Trying year puts life, basketball in perspective for Taylor

PHOENIX – When something registers as classic, it appreciates over time.

As the chronological big sister of the Phoenix Mercury, the something supplied by do-it-all forward Penny Taylor certainly ticks every box that defines class.

But while the understanding of her all-around value continues to increase, an even greater appreciation is coming from her.

“You appreciate that it’s not always going to be there,” Taylor said after Friday’s workout on the practice court at U.S. Airways Arena.

She was referring to an appreciation of her health, which was compromised when Taylor’s 2012 season abroad was ended by a torn anterior cruciate ligament in the left knee.

“For anyone who’s been through a roller-coaster of an injury, you really appreciate your health,” said Taylor, who has played limited minutes in the four games since her return. Game No. 5 will be at home on Sunday vs. Los Angeles (3 p.m., FOX Sports Arizona Plus).

While the ACL setback – sustained March 29 last year playing in the Euroleague final 8 for Fenerbahce of Turkey – eliminated the 2012 WNBA season and prevented her from participating in the London Olympics with the Australian national team, Taylor was able to experience something rewarding during an extended interlude away from the game she loved.

It was something she loved more than basketball.

Denna Noble, Taylor’s mother, had been battling cancer. Had Penny not been injured, she might have been finishing another season in Europe during the weeks before Denna passed away this past May.

Instead, Taylor was rehabilitating the left knee in Melbourne, where she had the rare opportunity to have a prolonged visit with her mother.

“It was nice for me to be there and share that with her and be a support,” Taylor said. “She’d been unwell for a couple of years. For me, also, it was really some quality time that I got with her.”

Denna hadn’t been very fluent in basketball when her daughters were young, but she knew Penny and her sister, Heather, – with a 5-foot-9 mom and 6-3 dad, Michael Taylor – had a great chance to be tall. And tall can work pretty well in one particular arena.

“She really didn’t know much about basketball, Taylor said. “But she always encouraged us and supported us. She was just someone who drove us all over Melbourne to get us where we needed to be.”

Where Taylor — now 6-1 — ended up was the sport’s highest level. She became a professional at age 15, made her first appearance with the national team at 16, earned bronze and silver medals while competing in the Olympics and grabbed a gold medal during the 2006 World Championships.

After reaching Phoenix, she became a WNBA champion.

According to Kevin Ray, who does the play-by-play reporting for Mercury games on Fox Sports Arizona, Denna Noble never missed a broadcast.

“She was always texting me, telling me to have a good game, or supporting me if I had a bad game,” Taylor said.

Beyond a lifetime of support, her mother demonstrated a resolve that translates pretty well now.

“She was unbelievably strong,” Taylor said. “My mother planned her own funeral – that’s some strong mental strength.

“I’ve always known she was a strong woman. That just reinforced all of those qualities.”

The genetics must be at work.

Seven months after the ACL was torn, Taylor’s knee required another procedure to repair some wayward cartilage. A recovery that often takes six to nine months kept Taylor out of action for 15.

“There were times where I felt like this was going to be a longer road than I expected, but I had to push through,” said Taylor, who’s been limited to playing in four-minute increments during her first four games back. “It definitely made me appreciate basketball … how much I love it, how good I was before I got injured.”

Along this road back, she received some advice from someone with considerable experience in the injury-recovery arena. Former Suns star Grant Hill almost lost his career to injury and his life to illness. Once ticketed for all-time great status, a prolonged absence from basketball required Hill to shift a measure of his on-court focus.

He certainly had some idea of what Taylor was experiencing.

“It was pretty simple,” she said of his advice. “He just said that, in his experience, it’s never a good idea to rush back. It’s something that was hard for me not to do.”

With injuries to teammates Diana Taurasi and Candice Dupree also underscoring the 2012 season, the Mercury’s struggle was tough for Taylor to handle. That struggle did lead to the drafting of rookie center Brittney Griner, and a fresh batch of expectations for a loaded, almost-healthy squad.

But when the season began, Taylor still wasn’t quite ready. Advice from Hill was pretty timely.

“He told me to not be too hard on myself and to not expect to be the player that I was straightway,” Taylor, whose 14-point performance in the Mercury’s last outing boosted her per-game average to a modest 8 points, said. “And that it’s going to take time.

“For anyone coming back from an ACL injury or any sort of injury, really, it’s a process. You got to get your feel back, you’ve got to get your reactions back. I feel like every day I’m getting a little better.”