Diana Taurasi is a child of the WNBA.
She was early in her career at Don Lugo High School in Chino, Calif., when the WNBA launched in 1997, building off the momentum of the U.S. women’s basketball dominance at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics.
“I would go to all the games,” said Taurasi, watching not only the Los Angeles Sparks but the Long Beach Stingrays of the short-lived rival American Basketball League. “I went to a preseason game at the Anaheim Pond and (Sacramento Monarchs guard) Ticha Penicheiro came over and talked to me before warmups.
“It was that time when basketball was taking off and going to the next level with (Michael) Jordan and the Dream Team. When the WNBA started, I got to go the Forum to watch women play and not just Nick Van Exel and Eddie Jones. It was a total change of mindset, really.”
A transformation that would set Taurasi on a path that intersected with WNBA history and her past Friday night.
With 15 points at Talking Stick Resort Arena, the 35-year-old Phoenix Mercury guard is now 14 points away from passing Tina Thompson’s spot as the WNBA career-scoring leader. The Mercury beat the Chicago Sky 86-78. Taurasi will have a chance to break the record Sunday in Los Angeles.
Thompson, who held the record for seven years, finished with 7,488 when she retired after the 2013 season.
Taurasi knew of Thompson from her stellar college career at USC that made the 6-2 forward valuable enough to be drafted first overall in the first WNBA draft. The Houston Comets chose Thompson, pairing her with allocated players Cynthia Cooper and Sheryl Swoopes to create a super team that still is the WNBA’s only four-time champion (1997-2000). Taurasi is a three-time champion with the Mercury.
“Not only did Tina hold her own, she gave that team a completely different outlook,” Taurasi said. “She was the one who made them tough. Her grit and grime were unparalleled. She wanted to kill whoever was on the other side. I liked that about her.”
When Taurasi started in the WNBA – like Thompson as the No. 1 overall draft pick – in 2004, Thompson already had scored 3,179 points. By the time Thompson retired, Taurasi already had trimmed the gap between them to 1,302 points, leading the WNBA in scoring five of six years from 2006-11.
After being 2004 U.S. Olympic teammates, Taurasi and Thompson played two Russian seasons together for Spartak, winning the 2007 EuroLeague title. They then again would re-team for another Olympic gold medal in 2008.
“I absolutely love Diana,” said Thompson, now an assistant coach at Texas. “If you ever put me in a situation where I had to decide who to go into battle with, after Cynthia Cooper, Dee would be the next player I’m choosing. You can’t put into fitting words what she’s meant to the game, what she puts into the game, her work ethic, how much doing the best she can to make a team better is at the forefront of her whole thought process. When you look at the game historically, it’s just not normal.”
Thompson followed Taurasi’s three-time NCAA championship career at Connecticut then competed with and against her as pros, duels that included one of most lauded games in WNBA history. Taurasi scored 47 points, then a WNBA record, at Houston in August 2006, a triple-overtime thriller in which Thompson also scored her career high (37).
More important than any single game, though, Taurasi formed a bond with Thompson’s young son Dyllan that both women cherish.
“There was a time when Diana and Sue (Bird) were close to Dyllan than they were with me,” Thompson said. “He learned iPods and how to work them and introduced him the world of tech. I’m forever connected to Diana simply because of him. She was comfortable with this kid coming around and being in her space and welcomed it. It was just as much fun for her as for him.”
Added Taurasi: “He was part of the team. We’d be getting ready in Russia, taping our ankles, and Dyl would be right there playing music for us. We saw him grow up. I remember one of her last games. I’d always go over before every tipoff and give him some dap (hand slaps). I realized he’s not Dyl pickle any more, he’s a grown boy (now 12). When I see videos of him playing AAU now, it’s pretty cool because he’s not only Tina’s son, he’s a nice kid. That’s all because of Tina.”
Taurasi said just hearing Thompson’s name brings back a flood of memories. Passing Thompson extends a string of California high schoolers who became WNBA career scoring leaders (Cooper to Lisa Leslie to Thompson to Taurasi).
“So much of my career intertwined into hers,” Thompson said. “I have no quarrels with her snatching the title from me and carrying it as long as she can.”