Diana Taurasi keeps doing astounding things, and Connecticut keeps winning basketball games, and everywhere the junior guard goes she hears the same thing. You play like a man. Which leads to a question: Does she take that as a compliment?
On a recent evening Taurasi is driving her well-traveled 2000 Ford Explorer with fellow junior guard Morgan Valley along the winding and dark roads of Storrs, Conn., heading out on a rare night off. It is just five days after the pulsating, nationally televised game against Tennessee in which Taurasi sank a 60-foot shot at the end of the first half, buried a three-pointer to force a tie in regulation and scored the winning points in overtime, giving No. 2 UConn its 51st straight victory, three shy of the NCAA women's record set by Louisiana Tech in the early 1980s. For games and practices Taurasi's every hair is plastered back tight and held in a softball of a bun, locked into position with a quarter bottle of Rave. But now her hair is down, long and straight and shiny, like the hair in an ad for a shampoo.
"Whaddya think, Mo?" Taurasi asks Valley. "Somebody says, 'You play like a man.' Compliment?"
Mo knows. She knows that Taurasi's childhood heroes were MJ and Magic, not Cynthia Cooper, not Lisa Leslie. She knows Taurasi claims to have read only one book first page to last—Wooden: A Lifetime of Observations and Reflections On and Off the Court, by John Wooden. She knows that Taurasi came from the town of Chino, in sunny Southern California, to the icy Storrs campus not because she wanted to follow in the footsteps of the great Lady Huskies who helped bring two national championships to UConn before she got there but because in the cozy Nutmeg State, Huskies basketball is Showtime, for the men's and women's teams.
Valley, a shy Vermonter, raises her voice above the rap on the car radio and says, "When they say, 'D plays like a dude,' that's the ultimate."
"You got it, Mo," Taurasi says. "You might get some girlie-girl who says, 'You play like a man,' like they're saying, 'Why don't you play in skirts anymore?' Please. You tell me I play like a man, and I'll tell you, 'Hey, thanks.' The best players in the world are men, so why wouldn't you want to play like them?"
The quality Taurasi shares most with, say, Michael Jordan is that she hates to lose. For good or for bad she turns games into wars. You can't readily see it, because she masks her attitude with Magic Johnson's joie de basketball. Still, chances are good that you will lose to Diana Taurasi in H-O-R-S-E, or in arm wrestling, or in John Madden 2003 PlayStation football. Pretty much, you're not going to beat her at anything. Connecticut is 85-3 since Taurasi's arrival in the fall of 2000.
In the light of a parking lot you can see a few fine scars on her long face, legacies of a childhood spent outdoors. Her father, Mario, a machinist, was born in Italy and raised in Argentina. Her mother, Liliana, a Sizzler's waitress, was born and raised in Argentina. Diana was born in California. Her Spanish, the language of her parents' home, is fluent. Her English is relentless.
"I'm not saying some of these men are the smartest guys in the world," she says. "You got some guy, he's not even starting on his college team and he's like, 'I'm going League.' 'Oh, yeah—the NBA is just wait-in' on you.' Ridiculous confidence. But then the girls are just the opposite. Some girl will say to me, 'Your shot is so perfect, what camps did you go to learn it?' "
Taurasi's in-traffic jumper is textbook: elbows in, shoulders square, hands high, John Wooden stuff. "Camps? No camps," she says. "Driveway basketball, playing against the boys, watching Magic and Michael."