"Yeah. That's right."
That day in October four years ago, Geno waited at Bradley International Airport for Diana's plane to come. She'd had the luxury of living in a universe far different from the one he had lived in. Four decades had passed since little Geno had walked off the boat. If there was any anti-Italian prejudice in the California Diana had grown up in, she wouldn't have allowed herself to notice. Geno was hardly surprised. His own three kids—two girls and a boy—don't have a clue about the insecurity he suffered, the sneering prejudice. Dago. Greaseball. All around us now, after all, are Italian clothes, Italian food, Italian wine. Charming Italian men, gorgeous Italian women. The world has come to love all things Italian. Ciao. Va bene. One of Geno's favorite players, Meg Pattyson (class of '92), came to him. "You'll never guess," she said. "I'm in love with a guinea." He hugged her. "It's about time you got smart," he said. Forza Italia!
Anyway, coaches had never seen anyone like Diana Taurasi. She never doubted herself, never expressed any trepidation. The first time Geno saw her she was at an all-star camp, only a sophomore but clearly the best player there. He never coveted a player so much in his life. All this and paisan, too. But would a Southern California girl go cross-country, Backeast, to a campus at a crossroads named Storrs in the middle of some farmland in northeastern Connecticut?
Not only that, but there was also Diana's mother to contend with. The last tiling Lili Taurasi wanted was for her baby to move 3,000 miles away. Geno was well aware what a formidable obstacle Lili posed. "You know," he says, "that stereotype about the tough Italian father who slams his fist down and everything runs his way is wrong. Italians have real strong mother figures."
Except that Geno on the recruiting beat is a formidable presence. Not for nothing does Auriemma mean golden gem. Jamelle Elliott, one of his assistants, remembers when she was a high school prospect in 1992 and saw him coming to recruit her, strutting through her tough neighborhood in Washington, D.C. "Geno was the only white guy—the only one—I'd ever seen come down my street, and he just walked in as if he'd been there 10 times before."
Diana says, "I know this will irritate a lot of coaches, so I never said it then, but I wanted to play for a man. Anyway, Geno was different from all the other coaches. He'd tell me things that were real. And 99 percent of it was true."
Auriemma helps clarify this. "You know what I do better than most anyone?" he asks. "I deal with women. And the way I do it is to tell them exactly what I think. I don't think they're used to that from men."
When he was recruiting Diana, one of the most sought-after high school player in the history of women's basketball, he told her that basically she was full of it. "No matter what she said to me, I didn't believe it," Geno says. "I said to her, 'Look, I've already lived your life. I didn't have the talent, but I lived it, growing up. Your parents have no idea, do they?' See, I conned my parents. Report card? They never saw mine, because they didn't know a kid brought report cards home. My mother never set a foot in school. I said, 'Diana, it's not my parents' fault they didn't know. They just didn't have a frame of reference for what it's like to grow up in America. The same with your parents. So I know who you are, and I know that's exactly why you're going to come to Connecticut because I know you know you've missed the kind of structure and discipline you can get there.' "
Diana didn't let on, but she thought, I want to play with the best. I want to be a lot better, and who can help me? Coach Auriemma is the only one who has the nerve to challenge me.
Another time Geno told her, "You know, Diana, you have a good chance to be the best player there ever was." She replied only, "I just wanna win." Geno liked that, so he let it go.