Penny Taylor more than a sidekick
Oft-overshadowed Aussie veteran has put in one of her best seasons
We tend not to think of competitiveness as a trait that can be compartmentalized. The person who fiercely battles to win at something wants to win at everything, right? Well
"I think I'm a really sore loser," Phoenix's Penny Taylor said with a laugh, although she's serious about the topic. "In every game, I'm very, very competitive. But outside of basketball, I'm not really like that. I'm happy to step out of that nature away from the court."
So if you were playing "Monopoly" with Taylor and she landed on one of your properties that had a hotel, she wouldn't pick up the game board and toss it to the floor. She might let loose with an expletive, but even that doesn't mean she's really upset.
"I swear way more than anyone else I've met in America," Taylor said, grinning. "Except for maybe Diana."
Well, that just figures, doesn't it? Diana Taurasi is always that overshadowing presence in regard to Taylor. Even when it comes to cursing.
Significant contributions, not just a complement
The Mercury have two WNBA titles, and this week they'll start the quest for a third. Taylor, dealing with back spasms, missed five of the Mercury's last six games of the regular season. Phoenix is hoping she's rested and recovered enough to resume her usual workload for the playoffs.
Perhaps those who watch the WNBA only periodically view Taylor as merely a talented sidekick in the Taurasi Show. Those who follow the league regularly, though, don't think that way at all. It's as hard to picture the Mercury winning the 2011 WNBA championship without significant contributions from Taylor as it is imagining Phoenix doing it with a subpar postseason from Taurasi.
Phoenix's first obstacle is Seattle, a team the Mercury have struggled a lot against in recent times. This season, the Mercury are 1-3 against the Storm. In 2010, Phoenix went 0-7 against the league champions.
Sure, that bugged Taylor a lot. But she was pragmatic about it.
"Last year was strange for us; we never really got it rolling," Taylor said. "We still made it to the conference finals, but we knew from past years that sometimes it's a little bit of luck and a little momentum taking you into the [WNBA] Finals. And it wasn't that same feeling.
"This year -- even though we've had our down times -- we've gotten some good stretches of momentum. We had some personnel changes, and that's always a challenge. But even with that, we were able to win. This team has a lot of character."
A good deal of that comes from Taylor, the 6-foot-1 forward from Australia who is in her 10th season in the WNBA. Seven of those have been with Phoenix, where she arrived in 2004, when she was picked No. 1 in the dispersal draft of the Cleveland Rockers. Taurasi was the top pick in the regular draft that year, coming off three consecutive NCAA titles at UConn.
Of course, Taurasi is the big-personality player, the 2009 WNBA MVP, one of the primary faces of the league and women's basketball in general. Taylor's fans -- of which there are many -- will insist that the Aussie never gets enough credit. It's not that those folks aren't generally quite fond of Taurasi, too. Just that they're convinced that the limelight is magnetically drawn to Taurasi in a way it isn't to Taylor.
She appreciates the fan support. But Taylor has spent as much time worrying about being underestimated as Lady Gaga has spent worrying about being over the top. Actually, maybe less.
"You're playing on a team. So, with that, you're told -- and I always believed it -- that winning was the most important thing," Taylor said. "That's why it's really easy for me to do whatever is asked of me to win a game. I'm really happy to do that."
What Taylor has been asked to do by the Mercury -- not just this summer, but every year -- is a little of everything. She scored 16.7 points per game this season, the second-highest average of her WNBA career. She also averaged 4.9 rebounds and 4.7 assists. She trailed only Sylvia Fowles, Candace Parker and Tina Charles in efficiency rating, at 20.1.
The only season of the past five that the Mercury did not make the playoffs was 2008, when Taylor didn't play in the WNBA as she fulfilled a commitment to her national team for the Olympics.
What will she do next season, when it's again an Olympic year?
"It's a difficult situation, because you're torn in two directions," Taylor said. "You want to play in the Olympics and give yourself the best chance with your national team to do well. But at the same time, I feel very much a part of the Mercury and a sense of obligation to them as well.
"I have to make a decision as to whether I'll miss the first half of the season and stay with the national team, or join the national team in the two weeks before the Olympics."
She smiled ruefully when asked when she'll make up her mind.
"I've tried to ignore that decision, but it will be something I decide in the next couple of months," she said. "It will be really tough. Either way, I'll be playing for a team that I really care about."
At home wherever she is
Taylor has lived all over the world, thanks to basketball. Australia is her home country, and yet now she doesn't necessarily think of any one place as "home."
"I have where I grew up, but I've almost spent longer away from there than I did living there," said Taylor, who turned 30 in May. "I feel like wherever I am at any time, that's where I'm happy to be. The differences in places don't stand out that much to me anymore."
But then something popped into her mind a few minutes later. She was explaining how football is the one U.S.-based sport that she never followed in Australia but has since developed an interest in.
"I don't know the rules for [expletive], but I have started to get a hang of it," she said, then laughed again. "Oh, wait that just reminds me of something that is different about being here: swearing.
"For us in Australia, it's not frowned upon. We use it a lot more as a way of emphasizing. Here, I have to watch it, because some people are bothered by it."
The thing is, Taylor doesn't look -- at least to us Americans -- like a person who drops verbal bombs. Or maybe it's that coming from her, they just don't sound harsh. Nor does she appear to be an inferno on court.
The Mercury player who does look the part of the emotional type -- and whom you fully expect to put the "pro" in profanity -- is the colorful Taurasi.
"It's funny, sometimes I think the perception you have of yourself is skewed," Taylor said. "Because people will say to me, 'You stay so calm on the court, and it looks like you're really in control.'
"But the way I feel on the inside is different; I feel like I'm fired up and just as ferocious as Diana. I guess on the exterior, it doesn't look like that."
They're close as teammates and friends. When Taurasi went through the ordeal this past winter with the Turkish lab that botched her drug test, causing her team to terminate her contract, Taylor left the squad, too.
With their overseas season ended prematurely, Taylor and Taurasi had more time to gear up for this WNBA summer. After a rocky start to the season, the Mercury leveled out and enter the playoffs believing they at least have a chance.
Admittedly, considering their recent record against Seattle, the Storm pose a threat right from the start. This is the kind of challenge that Taurasi has always thrived upon. But so has Taylor, just as much.
"Basketball is my place to be competitive," Taylor said. "I've done it since I was 4, and you're still developing your personality at that age. Maybe that side of me has always just been channeled in that way."
Mechelle Voepel, a regular contributor to ESPN.com, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read her blog at mechellevoepelblog.com.