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Mercury star Diana Taurasi bounces back

Diana Taurasi, the best player in the WNBA, says she went 'into hiding' after she was told she had failed a doping test in Turkey last year. But the test results turned out to be an error, and Taurasi is back on the court again with the Phoenix Mercury, which faces the Sparks on Friday.

June 09, 2011|By Diane Pucin
  • Phoenix Mercury's Diana Taurasi complains to an official about a call in favor of the Seattle Storm on June 4.
Phoenix Mercury's Diana Taurasi complains to an official about a… (Elaine Thompson / Associated…)

It was as if Diana Taurasi had stepped through a wildly unpredictable looking glass.

Last December, the women's basketball star received a phone call from her team in Turkey telling her she had failed a doping test, and right then and there Taurasi's life began feeling as if it weren't her own.

Modafinil was the name of the drug she had allegedly ingested. It was a stimulant. And how did Taurasi know that? Only, she says, by looking it up on Google.

Before that, she didn't know what it was. All she was sure of was that she hadn't taken the drug, notoriously misused by college students to stay awake.

Next, it was her older sister, Jessika Skillern, who was scrambling to Google. During a telephone call, "D said she failed a test for Modafinil and I thought it was a disease," Skillern recently recalled. "I thought my sister was going to die from Modafinil."

No, but her career was in jeopardy.

Within a couple of weeks, her team, Fenerbahce, fired Taurasi.

It was time to fight back. First, Taurasi hired a lawyer. Then, trying to clear her name, she took a lie detector test — and passed.

After about three months, Taurasi received a text message that her failed drug test was a mistake. Last month, the laboratory that handled her test received a six-month suspension by the World Anti-Doping Agency. It won't be testing any more Olympic hopefuls for at least that long.

Vindicated but still stained by the ordeal, Taurasi is back to being the best player in the WNBA. In a homecoming for the Chino native, she will be playing for the Phoenix Mercury on Friday night against the Sparks at Staples Center.

It was Chino where Taurasi went as, she calls it, "into hiding" after the failed drug test. There, she cried with her mom, Lili, dad, Mario, and her sister. She distracted herself by playing with her nephews, Leyton (named after tennis player Lleyton Hewitt), and Landon (named after the soccer star, Donovan).

Taurasi, a guard who is in her seventh year in the WNBA, has career averages of 20.7 points, 4.5 rebounds and 4.1 assists a game. She scored 31 points in Phoenix's season-opening loss to defending league champion Seattle last week. She has gold medals from both the world championships and Olympics. She's been WNBA player of the year once and a league all-star four times.

Her fellow University of Connecticut alum Maya Moore, who now plays for the WNBA's Minnesota Lynx, said Taurasi is "the best player in the world."

Whenever she can, Taurasi practices against men.

After the Mercury finished a workout this week, Mykael Wright, who played high school basketball in Illinois, tested himself and Taurasi. Wright is 6 feet 6, 200 pounds. Taurasi is 6 feet and weighs about 175.

"I've played dudes in the NBA," Wright said. "She's the most complete player I've seen on a court. I knew she'd be good. I've got about 25 pounds on her and she sets such a solid screen, I have to go around it. I can't go through it. She's a great shooter; she has a pump fake; she's an underrated passer. She's the best around."

As good as she is, the 2012 Olympics were almost taken from her.

The said-to-be-failed test was "the lowest point of my sister's life," Skillern said. "My mom cried. My dad was angry. How could a mistake like that happen? Not once did we think Diana had done it.

"Look, she's not a saint, but more than anything Diana loves basketball. The one thing she would not do is jeopardize her chance to play basketball. When she thought that was going to be gone, she was so depressed."

When Skillern said Taurasi wasn't a saint, she was referring to a 2009 DUI Taurasi got in Scottsdale, Ariz. It was a mistake Taurasi didn't try to deny or hide from.

"I did it, it was terribly wrong, I embarrassed my team and my family and myself," Taurasi said. "I learned from it too. I totally grew up."

Ann Meyers Drysdale, Phoenix's general manager, credited Taurasi with maturity in her behavior. "She didn't shirk her responsibility with the DUI," Drysdale said, "and she fought the doping charge the right way."

And if Taurasi fears sometimes that her reputation will never be totally cleared, it's at least heading in the right direction.

Thursday it was announced that Taurasi will be the first WNBA player to join LeBron James, Chris Paul, Mike Miller, Devin Harris, Brandon Bass, Jameer Nelson, Chris Bosh and Thaddeus Young in a program called Hoop Heroes. The goal is to raise money for after-school programs for at-risk children.

"I guess they must think I'm OK," Taurasi said. "That's what matters now."

diane.pucin@latimes.com

twitter.com/mepucin

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