- Mechelle Voepel, espnW.com
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The Phoenix Mercury had just won the Western Conference finals, and the players had sprayed some champagne and were dancing around. Standard sports celebration stuff.
They opened the locker room to us reporters, and the first player I headed over to talk to was Penny Taylor. She looked up, saw my recorder and said, "Let me go turn down the music real quick."
That story as much as any tells you about Taylor -- and not just because of how considerate she was, but also how perceptive. She's someone who immediately reads situations and people, makes adjustments to help everyone feel comfortable and welcome, and has a quick smile and laugh.
She's a crucial part of this Mercury team, which is host for the next two games of the WNBA Finals. Not just because of her basketball ability, but also her teammate skills. It comes down to communication, and Taylor has never had a problem with that.
She's an Australian who has played pro basketball in Italy and the United States, and married a pro volleyball player who's from Brazil. Taylor's husband, Rodrigo Gil, is the handsome guy the TV cameras like to find on the sidelines.
They met in Italy, married in 2005 and it has all worked out perfectly so far. Last year, Taylor was the MVP of the World Championships, won by Australia and the event was in Brazil. This summer, the first time Phoenix has been to the playoffs since 2000, Gil has been able to stay in the U.S. to watch his wife go for a WNBA title.
"In the past, he's about two weeks into training camp by now; he usually leaves before the end of the WNBA season," Taylor said. "But we're both playing in Russia this year. We've been no more than two hours apart [in Italy] in different cities -- which doesn't sound like much, but we practice twice a day. We'd see each other on Mondays, because that's our day off.
"So we decided to make a change and go to Russia, where we'll play in the same city so we can live together. It will be a much better situation for us. Hopefully, before then we'll get a couple of weeks at home."
"Home" is Australia, where they are building a house in Melbourne and plan to live when they retire from their playing careers.
The Australians, of course, have added so much to the WNBA but all of them have had to make sacrifices in their personal lives to do so.
"It can be hard, because you never know when you're going to get home," Taylor said. "The seasons overlap, and I've been on pretty successful teams in Italy. Which means we have to go straight here [to the WNBA]. And if we do well here, then it's usually straight back to Europe. In a year, maybe I'll get two weeks at home.
"It was difficult to begin with, and it's gotten more difficult because I have a niece and a nephew now."
Taylor's sister has a 2-year-old son and a 4-month-old daughter, and Taylor was there in the delivery room earlier this year for the birth of her niece.
"I nearly passed out," she said, laughing. "She was born the day I had to leave to come back here; I had to ask for an extra day. I wanted to be there for my sister, it was really important to me.
"It is hard to be away, but I know I'm not going to do it forever. So it's just a short-term thing, so when I'm old and gray I can stay at home and spend time with them."
She laughs again, and you figure that even when Taylor leaves basketball, she won't ever get "old and gray." At least not on the inside. Something about a lot of sunshine in a personality can keep a person young.
Besides, Taylor is only 26 and just reaching the peak years of her career. Basketball has taken her around the world, and she has never felt like a stranger anywhere.
When she and Gil began dating, they didn't speak each other's native languages, English and Portuguese. And the "middle ground" language, Italian, was good for him but rudimentary for her. Didn't matter in terms of falling in love, though.
"When we first met I think in any language, you know when you like someone," she said, "regardless of how well you initially can communicate."
She improved quickly in Italian, so did he in English. And she's now studying Portuguese. Sometimes in conversations, they'll speak in all three languages.
"We don't realize we're doing it," she said, "until someone around us says, 'What the heck are you talking about?'"
Taylor is interested in journalism and loves to write, so that might be a second career after basketball. She'll be able to bring quite an international perspective to whatever it is she does.
"Even before I left Australia and met my husband, I loved different cultures and languages and parts of the world," she said. "I feel wherever I am, I'm surrounded by friends. I've never woken up in some country and thought, 'My God, what am I doing? Where am I? Why am I here?'
"I've always been able to make friends and met a lot of great people. It's never been a scary situation. Because I think as long as you have friendships, you're fine wherever you are."
Mechelle Voepel of The Kansas City Star is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Whether falling in love or trying to help Phoenix win its first WNBA title, Penny Taylor's communication skills and ability to read situations give her an advantage.