I’m a first-generation American. My mother is from Argentina. My father is from Italy. When my dad was around five or six, his family migrated to Argentina. That’s where he met my mom. They got married, and moved to Los Angeles — North Hollywood, to be exact. They had my sister and me. When I was eight years old, we left L.A.
We moved just east, towards the desert, to Chino, California.
I’ve lived a lot of places, but that’s my home.
I am very much the daughter of immigrants. It’s both a point of pride and an essential part of characterizing my upbringing. We spoke Spanish in our house. We listened to Spanish music. All of the TV channels we watched were in Spanish. We ate mostly Italian and Argentinian food.
That was my normal; it’s all I knew. That’s how I understood this country — a myriad of cultures coexisting all at once.
But there’s American, and there’s American.
I remember going to a friend’s house for dinner. We sat down to plates of spaghetti with meat sauce … and a glass of milk. I remember being so amused by that combination. I thought, Yep, we’re definitely in America. Who has a glass of milk with spaghetti and meatballs?
When I was 13, we went back to Argentina to live for a year. I got to see my extended family — really see them: where they grew up, how they lived. It was a different kind of struggle. There is no money. There are no jobs. And they still have to find a way to feed their families.
That struggle was, in some way, part of my own family identity. It gave me perspective and placed the distinctly American aspects of my upbringing into focus. When I returned to California, I felt such an acute sense of: I don’t want to waste this. I don’t want to waste any opportunities.
My parents worked so hard to get us to where we were. My dad woke up at 5:30 every morning — every single day — and drove an hour-and-a-half to work. My mom was constantly working odd jobs, whether it was at Sizzler or babysitting. I didn’t realize how hard they worked. Most kids rarely do. But they were building something for us.
That’s the duality of the American immigrant experience in a nutshell, I think: the insider’s feeling of opportunity but the outsider’s understanding of privilege.
Chino represents both of those feelings at once.
I’m comfortable with duality. That’s how I found myself as an athlete.
I played two sports.
In Argentina, soccer is in your blood. It’s life. I grew up with a soccer ball. In America, basketball dominates playgrounds. It’s elemental. I also grew up with a basketball.
My parents encouraged my sister and me in the way of both sports. We had the freedom of choice and chose not to choose between the two. We were lucky in that way.
I remember everything: playing in the driveway, waiting for my dad to get home. Going from the soccer field to the basketball court, still having my shin guards on. Getting my first new pair of basketball shoes. The burn of the hot asphalt. The swoosh of the net and the whoosh of the soccer ball through freshly cut grass.
The truth is, I liked soccer more. But my dad, knowing and encouraging, said, “Diana. Go play basketball.”
Looking back, I imagine that was the American immigrant in him talking. Soccer was becoming really popular, but there was a future in basketball. The coaches would talk; the other parents would talk. They would tell my parents about my potential in basketball. There was opportunity for me — that maybe basketball could be something special.
They were right.
I played organized basketball for the first time in sixth grade. In eighth grade, I got my first letter of recruitment … from Walla Walla Washington Community College. I was like, That’s it! This is amazing. That’s where I’m going. That’s my school right there.
But more came — almost every single day. I’d go to the mailbox, and there would be letters from 10, 12 schools. Places I didn’t even know. Where’s Drexel? Where’s Hofstra? I had no clue. I was just a kid from Chino. I didn’t have any idea that the world of women’s college basketball was so dense, or vast.
As it turns out, UConn’s Geno Auriemma is not big on mailboxes. Geno? He came in person. It was surreal; I had only seen him on TV. He was almost like a character from a show you watched, suddenly there, on your doorstep.
Most people probably imagine Geno’s way involving a big, smooth pitch — charisma to the nines. But they’d be surprised by how casual it was. He and assistant coach Chris Dailey came over for dinner. I remember it pretty vividly: My parents made some T-bone steaks with mashed potatoes. The adults were drinking wine. Coach and my dad were speaking Italian. It was one of those dinners. Only, Geno Auriemma, the TV character, was in our house.
He said it with straight confidence: “You’re coming to Connecticut.”
My dad was on board. The wine and Italian didn’t hurt the cause. But moreover, my dad has a good sense of people. I think he saw the bigger picture. When my dad gives me any advice with conviction, I know he’s thought through the full scope of my best interests. He was certain on UConn. That’s where you’re going to go.
My mom wasn’t quite as sure. She was the wild card. An entire country between us, and me, in a strange place under the guidance of a stranger. But just like my dad, my mom always wants what’s best for me.
That was UConn.
The decision to play there was easy; the transition was anything but.
When you come to L.A., it’s busy. Suburb after suburb. Life all around you, at all hours. You don’t know where the lines end. Chino is part of a literal cluster of cities. But with Connecticut, when you leave Storrs … let’s just say you know when you’ve left Storrs. There’s nothing else — I mean nothing. For miles and miles. To say it was different would be a mild understatement.
Geography aside, there was cultural differences. Connecticut is just so … white. Cool. I like milk?
But, as most things go, what I imagined wasn’t what I experienced on campus. UConn turned out to be way more diverse than I pictured. I met Puerto Ricans. Cubans. Dominicans. Whites. Blacks. Immigrants. Immigrants. That’s a part of Chino that has stuck with me — wherever we go, we still borrow a sense of place from where we’re from. And I found that at UConn. My home compass is Spanish-language television mixed with Argentinian pride, mixed with Italian phrases rolling off the tongue, mixed with milk. I want a lot of everything.
The game was different, though. Mentally. Physically. It was completely other level. In high school, I was better than everyone else, and by a margin where the little things didn’t matter. It didn’t matter if I was in shape, or if I was eating right, or if I was in the weight room. Being good was good enough.
Then I got to UConn, and it was like, Oh. There’s Shea Ralph — this 6’1’’ goddess who’s just as good as I am at basketball. There’s Svetlana Abrosimova — 6’2’’ and can run like the wind. She’s also the best European basketball player in the world.
I knew it was going to be a long year. And it was. I wasn’t ready.
In the beginning of the season, I was coming off the bench, not playing a lot, getting killed in practice everyday. Geno was on me, relentlessly. I mean, our backcourt was Sue Bird, Shea Ralph, Svetlana Abrosimova — three of the best guards ever to play at Connecticut. And as a freshman, I just wasn’t there. My focus was just on trying to get better. To survive. Every day, to get just a fraction ahead of where I was the day before.
Midway through the season, Svetlana got hurt. Then, going into the NCAA tournament, Shae got hurt. All of a sudden, I was starting and playing 35 minutes a game. Just like that. We made it to the Final Four that year. I was terrible, and we lost.
I hate to lose.
I never lost in the NCAA tournament again.
My transition from college to the pros was even harder than the last. I was drafted first overall in the 2004 WNBA Draft by the Phoenix Mercury. For all the talk of how big college sports have gotten, there’s still a distinction between collegiate and the pros. Something is either a job or it’s not. And playing basketball at the professional level, at the end of the day, is a job. It’s its own world with its own set of demands and expectations. If you don’t meet them, you lose your job. That takes getting used to.
I had a decent rookie year. But at the same time, there were so many things I wasn’t good at. You need a different skill set once you get to the WNBA. It’s a different game. These are grown-ass women that are just stronger than you, smarter than you, better than you. But just like in college, I kept it simple: Get a little better every day. Just get better.
After taking my first offseason to finish my degree at UConn, I mostly spent my WNBA offseasons playing basketball overseas in Russia. Talk about transition to the infinite power. There’s the basketball adjustment — they’re dribbling all herky-jerky, doing the Euro-step, shooting from behind their ear. There’s also the, you know, you’re in Russia aspect. You don’t know the language. You’re in this strange bubble. It’s a whole new way of life.
What I’ve come to learn is that, when you happen upon something foreign, something new — whether it’s a different city or skill level or language or country or team — you can look at it one of two ways. You can shelter yourself and say, I’m really not going to engage with that. I’m going to stay in my lane. Or, you can engage. You can take the unknown path. You have a choice.
I have chosen to engage. I’ve taken the unknown path. Everywhere I’ve gone, everywhere I’ve played, I’ve kind of just thrown myself into everything and hoped for the best.
I live without regret.
It all comes back to Chino. I still remember the tiniest of details, even 25 years removed. How, when we moved there, it was a younger city — this “inland empire” still coming into its own. It was growing. You could see it every year. I remember how we made a life for ourselves there — and in some ways built it, literally. I remember being on our hands and knees, scraping the windowsills and ripping out the carpet of the home that my parents bought. How my sister and I helped put the roof on — which was somehow both a bad idea and the best idea. (Seriously, get a professional to do that.) How good it would feel, years later, every time I drove back and spent a night in that same house. Opened that same mailbox. Ate at that same table. Shot at that same basket. Slept in that same bed.
My sense of home, and where I’m from, has helped to shape but also ground me. No matter how far across the map my basketball journey has taken me or how bright the lights, I’m still myself.
I’m still just a kid from Chino.