To get an idea of just how very on-the-verge CNN sportscaster Daryn Kagan has become, consider this: She is more current, more suitable for framing, than Armando.

Armando is Armando Alvarez, who from his home in Miami has phoned Calling All Sports, the CNN late-night sports talk show hosted by Vince Cellini, more than any other caller.

Cellini is the well-permed, thick-browed, occasionally manic center of CNN's sports-junkie world, a guy who can do a mean Bob Costas impersonation, a guy who weathers a nightly rain of calls from around the U.S. and Canada--from Toronto, from Houston, from Fayetteville, Georgia. Let's go to the phones: Vince, this Darryl Strawberry thing is killing me! How 'bout them Devils? The Royals, man--they're on a streak! What can stop this team? Vince, what are you doing?

To one caller from Nashville, Cellini offers an autographed picture of Armando--he is just Armando to the regulars--but the guy declines. What? Well, what does he want, then? A picture of Pat Riley, who that day had resigned after four years as head coach of the NBA's New York Knicks? Or maybe a team shot of the Cleveland Indians, who are watching the rest of the majors disappear in their rearview mirror?

"No," Nashville says, "I'm gonna pass on the Armando picture--for a Daryn Kagan picture."

Cellini clamps his considerable brow into a dense shrub across his head.
"You have a Daryn fixation," he says.
"Yeah, I guess I do."
Yeah, so do a lot of people.

The buzz started a few months ago, when Kagan, who until last year had spent five and a half years with KTVK-TV in Phoenix, got a call from her dad in Southern California. He said he'd just seen the weirdest thing on that nutty Vince Cellini show.

"The other night, he put up your picture," her dad said, "and he had a man's voice coming out of your mouth."

So she asked the producer what was up, and it turned out to be several voices that had been coming out of her mouth, voice-mail messages left for the show from people all over the country saying they had a thing for Daryn Kagan. And what wasn't to like? That hip, short-cropped hair--those pronounced cheeks--those piercing eyes! She was--in the true sports aficionado's locker-room lingo--a babe!

But now we're getting way ahead of ourselves.
Cut back to Phoenix and KTVK-TV, Channel 3, where anchor Cater Lee is heard to spout gems like: "The suspect is described as an Hispanic male. But other than that, we know nothing about him--or her."

It was from this competitive broadcast jungle that Daryn Kagan emerged after five years as a rising news reporter. Having touched down in Phoenix from Santa Barbara with limited experience and a runner's enthusiasm, she'd earned a few Rocky Mountain Emmys, a solid reputation and Channel 3 celebrity several years later.

But something was missing, something besides the fourth leg of her adopted cat, Tripod, and she was tired of living on a moment's notice with a packed duffel bag in her trunk. Sure, she and her long, dark, curly hair looked good, but she was just another marshmallow in the Lucky Charms of TV news. What was next? A bigger market? Phoenix already had all the toys, the cool news trucks with the technological hardware and everything. What was it all leading toward?

Finally, she made a business decision as well as a personal one. She'd grown up cheering for the Lakers and the Rams, and she decided her future lay in creating herself a niche. She went to KTVK-TV news director Phil Alvidrez and said she wanted to do sports, and she knew just the place--the weekend morning news show the station had recently launched.

She said, "I want to be the sportscaster."
He said, "That show doesn't have a sportscaster."
She said, "I know. I made up the job."

But Kagan was much too valuable to let go during the week so she could work weekends, so she said she'd go seven days a week for a month, and if it wasn't working out, then she'd just go back to what she was doing. A year and a half later, it was still working out, and she was getting up at 4 every Saturday and Sunday morning to pull it off even though no one was really noticing.

"I didn't need them to watch it," she says. "I knew my sports opportunity wasn't going to come in Phoenix."

It was the spring of 1994, and she was looking around for new opportunities, but nobody was biting. Frustration set in. Her agent suggested updating her look. Finally, she chopped off most of her hair, made a new r‚sum‚ tape and sent it out again.

Two weeks later, CNN called.

CNN's vice president of sports, Jim Walton, says the 31-year-old Kagan has that intangible magnetism that cannot be coached the way delivery, style and writing can. She also has another adopted three-legged cat, this one dubbed Ilean.

"She has an electricity you don't often see," Walton says from the network's headquarters in Atlanta. "We liked Daryn's tape very much."

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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