- Mechelle Voepel, espnW.com
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It was pouring rain late into the night after Diana Taurasi's final college game in April 2004 in New Orleans. But the devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina was a year and half in the future. The Big Easy was still a party town, first and foremost, yet Taurasi had almost no time to celebrate there.
She hoisted the NCAA championship trophy for UConn for a third season in a row, was named the Final Four's most outstanding player, did her media duties and then perhaps all too briefly relaxed.
By 11 the next morning, she was aboard a plane to Denver to join the U.S. national team, with whom she practiced that night to prepare for three impending exhibition games. The Athens Olympics were looming, so there was no time to take a break.
"I'm thrilled to go," she said at the time. "When you have an opportunity like that, you can't turn it down, no matter the circumstances. A little rest would be nice, but "
Although she may have taken short vacations here and there in the seven years since, mostly Taurasi has been competing at basketball nearly nonstop: for the WNBA's Phoenix Mercury, in Russia, for Team USA and, this past fall, in Turkey.
But that's where Taurasi's basketball career was halted, after a lab reported she had tested positive for the stimulant modafinil. She had been tested after a Nov. 12 game. The news of the test result, she said, left her in complete shock.
Thus began a nightmare, which included her Turkish club Fenerbahce ending her contract and the possibility of an extended playing ban.
However, Taurasi was fully exonerated this week. The lab in Ankara, Turkey, retracted its report and now could be in very serious legal difficulties, as it appears mistakes were made with the samples of Taurasi and other athletes who have since had provisional bans lifted.
In a teleconference with reporters, Taurasi talked with gratitude about the support she had received from family, friends, teammates and fans. She sounded relieved at the vindication from charges that could have cost -- among other things -- her cherished Team USA eligibility for the 2012 Olympic Games.
Again, this was an athlete who has been so committed to the national team that she didn't ask for even a day to celebrate her last NCAA title before joining her USA teammates for practice.
Taurasi was absolutely certain she had not taken modafinil, either intentionally or inadvertently. But she also knew it was going to be a battle to prove her innocence.
"I feel like the facts came out, and it's like I said from day one: It's a road I never crossed," she said in a teleconference Thursday. "The whole situation was handled poorly -- from information leaking early to due process not being held the right way. The lab and all the things that we were wary of from the beginning were determining factors.
"I've worked tremendously hard on the basketball court to be where I'm at, and for this to be put on me, it's not fair."
Since the reports of the supposedly positive test came out in December, the rumor mill has had a lot of grist -- including suggestions that Taurasi was targeted as part of some sort of competitive sabotage in Turkey. Taurasi really doesn't think that's the case, believing that this was a matter of flaws with this lab, which had been suspended by the World Anti-Doping Agency in 2009 but then reapproved. The lab initially said basketball player Monique Coker also tested positive, as well as two soccer players, but all have been cleared.
"This was more than just me; this was a group of people that were unfairly put in this situation," Taurasi said. "I'm just glad everyone got justice in the end."
Actually, that's a process that probably is not finished. Asked whether she was considering legal action, Taurasi said, "That's something [attorney] Howard Jacobs and I will get to in the next couple of weeks. I feel someone has to take responsibility for this. Not only does it ruin your career but your reputation." A news report Friday said Fenerbahce was suing the lab.
Taurasi's always had a look-on-the-bright-side personality, more so than most top-tier athletes, actually. But that has been challenged in the past couple of years. In November 2009, she suffered the loss of her friend and benefactor, Spartak team owner Shabtai von Kalmanovic, who was slain in Russia.
That came after a WNBA season that was one of her greatest triumphs, as she was WNBA MVP for the champion Mercury, and one of her most difficult trials, as she faced a DUI charge for which she profoundly apologized.
Taurasi talked candidly near the end of the 2009 season of how upset she was at letting down herself, her family, teammates and fans with the DUI incident, and how much it made her recognize that basketball could be taken away.
Then she went through the same fears with the modafinil accusation, but there was a very big difference. Taurasi never dodged any responsibility for the DUI. But in this case, she knew the allegations were unfounded.
Jacobs is a leading legal expert in defending athletes who challenge drug tests. He has had cases in which the evidence seemed strong in his clients' favor but they still didn't get a reprieve.
Taurasi was realistic enough to know that her word, no matter how passionately she defended herself, would not be enough. That's a very scary place to find yourself in, especially when your entire livelihood is on the line.
"Your voice and your truth seems to not have any validity at that point," Taurasi said. "People jump on the bandwagon with doping, and you know the stigma that comes with that.
"My defense wasn't based on my word that I didn't do it, because that will never get you through any justice system. This was facts and details in the process of the testing that wasn't done the right way. The lab had been suspended in the past for not following protocol. I knew the truth and what had happened to me, but to have faith that 'The truth will get you out of this' -- if you think about it, it usually doesn't work like that. It's a long, drawn-out process."
It ended up happening quickly, though, as such cases go. The WNBA does not have a president now, but Taurasi said she was contacted and supported by league senior vice president Renee Brown, plus she felt the Mercury were behind her. She also heard encouragement from several WNBA players.
"It could be any one of us that falls to this," Taurasi said. "We all go overseas."
To that end, Taurasi was asked about how she thinks this incident might affect players' willingness to compete in Turkey, which has become one of the more desired destinations in recent years.
"You have to take a real close look at where you go overseas," she said. "I don't have any bad feelings toward Turkey and their federation, the players and the fans. But from here on out, when I decide on the next team I'll play for in Europe, I'll have to go somewhere that I feel safe. You're automatically supposed to trust these different doping agencies, that they're doing the right things at all times. But, like anything, there are holes and mistakes.
"I could say I've lost three months of my career that was actually going really well in Turkey. We were first in EuroLeague, and I was going for my fifth EuroLeague championship in a row. But you [also] lose a little confidence in the system that you're supposed to have so much faith in."
Mechelle Voepel, a regular contributor to ESPN.com, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read her blog at voepel.wordpress.com.