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Diana Taurasi Plays Basketball in a Coat of Invincibility Armor

She’s the rare player who can reach lava level, but even the tiniest things the Phoenix Mercury guard does on the court feel big and interesting

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Last month, during the third quarter of the first game of the WNBA season (Phoenix Mercury vs. Dallas Wings), Mercury guard Diana Taurasi did what she’d done 999 times before: She made a 3-pointer. The basket made her the first player in the WNBA to hit 1,000 3s, and so if you add that to her already overwhelming résumé (3x WNBA champion, 2x Finals MVP, 1x league MVP, 9x All-WNBA First Team, 5x league scoring champion, all-time WNBA scoring leader, 4x Olympic gold medalist, more, and more, and more), clearly her place in basketball history as one of its most substantial, most influential figures is secure. There was another thing she did when she made that shot, though, and it’s something she’s done (I’m guessing) about a billion times before: She angrily shouted curse words at the universe.

She bumped into her defender to create a tiny amount of space, ran behind a pick set by Brittney Griner, caught a pass 2 feet behind the 3-point line, pulled up, and that was that. The ball swished through the net because it knew better than to hit the rim, and Taurasi, flames shooting out of her nose, spun around, snarled, and then shouted “MOTHERFUCKER!” at everyone and nobody and everything and nothing. The cameras caught it when it happened and then played it again as the game went to commercial break at the end of the third quarter. Here’s a video of the moment. The quality is bad, but that’s because I recorded it off my TV with my phone when it happened because I thought it was great and funny and intimidating and great:

There’s an obvious brilliance to the way that Maya Moore moves, dribbles, shoots, plays, exists. And Breanna Stewart has clearly been a tidal wave of knives and axes this season. (She is, at the moment, atop Hashtag Basketball’s player power rankings, meaning she has to be in the “Best Player Currently in the League” debate.) And Elena Delle Donne (the Delle Devil), Skylar Diggins-Smith, and Griner have all been devastating as well, as have a handful of other players I’m sure I’m missing. But it’s Taurasi who, for me, has the most gravity, the most pull, the most You Gotta See This. She’s the one I most enjoy watching, cheering for, being terrified of.

It’s the way she super sauces around the court, really. There’s a very distinct Fuck You vibe to it, really. It coats everything she does in what feels like invincibility armor. (It has literally been invincibility armor lately; the Mercury have not lost any of the eight games they’ve played this month.) It makes for a very intriguing overall effect. She sets a pick and it’s interesting. She dribbles up the court and it’s interesting. She conducts a postgame interview and it’s interesting. Even the tiniest things—like the way her arms swing when she’s walking—feel big and interesting, and I know that the way someone’s arms swing when they’re walking could never, in a vacuum, feel big and interesting, but they do when it’s Taurasi, which is the entire point I’m trying to make here.

Here’s a good video. It’s of President Obama saying nice things about the Mercury during their trip to the White House after their 2014 championship:

You can watch the whole thing if you’d like, but I’ve embedded it so that it starts at the 0:55 mark. That’s when Taurasi begins to talk. She presents Obama with his own Mercury jersey, and when you watch her do so make sure to pay attention to two things.

  1. Her hands. There’s zero shake in them as she holds the jersey up. I don’t know why that’s such a big thing to me, but it is. I’m sure you could take it and use it as a way to explain how Taurasi lives above nervousness, or maybe to say something about how there’s no situation at all that could ever swallow her up, or possibly to argue that Taurasi’s hands don’t shake because the circuitry inside of her basketball-terminator body would never allow such a thing to happen. But I don’t know. I’d just be guessing.
  2. This quote: “On behalf of the Phoenix Mercury and the WNBA, we wanna give you a 2014 WNBA championship jersey. … It’s an XL.” That’s what she says to Obama as she hands him the jersey. Watch it in the seconds immediately after she says that the jersey is an XL. There’s a wink and a pause in there that she does that really elevates the exchange to high art. (The very best thing is to watch all the faces behind her, each one lighting up just a little bit more than they already were as they realize the joke that Taurasi’s just made.)

Here’s another good video (even though probably it’s a bad video). This one is from a game between the Liberty and the Mercury two years ago where Taurasi (and Griner) got ejected after picking up two technical fouls.

There was a day a couple of weeks ago when I spent an hour or two watching a lot of the Taurasi videos on YouTube. There are a bunch of different highlight videos on there, for example, and also there’s one that’s a compilation of different Taurasi interviews all stitched together, and also there’s one where a player (Seimone Augustus) gets in Taurasi’s face during an altercation in a playoff game and Taurasi responds by kissing her on the cheek, which is probably the second-best way any sports figure has ever responded to someone getting in their face during a playoff game, losing out only to that time Brad Marchand licked Ryan Callahan during the NHL playoffs last month. (The Taurasi-Augustus clip is one of my favorites for any number of reasons, the best of which being Taurasi asking “What’d I do?” after they were both called for a foul.)

The one above, however—the one of her getting Big Mad and then getting ejected and then getting Bigger Madder—stands out. It’s how vicious she is when barks at the ref after getting tossed out that does it. She looks like angry lava, is what she looks like. There are a bunch of different versions of basketball players that I enjoy—the Indisputable Gods, the Never-Say-Die Underdogs, the Cult Heroes, etc.—but it’s the ones who can reach that lava level that are the most appealing to me.

Here’s one last video of Taurasi, and it’s this one that is certainly the most meaningful, and definitely the most encapsulating:

What’s happening here is this is the final game of the 2014 WNBA championship. The Mercury and the Chicago Sky are tied with under 23 seconds to go in the game. Taurasi is holding the ball up near the half-court line waiting to attack, which she does at the nine-second mark of the shot clock. She dribbles to her right, gets juuuuuuust enough of her shoulder in front of her defender to know that if she stops and pulls up to shoot her defender won’t be able to do much of anything beyond foul her, and so of course that’s exactly what happens. Taurasi hits the brakes, pulls up, absorbs the contact from the defender, hears the whistle, lets the shot go, and then watches it splash in for an and-1 opportunity (which she’d complete a minute or so later). You get all of the best parts of Taurasi in the clip. You get:

  • A sense of her overall legacy in basketball. Each of the commentators take turns alluding to it, the first yelling, “DIANA TAURASI HAS HER BENCH JUMPING UP AND DOWN BECAUSE SHE DOES WHAT SHE ALWAYS HAS: COMING THROUGH IN THE CLUTCH IN AN ACROBATIC WAY!” and then the second saying, “That’s the kind of a shot that a winner takes and a winner makes.”
  • A sense of her desire to chase down the biggest, most massive moments. Taurasi never even considered passing. She knew that if she scored there, the Mercury would (in all likelihood) go on to win the championship. She wanted that responsibility. She needed that responsibility. (And what’s more, she did so on the road.) (My favorite tiny thing about the video is there’s a guy walking along the bottom of the screen holding a DEFENSE sign. He’s walking along the edge as Taurasi is making her move, and he disappears out of the frame as the ball drops into the basket. I like to imagine that, as the shot went in, he just kept walking right on out of the stadium like, “Man, fuck this shit.”)
  • A sense of her willingness to let everyone everywhere know what she was feeling and thinking. As soon as the shot goes in, Taurasi, same as in that clip of her after she’d hit her 1,000th 3, shouts a bunch of obscenities at everyone and nobody and everything and nothing as she slaps herself across the chest over and over again.

A couple of weeks ago, I emailed the Phoenix Mercury hoping to set up an interview with Taurasi to talk about various things. This past Friday afternoon, a PR person from the team called me and then handed her the phone after I said hello. I asked her specifically about who she was shouting at in that first clip after she’d made her 1,000th 3, and I also asked her generally who she was shouting at in all of her clips because it seemed to me that she was always shouting at someone in her clips.

She said that, not counting the referees, she’s rarely yelling at another player on the court.

Mostly, she’s yelling at herself, she said.

I’m not sure if that’s more or less intimidating. But I do know that it’s interesting.