It’s been a long time since Diana Taurasi needed to talk her walk. Or even question her place in the women’s basketball pantheon.
Less than a decade ago, though, she was less certain of her ceiling or her place even given credentials that already were Hall of Fame worthy.
During a dinner at Geno Auriemma’s home before the 2010 World Championships, talking life in the wine cellar, Auriemma pressed Taurasi on her ultimate goal. It was a question perhaps only Auriemma, who advanced Taurasi from high school prodigy to college’s best player, could ask with expectation of an honest answer.
Seattle Storm guard Sue Bird, who also played under Auriemma at Connecticut, explains: “Coach is the one person who Diana really listens to and respects and can really get to her on a deeper level. And he’s one of the few people in this world who can also call her a (expletive) head and put her in her place.”
So Taurasi told Auriemma what he no doubt already knew but wanted to hear directly from her: I want to be the best in the world.
“I would never say that out loud to anyone,” Taurasi admits today. “That’s such an irrelevant opinion about myself. But I said it to him for whatever reason.”
Auriemma’s response: I’m going to hold you to that. He did that in act two of their partnership, at the 2012 and ’16 Olympics and 2010 and ’14 World Championships.
Seven years later, with 35-year-old Taurasi just 29 points away from becoming the WNBA career scoring leader, there is a consensus agreement of the Phoenix Mercury guard’s status as the greatest in the game’s still-adolescent history.
For the scoring record alone, which could come Friday at home against the Chicago Sky, Taurasi has needed less than 13 full seasons to catch Tina Thompson, whose 7,488 points came over 17 seasons. If it requires two more games for the record, the mark would be set Sunday in Los Angeles, near where Taurasi grew up in Chino, Calif.
“I’m ready for it to happen and for us as a team to move forward,” says Taurasi, who scored 37 against Chicago on June 1.
Here’s how a myriad of other accomplishments can best be encapsulated as Taurasi would prefer. She’s played – starred, to be honest – on teams that have won 18 major championships (4 Olympics, 2 World, 3 WNBA, 6 EuroLeague, 3 NCAA).
Sandy Brondello, who coaches Taurasi for the Mercury and in Russia, believes any list of the world’s top 100 athletes should have room for that caliber of champion.
“She’s just changed the game, really,” Brondello says. “There’s no better shooter than her. I don’t think she’s recognized as much as she should be. These records really don’t mean anything to her. It’s all about winning. But hopefully, when she looks back, she’ll realize what she’s achieved.”
Taurasi is not immune to emotions of the moment. When she made her 907th career 3-pointer June 1 to pass Katie Smith as the WNBA’s career leader (she also made eight 3s that night to tie her league record), it dawned on her, “That’s a big number. Katie was a monster. Tina was a monster. The amazing thing now is we can say we have two or three Mount Rushmores of amazing basketball players.”
A monument to scoring consistency, Taurasi has never averaged less than 16 points in a full WNBA season. She led the league in scoring in 2006 (career high 25.3 ppg) and 2008-11 and highlighted her versatility by leading in total assists in 2013 and assists per game in 2014. Her 47-point game against Houston in 2006 – when she dueled with Thompson, who scored a career-high 37, into three overtimes – still is tied for the third-highest in league history.
“There wasn’t much question in anyone’s mind if she was going to hit these numbers and break these records,” Bird says. “The most impressive thing is even at 35, she’s still the best player in the world and playing at such a high level. The story is not going to be that she broke the records. The story’s going to be that she smashed them and will anybody ever gets to those numbers.”
Auriemma echoes Bird: “Obviously Diana deserves all the credit in the world. For one, how quickly she has accomplished this remarkable feat. I’m so happy for her and proud to see her accomplish this. She has been consistently great year after year and not at the expense of her team’s goals. She’s done it in a way that all the good players want to do it, by winning championships, being a great teammate and being the best player she can be.”
If Taurasi plays through 2020 without a major drop-off, she could finish with close to 10,000 career points. That might be her secret goal, untold to even Auriemma. The only current player anywhere near that pace is Elena Delle Donne, who at 27 has 2,345 points in her fifth WNBA season.
Thompson passed Lisa Leslie for the WNBA career scoring lead in 2010, so she’s had a seven-year run. Taurasi’s scoring reign could be much longer if Delle Donne can’t make any appreciable inroad until after turning 30.
“It’s intoxicating because you can really want to keep going,” says Taurasi, who could become the second U.S. woman to play in five Olympics in 2020. “I’ve never done it for numbers.”
Instead, Taurasi nods at the Mercury’s three WNBA championship banners.
“There’s one team with four (Houston) and a couple with three (Phoenix, Minnesota, Los Angeles),” she says. “That’s the most important thing to this franchise right now. I think we’re on our way.”
Chicago Sky at Phoenix Mercury
When: 7 p.m. Friday.
Where: Talking Stick Resort Arena.
TV: NBA TV.
Mercury: The Mercury (5-4) lost 89-87 to Los Angeles on Sunday, their second two-point loss with G Diana Taurasi out due to suspension in the first of those. They also lost in the season opener on the day after Taurasi’s wedding. G Danielle Robinson sprained an ankle during practice Tuesday and was held out Wednesday but is expected to play. Phoenix beat Chicago 99-91 on June 1 with Taurasi scoring 37 and C Brittney Griner 28.
Sky: The Sky (2-7) is coming off an 85-81 overtime win at San Antonio that broke a five-game losing streak. C Stefanie Dolson scored 25 points, F Tamera Young 21 and G Allie Quigley had nine of her 16 in overtime. Young is averaging 14.1 points and Dolson 13.2.
WNBA career scoring leader progression
x-Cynthia Cooper (1997-2000) 2,601 points
Lisa Leslie (1997-2009) 6,263 points, passed Cooper in 2001
Tina Thompson (1997-2013) 7,488 points, passed Leslie in 2010
Diana Taurasi (2004-current) 7,460 points, 29 points away from passing Thompson
x-includes 64 points in 2003
Tina Thompson/Diana Taurasi
1997: 370 points/X
1998: 342 points/X
1999: 391 points/X
2000: 540 points/X
2001: 579 points/X
2002: 485 points/X
2003: 472 points/X
2004: 520 points/578
2005: 152 points/527
2006: 392 points/860
2007: 639 points/613
2008: 542 points/820
2009: 441 points/631
2010: 548 points/702
2011: 338 points/692
2012: 258 points/112
2013: 479 points/651
Total: 7,488 points (15.1 ppg)/7,460 (19.9 ppg)
Note: Taurasi played in eight games in 2012 due to injury and sat out 2015. Thompson played in 15 games in 2005 after giving birth to her son and retired after 2013.