On top of that, her news background made her fundamentally sound, and her single biggest improvement since joining the network last July has been injecting a little passion into her delivery over sports highlights, not the easiest thing in the world to do.

Kagan's star has risen quickly--she now co-anchors Sports Tonight and Sports Latenight, the wrap-up that follows Cellini's Calling All Sports, and reports for seasonal shows like NFL Preview, This Week in the NBA and Baseball '95.

Kagan, Walton says, reminds him of someone else, another woman, who came to CNN out of Charlotte into Kagan's same exact job, who then grew and developed into an industry force. "I see a similar track for Daryn," Walton says.

The anchor's name was Hannah Storm, now with NBC Sports. We last saw her reining in the sweaty likes of Hakeem Olajuwon, Penny Hardaway and Charles Barkley for immediate postgame interviews in the 1995 NBA playoffs.

"She's the premier female sports anchor," Kagan says. "She was somebody I looked to when I was in Phoenix, even when I was doing news. I was like, 'Hey, women are doing sports.'"

Which was a source of inspiration when the pounding drums of the male-dominated sports world seemed to drown out her hopes. "One person [in Phoenix] told me, 'Sports is a brotherhood. You'll obviously never fit in.'"

Hearing those things "definitely discouraged me," she says. "Growing up, nobody ever told me I couldn't do something because I was female." She credits people like KTVK-TV sports anchor Gil Tyree for jump-starting her enthusiasm when it would waver, when she'd ask herself, why am I doing this? "You're doing this because you're good at it," Tyree would say.

"I was pretty successful doing news," Kagan says, "and people couldn't understand why I wanted to do something that I might not be good at."

CNN holds none of those barriers, she says. There the Stanford grad is an anchor, not a female anchor, and just like every newcomer to the CNN sports fold, she was coaxed by co-anchors Fred Hickman and Nick Charles to sing her alma mater--although she was spared the part that entailed standing atop her desk. And things are different in scale, as well, considering that CNN broadcasts globally. One of her first thoughts upon joining the network was, "Look how many people they have to do all the jobs."

She now has to know about every team in every major sport, not just the hometown lads. She has to know as much about the Timberwolves as she does about the Hawks. And how 'bout those Indians? "They're hot," she says.

She is speaking from Louisville, where she is on assignment, in search of Buddy Ryan, or at least his horse farm. She has the charm thing down, verve issuing through the phone lines, and she carries success so well it welcomes you along for the ride. "Who'd have thought I'd ever get a chance to do it [sports] at CNN?" she says. "It's more than a dream come true."

She misses Phoenix, misses her friends, misses those runs on the Arizona canals. "I miss salsa," she says.

Kagan doesn't know whether she gets any more letters than anyone else at the network, but she can say the vast majority of them are from men. CNN spokesman Andy Mitchell says she gets "tons of mail."

"They say if they find you attractive," she says. "There's different levels of appropriateness."

Which is to be expected, because even when you're just doing your job, total strangers can end up in your face, in your mailbox, in your life, when you do it on TV. For instance, Kagan was among seven former or current Phoenix newswomen researched in police computers by one of the men arrested for the slaying of an armored-car driver earlier this year. "I like newswomen, I guess," William Ferguson, who had access to such records, was quoted as saying at the time.

Other attention has not been so creepy. At KTVK-TV in Phoenix, she got letters. At CNN, she gets more letters. The difference is, when she was in Phoenix, they came from Mesa and Tempe. Now they come from all over the world. The other day, she got a note written in haiku from a guy in Saudi Arabia. You get the idea.

They ask her if she's single. (She is.) Her sportscasts, they say, thrill them to no end. They ask for autographed pictures. They send her stamps.

But, hey, she says as if still high on the excitement of it all, she's at CNN now, and the network pays for the postage. There are no egos, no prima donnas, just one big happy corporate well-run family.

"It's turned out to be a very good place," she says. Then, in a rendition of Garrett Morris' Chico Esquela character on the old Saturday Night Live newscasts, adds: "CNN has been very good to me.

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