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The Other Cult of Diana

These Girls Don't Just Play Basketball. They Live It. Just Like Their Slick-Haired Goddess.

August 22, 2004|SUSAN STRAIGHT | Susan Straight last wrote for the magazine about fruit trees.

Here they come, the baller girls, keeping sharp eyes on their deity of the crossover dribble and the long shorts and the fearless no-look pass. Legions of them follow her slicked-back hair, her come-on-now smile, her unnerving vision scanning the court. Diana Taurasi is an icon to them, with a religious devotion to her sport and a charismatic style rare in a Women's National Basketball Assn. player--a combination that ineluctably makes people want to follow her. To be her.

Baller girls. Even as other female athletes, the Williams sisters and Maria Sharapova and another basketball hero, Lisa Leslie, trade on their femininity, these girls are just about the sport. They don't do curls or hair bands or lip gloss; they are girls who say, "I'm about ball, OK?" Like Diana.

They watch the 2000 movie "Love & Basketball" on video again and again, waiting for the part when star guard Sanaa Lathan says to her star guard boyfriend, "I'm a ballplayer." And when males on playgrounds and gyms watch females play the game, they make distinctions as well: "Check her out, she's ballin," they'll say, to indicate that the girl is not just a casual player. Baller girls don't fool around. They wear heavy sweatshirts with Love & Basketball logos (from the movie) or Love and Hoops, another brand. Before games, they wear sport socks and Nike slides. They shuffle in casually, watching the gym. They wear logo sweatbands at their forearms and shorts past the knee, skirting the patella, the kneecap so fragile. Baller girls get hurt more these days, because they play differently, and they take the ball to the hoop rather than settle for the outside shot.

They are good enough to play against guys, but it's their own teams they love fiercely, whether school or club. Lady Warriors. Superflow. Outlaws. Swift. Shooters. At huge tournaments, they file in wearing headphones, like Diana wears all the time. They're listening to their signature song, "Lyte as a Rock," by MC Lyte: "Do you understand the metaphoric phrase 'lyte as a rock'? It's explaining how heavy the young lady is . . . . Get out of my face, don't wanna hear no more, if you hate rejection, don't try to score. . ."

They've come a long way. A 1910 photo of a high school girls basketball team in Louisiana shows young women in long black skirts, black blouses, hair in pouffed buns. Even as late as the 1960s, girls had to play by different rules: The number of times they could dribble was restricted, and only the girl playing the rover position was allowed to move at will. Male audiences were unimpressed.

Today the girls study the players to perfect their head fakes; they lie in bed and flick the ball toward the ceiling a hundred times a night. Their uniform is white tanks or T-shirts with the sleeves cut off. This is not a fashion show. They take their hoop earrings out. They adjust the spandex shorts under their long shorts. (They shake their heads at girls who wear baller clothes to school and on the street, girls who never play. They suck their teeth. It's not just a look, they say, folding their arms.)

They put on their indoor-court shoes at the baseline while staring down the other teams, but they aren't rude. Diana isn't rude. They are just figuring out how to break the defense, run the offense. That's what Diana does. And when she meets her fans, she says, "Hey, you! What team you playin' on? Moreno Valley Canyon Springs! Norco! Riverside Poly! That's out my way!" She leans forward and asks, "How's your league? Don't you have a great shooter on your team? What's that one guard's name?"

She started out in Chino, at Don Lugo High School, and the player she watched while developing her own style was Magic Johnson. Not because she wanted to play like him; she liked his intensity, his emotion, his passing. "Everything he did was about energy and teamwork. He loved the game. He just brought passion to the court." At home, her family ate Argentine food and spoke Spanish; in gyms, players would study her and ask, "What are you--Mexican? Brazilian?"

Diana would laugh and say, "Argentinean-Italian." Then she would walk onto the court to begin, and nothing mattered. "I've always looked like this--hair up, just shorts and a shirt, and I don't care, let's play. I started in the third grade. I played every single day, whether I had to play by myself in the driveway or walk to the park and find someone."

Taurasi took her smile and style to the University of Connecticut and became a national figure not only for her three-point shot and laser-like passes, but again, for the way she looked and the way she displayed her love. Hundreds of young girls, at UConn games and at summer camps and tournaments, would show up with the bun and shorts. "It's great not just for me, but in general. Kids who aren't the typical players, who speak Spanish or who look different--you know, I relate to everybody."

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