Mercury fans’ excitement about in-person return dampened by news of Diana Taurasi injury

Fans at the home opener of the Phoenix Mercury’s 2021 regular season received a T-shirt on their seat to mark the occasion. They were excited to return to the arena after COVID-19 restrictions kept them away. (Photo by Catie Cheshire/Cronkite News)

Mercury players entered Phoenix Suns Arena accompanied by clouds of purple and orange smoke. (Photo by Catie Cheshire/Cronkite News)

PHOENIX – Calls of “Mighty Mercury” echoed throughout the building at the WNBA team’s home opener.

After each big moment Friday, stadium speakers played the prerecorded chant. For the first time in the regular season since 2019, fans at newly renovated Phoenix Suns Arena answered back.

The last home game of the Mercury’s 2019 season came in September. Now, 20 months later, a select number of loyal fans, called the X-Factor, returned to the building as restrictions due to the COVID-19 pandemic eased.

It was a positive experience dampened a bit Tuesday by news that star guard Diana Taurasi will be out at least four weeks with a chest injury.

Joanna Velasquez and her twin sister, Jazmin, have been Mercury fans for over eight years. They bought tickets for this game the second they went on sale.

“It’s a different feeling coming to a game in person and watching at home,” Joanna said. “At home, sure, we’re still pumped, but just the atmosphere, just being around everyone else … it’s a great feeling.”

Though the Mercury (2-2) lost to the Sun (5-0) 84-67, fans like Elizabeth Valdez were glad to see old favorites once more and new additions for the first time.

“We have a stacked team now,” she said.

Valdez attended the game with her friend Denise Pancott, who was excited to see Bria Hartley and Skylar Diggins-Smith, both 2020 offseason additions, in person for the first time. This season’s acquisition, Kia Nurse, was the newcomer Jazmin was most happy to see.

Diggins-Smith said she saw how passionate Mercury fans are on opening night when she played on visiting teams and could tell at preseason games and Suns games this year that the fans were still a strong presence.

To the Velasquez family, a Mercury game is the perfect family outing. Daughters Jazmin (left) and Joanna turned their parents into fans. (Photo by Catie Cheshire/Cronkite News)

“Now I’m just happy to have the X-Factor on my side,” she said. “I definitely think we’ll have one of the best home atmospheres this year.”

Along with those new faces, fans were excited to see Taurasi and Brittney Griner in person again.

Griner left the WNBA bubble after 12 games last year for personal reasons, so Delores Woods was glad to see her back. Woods said Griner is her favorite player because “she’s a beast.”

As for Taurasi, she’s the reason some X-Factor members became Mercury fans in the first place. The Velasquez twins turned their father from someone who never watched basketball into one of the Mercury faithful just by taking him to see one game where Taurasi played.

“He saw Diana Taurasi live and he’s just been a fan ever since,” Joanna said.

Taurasi suffered her sternum injury May 16 at Connecticut but played in two subsequent games.

The whole Velasquez family, mother and father included, came to the home opener to cheer on the squad.

For others, Taurasi represents what it means to be a basketball great.

“To me, she mostly plays like Stephen Curry,” said Ja’Kori Rosetta, 10, whose sister Jameshia brought him to the game.

For Mercury fans and players alike, the chance to watch so many talented athletes compete together makes this season a particularly exciting one.

“Everybody eats on this team,” Diggins-Smith said. “It’s room for everybody to eat. Everybody’s a threat when they catch the ball.”

Last season the Mercury were the No. 5 seed in the playoffs and ended the year with a loss to the Minnesota Lynx in the second round. These X-Factor members expressed hope for a championship this season though Joanna offered a realistic outlook given the team’s mixed results so far.

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“We’ve been playing a little rough, so just watching them progress throughout the season and hopefully getting to a championship this year is gonna be great to see,” she said. “Either way I have a good feeling about the season.”

Adding to that good feeling Friday was that the home opener featured two ex-Mercury players, DeWanna Bonner and Briann January. Rosetta and Valdez both called Bonner, who won two championships during her time in Phoenix, one of the main draws of the night.

When the announcer called Bonner’s name as part of the starting lineup, the stadium erupted with cheers. Bonner scored 14 points on the path to defeating her former team.

Taurasi, who tallied 13 points, said the first game off a road trip is difficult but emphasized that the team wanted to perform much better, especially considering the fans.

“It was a tough one on the chin,” she said. “You never want to lose in front of your home crowd and everyone’s been anticipating this day for a while. We’re very disappointed. We just didn’t deserve to win tonight so I think in the next game, you’re gonna see a different team.”

Despite the loss, fans were glad to be in the building together instead of home alone.

“Everyone screaming together, talking together, that’s what I missed the most,” Joanna said.

The Mercury play the Aces (2-2) on Wednesday at home.

Catie Cheshire kay-tee che-shire (she/her)
Sports Reporter, Phoenix

Catie Cheshire expects to graduate in August 2021 with a master’s degree in sports journalism. Cheshire is a graduate assistant at the National Center for Disability and Journalism.