were college teammates at Connecticut and roommates in Russia. Bird said it was difficult to watch her friend "go into a bit of a hole" following the accusations.
Bird said she took Taurasi at her word immediately when she said she hadn't taken the substance. But as an athlete, Bird knows that's not how most of the rest of the world works.
"This is the one area of life, from an athlete's perspective, that you're [considered] guilty. You're guilty, that's it," Bird said. "That's very tough to live with when you're not guilty. And that's what she had to live with for months."
Taurasi's story has been a cautionary tale for other players heading overseas. She and her teammates were briefed Tuesday by U.S. doping officials. They are more aware of their individual rights in the doping process, and more wary of what could happen to them when they are dealing with doping officials who don't speak English and forms that are written in foreign languages.
"When you're in America, it's easy to be careful," Bird said. "In Europe, [they are] not so diligent and it's not as easy to communicate ... it's difficult. You really have to mind your P's and Q's. And Diana's situation reminds you of that."
Taurasi, meanwhile, said she's now more cautious but no less passionate about the sport that has defined her life.
"It's what I've been doing since I was 6 years old, and for it to be taken away from me for that moment, it gave me time to reflect," she said. "I feel like I can go into my next five years really strong."