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September 12, 2011
No one loves the game more than the Mercury guard, a leading contender for WNBA MVP, but even she didn't understand what hoops meant to her until a string of harrowing events threatened to derail her career
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September 12, 2011

The Trials Of Diana Taurasi

No one loves the game more than the Mercury guard, a leading contender for WNBA MVP, but even she didn't understand what hoops meant to her until a string of harrowing events threatened to derail her career

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Her living almost unraveled two summers ago, in the midst of her most decorated season as a professional. In the early morning of July 2, hours after a home win over Western Conference rival Seattle, Taurasi, who was driving three companions and leading a small caravan of cars from a nightclub to the Phoenician Hotel, was pulled over for speeding and erratic driving. When the officer smelled alcohol, he gave her several field sobriety tests and, eventually, a blood test, which revealed a blood alcohol level of 0.17, more than twice the legal limit of .08. She was cited for DUI, extreme DUI and speeding. Eventually the extreme DUI and speeding charges were dropped, and her 10-day jail sentence was reduced to 24 hours. But because Taurasi is one of the few household names in the sport, her arrest was headline news.

"That was tough," she says. "I went through the stages of grief: Why me? Everyone drives drunk! But after I put it in perspective, I realized that was probably the best thing that ever happened to me. I changed a lot after that. I don't drink and drive, that's the biggest thing." After a two-game suspension imposed by the team, Taurasi led the Mercury to its second title in three seasons and won her first MVP award, averaging 22.3 points and 5.8 rebounds in the playoffs.

Before departing for a fourth season with Spartak, Taurasi served her DUI sentence. It wasn't Tent City, Phoenix's notorious outdoor jail, but spending a full day behind bars made her realize that "once you make a mistake and put the control of your life in someone else's hands, it's scary," she says.

No scarier than what would happen a few weeks later. After taking a brief vacation in Israel with Kalmanovic and his daughters, Lia and Daniella, Taurasi flew to Moscow. On Nov. 2 she and a few teammates went to Kalmanovic's office to pick up Beyoncé concert tickets. His door was shut. "His door was always open, whether he was there or not," says Taurasi. "We all knew something wasn't right."

Soon one of Kalmanovic's drivers arrived with terrible news. The man Taurasi and Bird called Papa had been shot 10 times while sitting in his Mercedes at a traffic light, the victim of a professional hit. Taurasi and her teammates drove back to their villa in shock. On the way they passed Kalmanovic's car. "Cops were around, his body was still on the floor," says Taurasi. "It was very sad, very hard to deal with."

She played out that season with Spartak, winning her fourth consecutive Euroleague title. But in the end, she was overwhelmed by memories. "I felt I needed something different, so I went to Turkey," she says with a wry laugh. "And I got something different."

A few weeks after Phoenix lost to Seattle in the 2010 Western Conference finals, Taurasi joined Taylor on a new club, Fenerbahce, in Istanbul. All was going well—the team won its first nine Euroleague games—until Taurasi was called to a meeting with the team president in early December. She was handed a sheet of paper with the results of a drug test from Nov. 13. Most of the writing was in Turkish. "All I see is Positive, Modafinil," says Taurasi. "Which at the time I didn't even know how to pronounce. I was like, This isn't right."

Taurasi went back to her apartment, Googled modafinil and learned it was a psychostimulant used to treat excessive sleepiness. "Pilots use it for jet lag," she says. "I was in shock." She was suspended from the team. When her B sample came up positive, too, Fenerbahce terminated her contract and Taurasi returned to the States, facing the possibility of a two-year ban that would keep her out of the 2012 London Olympics. "She wouldn't get out of bed for two weeks," says Taylor, who also left Fenerbahce, in a show of solidarity. "She couldn't eat, couldn't sleep, couldn't function."

Taurasi shuttled between her home in Phoenix and the Chino homes of her parents and sister, keeping a low profile in both cities. "I was down, I was depressed, I was angry," she says. She kept quiet but didn't stay idle. She and her lawyer, Howard Jacobs, who has represented athletes in scores of doping cases, started building a defense. The Ankara lab, which was associated with Hacettepe University, had had its accreditation suspended for three months by the World Anti-Doping Agency in 2009. And modafinil had popped up several times in the BALCO scandal but had since become such an uncommon positive result that, according to the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency website, only one American athlete had been sanctioned for its use since '04. Yet Jacobs discovered that three other athletes besides Taurasi had tested positive for modafinil at the same lab within a month.

Once Jacobs was able to examine the lab documents, he was fairly certain he was looking at a case of a false positive. "There have to be certain criteria that are met to say that you have actually identified modafinil," says Jacobs, "and it looked to me that they did not meet those criteria." Two independent experts he consulted agreed. Furthermore, the chain of custody inside the lab was "virtually nonexistent," says Jacobs. "And it took a week for the sample to get from one part of Turkey to another, with no explanation."

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