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The Life


November 12, 2002
Heavy D
ESPN The Magazine

She scarfs down an Italian hoagie in the campus food court, leans back, and starts talking about her body. She splays her hands in front of her face. They are enormous -- fingers long and swollen, palms deep and calloused. She could palm a basketball, a men's basketball, when she was 13. She lifts her arms out to the side. They rise like a pterodactyl's wings -- an inbounder's nightmare. The cuffs on her XL sweatshirt do not even reach her wrists. Her legs, carefully folded under a wooden table, stretch three full feet. They finally disappear into size-13 shoes.

And yet she shows no trace of awkwardness; she seems perfectly comfortable in her six-foot frame. The hands, the arms, the legs, the feet -- together they give Diana Taurasi the ability to play anywhere on the court. Her first step seems like two. Her hands grip the ball like clamps. Her arms deliver NBA range. Her legs make her almost immovable in the paint. "I am," UConn's junior guard says with a grin, "a specimen."

Diana Taurasi
Diana Taurasi is UConn's latest hero.
But there's something else -- the crucial cherry on top of Taurasi's sweet skill set. It shows up as she slurps the last of her soda, devours a white chocolate chip cookie and wonders why most players in her game are so self-conscious on and off the court. "It's a woman's complex," D says. "But I'm not afraid of anyone. I'm not shy about anything." She swivels her head to the side. "Not even my big nose."

Then she smiles, shrugs and adds, "You gotta have stones."

Across campus, inside Gampel Pavilion, Geno Auriemma gobbles down an Italian hoagie and watches a group of underclassmen stumble through a drill involving tennis balls and garbage pails. Freshman Ann Strother, a sleek 6'2" wing, tiptoes over to tell her coach that a certain play "feels awkward." He asks her to show him, then watches in horror as she heads to the key and drop-steps with the wrong foot in the wrong direction. Auriemma ambles out to give Strother a refresher course. Moments later, he returns to the bleachers and sits down to talk about his only returning starter. "Diana is in the most unique position of any UConn player since I've been here," he says. "It's impossibly difficult for her."

The Huskies have always had two stars: Rebecca Lobo and Jen Rizzotti; Nykesha Sales and Kara Wolters; Shea Ralph and Svetlana Abrosimova; and, for last season's 390 run, Sue Bird and the three-headed monster of Swin Cash, Tamika Williams and Asjha Jones. But those last four became first-round WNBA draft picks in April, and now the 20-year-old Taurasi finds herself all alone in the Storrs spotlight. She's the brash leader of a Huskies team jarringly low on experience but perennially high on expectations. She has taken over many games the past two years, but now she has those mammoth hands wrapped around the wheel of a team, a season and a dynasty.

Impossibly difficult? Auriemma knew this day would come from the moment he spotted Taurasi at a Nike camp and noticed how "the ball looked different in her hands." Unique? He predicted she would become UConn's greatest player ever. "She's basketball's equivalent of the five-tool athlete," he says. "And she's the only one with balls big enough to put it all on the line."

Or, in the words of the nation's other five-tool star, Duke's Alana Beard: "With her arrogance, she's Geno on the court."

Taurasi's neon self-assuredness occasionally rubs onlookers the wrong way, but it cements the total package. "She has no fear -- especially relative to most women," Ralph says. "A lot of women will beat themselves. They are afraid to take the next shot. Her favorite shot is her next shot."

Taurasi's limitless energy surges to a Latin beat. Her father, Mario -- a former pro soccer goalie -- met a spunky woman named Liliana after moving from Italy to Argentina (where he played). They married, had a girl named Jessika, then moved to Chino, Calif., where Diana was born. Mario and Lili had three rules for their kids: Be loyal, be happy and be on time for dinner. D describes meals at her Spanish-speaking home as "anarchy." The tube was on; yap flowed like sangria. "It was very loud," Jess says. "Our parents raised us to never be ashamed."

And to never turn sports into a job. Mario didn't follow Diana onto the court with a whistle and a clipboard. She never practiced with her left hand or put herself through ballhandling drills. She just played in whatever game she could find -- down the street against friends, over on Venice Beach against strangers. She dribbled and dished until midnight, then came home and bounced the ball off the walls of her bedroom until (and sometimes after) Mom started yelling. "Growing up, I was a horrible shooter," Taurasi says. "I wanted to be like Magic -- score eight points and dominate."

As a sixth grader, she attracted the attention of a 6'5", 260-pound AAU coach named Lou Zylstra, who remembers that "she had ankles as big as a man's." He convinced her to join up, then quickly got a dose of her free spirit. On the first day of practice, she looked at him and his 270-pound assistant and pronounced, "We may not have the smartest AAU coaches, but we sure have the fattest!"

Taurasi's game was as sharp as her barbs. Her 3,000-plus points as a prep transformed Don Lugo High from an also-ran into a SoCal title contender. Taurasi quickly became the top recruit in the nation. Just as quickly she chose the hottest program in the nation. "What sold me was playing with great players," she says. That and a coach whose Italian heritage gave her a little taste of home. When Auriemma hosted her family during a recruiting visit, he whipped out a bottle of Taurasi wine from the region in Italy where Mario was born.

D was different from the fall-in-line soldiers Geno usually recruited. Ralph and Abrosimova hazed her good, throwing elbows and making her sweat for every shot in practice. Taurasi was unfazed. As a freshman, she launched more than four times as many threes as free throws (184 to 41) and irritated some of the locals who weren't used to girls shooting like Kobe and grinning like Rodman. Auriemma could only shake his head at how Taurasi would rarely look over to the bench for instruction. He called her "uncoachable" and "undisciplined" every day -- to her face. D just laughed. "I'm probably the easiest player he's ever coached," she says. "I'll try anything. Coach gets mad? He'll get over it."

Taurasi had her comeuppance. UConn met Notre Dame in the Final Four, three weeks after No.3 had become the first frosh ever to win MVP at the Big East Championship. Taurasi missed her first seven shots against the Irish, though few noticed as the Huskies entered halftime with a 12-point lead. When Notre Dame rallied, Taurasi kept shooting ... and missing. She clanked all 11 of her three-point attempts, but nothing inside her told her to stop. By the time she fouled out, she'd taken 15 shots and made one. The Irish won by 15 and advanced to the NCAA Final. Taurasi stumbled to the locker room and collapsed in a torrent of tears.

Diana Taurasi
If there's one thing Taurasi doesn't lack -- it's confidence.
But there would be no off-season hand-wringing for Mario and Lili's girl. Diana simply brought her perimeter game inside last season, pulling down 52 more boards and going to the line more than twice as often. In her first big test after the letdown in St. Louis, Taurasi scored 32 against host Tennessee in front of the largest on-campus crowd in women's hoops history. The exclamation point came not with a three but a foul-drawing layup. Taurasi screamed, curled her left hand into a fist and threw it into the basket support. "I just wanted to hit something orange," she said afterward.

Two-and-a-half months later, she punched out the Lady Vols again, scoring 17 in the national semifinals. Two days later, she clinched the Oklahoma game with a three-point play that sent Sooners star Stacey Dales to the bench with her fifth foul -- and Husky Nation into a tizzy.

***

On a cool October day, a soft rain pitter-pats the Connecticut campus. Taurasi, wearing a sweatshirt and no jacket, struts around a corner talking a Husky Blue streak, greeting everyone she passes: "How was that test? ... Good luck this weekend! ... You get your nap on?" She rifles through her many opinions: "I hate movies. I can't sit still. I've only seen one movie this year, and it was Goldmember ... People assume if you're a female athlete, you're gay. Who cares? ... I would never play for a woman. No reason. I'd just rather play for a man ... " As she heads toward Gampel -- the rain falling harder -- she talks about her summer stint as a counselor at Michael Jordan Flight School. "MJ's cool," Taurasi says as she strides down frat row. "Funny guy."

One more story from summer: Camp ends, and Taurasi returns home to Chino. One weekend, an old coach invites her and Jessika over for a barbecue. After the burgers and dogs are gone, they head inside and the coach fires up the VCR. It's a home movie of the Taurasi girls playing in a local tourney. "D must have been 8," Jess later recalls. "She was this tiny little chubby thing. She had her hair in a wave. She had the big ol' feet. She was throwing up shots from halfcourt."

Back in the living room, big sis and the coach bend over laughing. Then they sneak a peak at D, who's anything but embarrassed. Actually, she's laughing harder than they are. "See!" she shrieks. "I was good then. Look at me! Look at me!"

Guess what? Everyone's watching now.

This article will appear in the November 25 issue of ESPN The Magazine.



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