When I was growing up, I wanted to be just like Diana Taurasi. I dreamt of playing basketball for the University of Connecticut and leading my team to three NCAA championships. I spent hours shooting free throws in my front yard, making my dad chase down missed shots in the driveway and dribbling a tennis ball between my legs to improve my ball-handling skills. I wore UCONN Women’s basketball apparel and slicked my hair back with gel into a tight ponytail, because I thought that if I looked like my favorite player, I would play like her, too.
So, when the Phoenix Mercury selected Diana Tarausi with the first overall pick in the 2004 WNBA draft, I was ecstatic. I couldn’t wait to watch my hero play in person, and Taurasi didn’t disappoint. She began shredding opposing WNBA teams from the moment she stepped onto the court at U.S. Airways Center, transforming the Phoenix Mercury from a struggling 8-26 team into a perennial title contender. In 10 years, Taurasi played in seven All-Star games, earned five scoring titles, received an MVP award and carried the Mercury to three league championships.
If nothing else, Diana Taurasi is a winner. Where No. 3 goes, so do celebratory champagne bottles and victory laps. If Diana Taurasi plays for your team, you’ll probably want to order your championship rings before the season starts. She plays basketball with a tough, staggeringly competitive attitude that I try to emulate every time I pick up a ball, even with my Amateur Athletic Union days behind me.
Success and excellence have followed Taurasi throughout her basketball career, and this year, they’ll follow her to Russia. Last week, she announced her decision to forgo the 2015 WNBA season in order to play exclusively for UMMC Ekaterinburg, a Russian team with whom she has played during the WNBA offseason since 2012.
As a lifelong Phoenix Mercury fan, I am disappointed to see Taurasi leave. My instinct is to write an editorial column asking her to stay, to help keep women’s basketball relevant in Arizona, to be the idol for aspiring athletes that she was for me. I want to be angry that the best women’s basketball player in the world is leaving the legacy she has created in Phoenix to play for squad 5,000 miles away.
But I can’t be.
Most of my friends can name only a handful of WNBA teams, if any at all. Virtually none have heard of women such as Lisa Leslie, Cheryl Miller and Sue Bird, a few of the most successful female basketball players of all time. More often than not, the subject of the WNBA sparks conversations that make me want to punch a wall in frustration:
“I don’t like watching women’s basketball. It’s just not as exciting as men’s.”
“Women’s basketball and men’s basketball are two completely different sports. Women can’t play the game at the same level.”
“There is a women’s basketball team in Phoenix?”
Despite the strides that female athletes have made toward equality in the past 30 years, the apathy and ignorance that the average person demonstrates toward women’s sports is both insulting and infuriating.
If Taurasi played for the Phoenix Mercury this season, she would earn approximately the league’s maximum salary of $109,500. The minimum salary for an NBA player, for comparison, is $507,336. In Russia, she will make close to $1.5 million. And instead of pushing her body to its physical limits by playing year-round professional basketball, Taurausi will be able to give her muscles the rest they undoubtedly need.
Quite frankly, we’re lucky Taurasi has hung around for this long. She could have left a long time ago to make more money playing in Europe, but instead, she remained in Phoenix and allowed Mercury fans to enjoy a solid decade of entertaining basketball. She has been a loyal member of the Phoenix Mercury since she entered the WNBA, and for that I will always be grateful. I will continue to wear my faded University of Connecticut women’s basketball shirt with pride.
I want to be angry, but I’m not. If I had the opportunity to play basketball in a country that would respect my abilities, on a team that would pay me 15 times more money, I would leave, too.
If the U.S. won’t respect its female athletes like Taurasi, it doesn’t deserve them.
Elizabeth Hannah is biochemistry sophomore. Follow her on Twitter.