Aussie influence steers Mercury

— -- Penny Taylor was a basketball prodigy invited to an Australian national team training camp in 1998. She was as uncertain around a group of adult players as any 17-year-old would be. Luckily for Taylor, one of those veterans was Sandy Brondello.

"She really took me under her wing," Taylor said. "I found it really difficult at first, just being at that level with grown women. She really helped me and encouraged me, and was just a friendly face and good sounding board who gave great advice."

Now, 16 years later, Taylor and Brondello are on the verge of winning the WNBA title for Phoenix. It would be the third for the franchise and for Taylor, a 6-foot-1 forward who has been with the Mercury since 2004, after starting her WNBA career three years earlier in Cleveland.

It would be the first for Brondello, named WNBA Coach of the Year this season, her first in Phoenix. Previously, Brondello spent time coaching in San Antonio and Los Angeles.

"I just can't say how proud I am of Sandy -- what she's done as a coach in this league," Taylor said. "It's a testament to her understanding of the game, how well she deals with players."

And the two are joined in Phoenix this season by reserve guard Erin Phillips, a fellow Aussie who is seeking her second WNBA title. She won with Indiana in 2012.

The WNBA is finishing its 18th season, and it's fair to say that outside of the United States, no nation has had a bigger impact on the league than Australia. There have been and continue to be outstanding players from nations such as Brazil and various European countries. But the Down Under connection has been extremely important to the WNBA.

"Especially here in Phoenix -- we've had some of our best players contribute to the beginning of the league until right up to now," Taylor said. "We've had success in Europe, and great players in our Australian league, too. But the only way you truly know how good you are is to come here and compete against the best.

"Anyway, that's my opinion and how I've always felt. These two championships here are something I'll be proud of for the rest of my life."

It could soon be three championships for Taylor, unless Chicago stages what at this point would be a miracle comeback. The Mercury won the first two games in Phoenix, 83-62 and 97-68, and showed no signs of allowing a letdown in Game 3 in Chicago on Friday (ESPN2, 8 p.m. ET). Brittney Griner will be a game-time decision, Phoenix announced Thursday, after undergoing an outpatient procedure to correct a retinal issue.

If the Mercury win this title, it will add another chapter to the Aussies' collective WNBA success story, which is a point of pride for all those who've traveled so far from home to compete in the United States.

"I look up in the arena here, and there's Michele Timms' banner hanging," Phillips said of the first Aussie to compete in the league, in its inaugural season of 1997. "For me, that's a really good reminder that I am playing for the Phoenix Mercury, but also representing Australia. When new players come through, we make sure they represent Australia just like Timmsy and Sandy did."

Aussie "pioneers"

Timms, who is 49, and Brondello, 46, both played in the WNBA before coaching in the league. Timms was one of three Aussie players on the 1998 Mercury team that lost in the WNBA Finals to Houston. She also spent some time as an assistant coach in Phoenix.

"I didn't realize how big Timmsy was to WNBA fans until I first came over here with Connecticut," Phillips said of her WNBA debut in 2006. "I had short blond hair, and so my nickname became Timmsy Jr."

The first Australian players to win WNBA titles were Lauren Jackson and Tully Bevilaqua with Seattle in 2004. Taylor and Belinda Snell played for the 2007 Phoenix championship team, and Taylor won again with the Mercury in 2009.

Jackson won her second WNBA title in 2010 with Seattle, which also had two Aussie reserves in Abby Bishop and Alison Lacey. Phillips played a key role in helping Indiana upset Minnesota in the 2012 WNBA Finals. And Aussie Rachel Jarry was a reserve for the 2013 Lynx championship team.

Brondello and Timms had played for the Australian national team (known as the Opals), in the Aussie pro league, and overseas before the WNBA launched in 1997. Brondello spent several years competing in Germany, where her husband, Olaf, is from. She played for Detroit, Miami, and Seattle in the WNBA's early days, then retired and transitioned to coaching.

"Basically, we just love to play the game of basketball and will go anywhere to play it," Brondello said of the Aussie mindset. "I think we're respected worldwide, and people appreciate the way we play the game."

In April, the Mercury drafted young Aussie standout Stephanie Talbot, a 20-year-old who is expected to try to play in the WNBA next year.

"I think you're going to continue to see Australians dispersed throughout the league," Brondello said. "Obviously, you're not necessarily going to get another Lauren Jackson or Penny Taylor, but you'll get players who can play in this league. They can excel in a system, they'll play hard on defense, they'll do whatever it takes. They will willingly accept roles."

Jackson, who is a three-time MVP in the WNBA, and Taylor are the crown jewels of the Opals. Jackson has dealt with a lot of health issues, but is widely considered one of the best players in women's basketball history. However, she has not played at all in the WNBA the past two years, and her last full season in the league was 2010, when Seattle won the title and she averaged 20.5 points and 8.3 rebounds.

It was recently announced Jackson won't be able to compete in the World Championship later this month in Turkey. Many wonder if Jackson, who turns 34 next May, will ever return to the WNBA.

"She's had setbacks, which I understand can be really devastating," said Taylor, who has dealt with her own injury adversity in recent years. "I don't know her mindset as far as the WNBA. We play from such a young age and at such a high level. She's played a lot of basketball, traveled a lot of miles.

"Our bodies at some point just tell us to take a break. I've been through it. Hopefully she will be able to rehab and get back to the top of the game where she was."

Dream season in Phoenix

Taylor has made the tough climb back to being a top-level player in the WNBA after missing the entire 2012 season and most of 2013 with knee injuries. This season, when Taylor returned to the starting lineup in the Mercury's 10th game, it was the last piece locking into place for a fantastic team. Taylor averaged 10.5 points and 3.1 rebounds in the regular season, and is at 11.4 and 5.1 in the playoffs.

"I never stopped trying, so I guess I always believed I would be able to make it back," Taylor said of her grueling injury rehab. "The thing I missed the most was being part of a team, and having that feeling on the floor where you all worked together toward something.

"Just that bond -- you don't get that the same way in any other area of life. I really can't believe how lucky I am to be back here with this team and with these coaches."

Brondello is very glad to have Taylor and Phillips in her inaugural season directing the Mercury. Phillips has proven to be a good cog who's able to spell Diana Taurasi at point guard.

"I really like being a spark off the bench," Phillips said. "I'm backing up the best player in the world, so it's a privilege. Diana plays at such a high level, and I try to come in and keep it at that level."

Like Taylor, Phillips credits Brondello as a mentor.

"Sandy was the best shooter I think Australia ever had," Phillips said. "When I played in Connecticut, I would go to San Antonio before the season to do workouts with Sandy when she was coaching there. She improved my game so much. I had a really slow shot, and she helped quicken my feet.

"This season has been special for me. To see Penny -- who's had two years of injury setbacks -- diving on loose balls, going after rebounds, playing like vintage Penny, I get goose bumps, actually, just watching her. To play with her and to have Sandy coaching this team, I couldn't ask for anything better."

Taylor said that while she gets to spend only a limited amount of time back home, she carries the Aussie mentality with her always. And she thinks it's that way for her countrywomen who have competed in the WNBA.

"It's not a where-you-live geographical thing," Taylor said. "It's an attitude and a way of being. Obviously, not every Australian is the same. But I think a lot of us have that quality in the sports world of never giving up. And no matter what the situation, being a team player."