Last September during Game 2 of the WNBA Western Conference Finals, I opened up a file and titled it "Why I love Diana Taurasi" with the Phoenix Mercury up 12 points at home with 3:21 left in the game against the mighty Seattle Storm.
I never intended to actually publish anything with that title, but in the moment those were pretty much the only words that entered my mind.
Taurasi had just hit an absolutely ridiculous fast break three pointer off of one foot over Seattle Storm guard Sue Bird. Having also drawn contact in the process, Taurasi turned to the ref with her hands up to ask where's the foul call? - sort of reminiscent of Michael Jordan's shrug in Game 1 of the 1992 Finals - and then flashed a justifiably cocky smile on camera during a Swin Cash free throw attempt on the other end.
I started furiously typing the gushing words of a fan boy because it looked like Taurasi had just stuck a knife in the Storm twisted, and repeated with the smile. It only reinforced my belief prior to the game that Taurasi wasn't the type of player to allow her team to lose after shooting 2-for-15 in Game One in Seattle. It was the same feeling I felt when Taurasi's Mercury had the Storm down by 18 in Seattle at halftime back in July. It was the same feeling I had about her being the run to ruin the Storm's undefeated season at home. And the same feeling I had before the season: as long as Taurasi was on the floor, I struggled to count the Phoenix Mercury out of repeating as WNBA champions in 2010.
Of course, the previous paragraph only serves as further evidence of just how irrational I am about Taurasi: the Mercury ended up losing that Western Conference Finals game after an equally spectacular comeback by the Storm, the Mercury ended up losing that game in July after a dominant second half comeback in July, and of course, the Storm continued to roll to the 2010 WNBA title with an unblemished home record.
It's almost ironic that someone covering a team as dominant as the Storm would maintain an unabiding faith in one individual to single-handedly win games despite consistently disconfirming evidence at the hands of a team. Taurasi is just the type of competitor that either engenders faith or deep hatred - it's hard to simply be neutral about any player who throws trick shots into the basket in a conference finals situation and then has the nerve to ask for a foul.
Coincidentally, University of Washington men's basketball coach and former NBA player Lorenzo Romar distinguished between "competing" and "playing hard" when talking about Pac-10 Player of the Week Isaiah Thomas yesterday that perfectly describes what I mean when I say Taurasi is a "competitor".
"I think he's really settled in to getting lost in these games and just going out there trying to win," said Romar during a media conference yesterday when asked about Thomas' will to win. "The play he made against Arizona where he dives in the tunnel and slides, saves the ball and gets back - a lot of guys would've just dove, saved the ball and just laid down a little bit. He was so into that game competing - that's the difference, we tell our guys, between playing hard and competing. The guy that plays hard, sometimes he dives for the ball and he can't possibly get it, throws it up and the team's going the other way and it's just 5 on 4. He competed: he got the ball, got it to his teammate, he got up, came down, some guys would say, 'Now I deserve to shoot this.' He passed the ball to another guy. That's competing - that's getting lost in the game."
I know that Taurasi's playful bravado on the court or smiling into the camera annoys a lot of WNBA fans - for those that expect a female athlete to be sugar, spice, and everything nice, Taurasi might seem like a big bad wolf that blows your house down and then asks if you were cold last night just for kicks.
But I saw that play differently.
Although Taurasi's statement that she is indeed guilty of taking too many shots seems to stand in stark contrast to Romar's laudatory words about a competitor passing up a shot he might have deserved, what I see in Taurasi is someone lost in the game and taking great joy in every moment of it. That's what I see in the trash talk, "dirty plays", and the willingness to come to the defense of her teammates when necessary - someone truly lost in the game and seeking every path possible to victory. It's not really about humiliating her opponents, it's about the playful banter inherent in a back and forth game like basketball that is quite honestly a large part of what draws me in - it's not personal, it's strictly business.
I watch my fair share of basketball at all levels - college and pro, men's and women's, and even the occasional elementary school rec league game - and the reason for my faith in Taurasi is that she is, "as competitive and dedicated to her sport as anyone, anywhere" as Seth Pollack wrote over at SBN Arizona when news of Taurasi's positive drug test first broke back in December. You don't have to be a women's basketball fan to appreciate what Taurasi does - it's a matter of appreciating what it means to be considered as possibly the most competitive athlete in no matter what sport you play.
And you simply don't count players like that out of a game no matter what the evidence tells you.
So needless to say, she's one of the most captivating athletes in sports right now for those that bother to pay even minimal attention to women's basketball so I can feel some people's blind faith in Taurasi.
It's just that at some point Taurasi fans demonstrated a level of defensiveness that made my faith in her on-court performances look rational.
A lot of Taurasi fans took offense to healthy skepticism and suspending judgment about the situation as a direct attack on Taurasi's character because they found the thought of their hero cheating unfathomable. They questioned whether WADA was correct in even having Modafinil on its banned substance list. Yet as the Hartford Courant's Jeff Jacobs wrote today, "I would argue many UConn women's fans steadfastly believed in Taurasi not as much out of naiveté as in the trust that someone who has demonstrated such unconditional love for the game would never take the short cut to fake that unconditional love." Fine, fair enough and those people are rejoicing today in a sort of I told you so bliss.
At the same time, on the day after prosecutors got what Craig Calcaterra called "an evidenciary win" in the Barry Bonds steroid case, it's hard to ignore the track record on these types of cases, again deferring to Pollack.
Taurasi Cleared By Turkish Basketball Federation - SB Nation Arizona
When is the last time you can recall an athlete failing a doping test like this and then being cleared completely? I can't recall one instance. On the other hand, there are countless cases of denials being proven false after an extended legal process that, years later, ends in a sorrowful admission of guilt.
A friend of mine has even rationalized using performance-enhancing drugs as something that shouldn't surprise us anymore given our current celebrity media climate: these athletes are among the most competitive people in the world, they're always looking for an edge - whether it be mental, physical, or working the refs into getting favorable calls - and given all the scrutiny of their performance and criticism when they fail. If we put pressure on them to perform, he reasons, why wouldn't they take performance-enhancing drugs?
And yet what history also tells us, is that innocence or guilt in this situations almost never hinges on our relatively detached assumptions about an athlete's character or my irrational belief that they can win every game they play.
When Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa were captivating the nation by hitting all of those homeruns in 1998, I can't recall one person dismissing either person's accomplishment due to suspicion of doping - and as a Bay Area native, I remember the smaller McGwire before he became Big Mac. Instead, we made those guys living legends. Likewise - and perhaps to an even greater extent - nobody was expecting Marion Jones to be accused of anything when she won all those gold medals. Part of what made the Jones situation so shocking is that there was even less reason to believe that someone with such a sparkling record of success and such a wholesome image would have any reason to use a banned substance.
For me, it was almost precisely because of all of these doping situations seemingly coming out of nowhere that I was at once disappointed and hopeful for Taurasi - neither faith in them as national heroes nor the "concrete" historical facts abut their character mattered in the face of these charges. Yet, my impulse to suspend judgment about this situation until all the facts were clear and investigation was complete was never about me doubting Taurasi's character, regardless of some people's assumption that a cocky, trash-talking woman with a DUI charge on her record made a doping case make sense. Our assumptions of character never seem to matter in these cases.
That said - and it might come off as somewhat cold - I was also hopeful because of what losing Taurasi might have meant to the WNBA (and thus the ongoing development of women's basketball) moreso than any sort of character assassination. I won't go as far as saying Taurasi is "the face of the league" in the mainstream, but when I try to convince a basketball fan of the merits of watching the WNBA, I start with Taurasi. Her particular combination as a competitor of bravado, talent, and killer instinct is almost impossible not to appreciate for a basketball fan. While it would undoubtedly be a blow to the Phoenix Mercury to lose her, it also would have been a loss to the league to have the player that shatters most preconceived notions about women's basketball players to suddenly be labeled a cheater.
Of course, given the way that the WNBA is covered, the fact that a doping case has become a big mainstream story with "Taurasi the DUI Criminal" at the center of it will unquestionably leave a stain on her and the league. And those that hated her will continue to engage in unsubstantiated character assassination and those that continue to unreasonably deify her as infallible will righteously defend her from all attacks.
But part of fully appreciating what she has accomplished is embracing the very complex human reality that we know she's capable of losing, but still has the capacity to bounce back and beat the odds again. That's an impressive testament to human resilience off the court - even if the average person is rarely afforded such grace - embodied in today's "lesser" WNBA story of Marion Jones signing a multi-year contract with the WNBA's Tulsa Shock in her second chance after disgrace. Sometimes people take hard knocks and they deserve the kind of gracious respect we all wish for ourselves rather than vitriol or deification.
Yet asserting that anything the average fan knows about her on the court is somehow related to her character off the court is loose logic, at best.
So what I would hope for now is that with Taurasi being cleared of all doping charges, we can get back to more authentically appreciating who she is as a competitor. On the court, bouncing back is just what competitors are expected to do even as the evidence mounts against them. And it's not like a brief period of doubt as to when we'd see her play again will suddenly shake my faith in her if all those losses to the Storm didn't. It's part of what makes Taurasi the Competitor so captivating even if that really had little bearing on our assumptions about innocence or guilt.