Jenni Benningfield catches Fever (or vice versa)

Jenni Benningfield was ready to leave August 31 for a season of playing in Spain-- but an unexpected phone call at her going-away party changed everything for the former Vanderbilt star. She hastily signed a free-agent contract with the WNBA's Indiana Fever, and she makes her professional debut Wednesday in Washington, D.C.

INDIANAPOLIS, Ind.-- Former Vanderbilt star Jenni Benningfield makes her WNBA debut Wednesday night, when the Indiana Fever travels to D.C. to play the Washington Mystics. WNBA action resumes Wednesday following the month-long Olympic break.

For Benningfield, who signed as a free agent with the Fever last week, it's a second chance to earn a position in the premier professional women's basketball league in the world. In April, she was picked in the second round of the WNBA draft as the No. 22 overall pick by the Charlotte Sting. But just before the season began, she was a victim of the final round of roster cuts.

Benningfield spent a couple of weeks at home in Louisville assessing her options for the future, then returned to Nashville to work Vanderbilt's basketball camps and to join the summer workouts and pickup games with her former teammates to stay in shape. Meanwhile she signed a contract to play professionally with the Club Estudiantes de Baloncesto in Madrid during fall and winter and was scheduled to report to the team in Spain Sept. 1.

When summer school at Vanderbilt came to a close and campus emptied, Benningfield began preparing to leave for Spain on August 31. But then she got the first hint that her plans might change. "My agent called me, saying that there were a couple of teams that were interested in me," Benningfield said last weekend. "The L.A. Sparks and the Indiana Fever were looking to pick up somebody."

With her scheduled departure for Spain rapidly approaching, her family planned a going-away party August 22, so all her friends and family could give her a proper send-off.

"Right when everybody got there, I got a phone call from my agent saying that the Indiana Fever really wanted me. So I was like, OK, I can be there tomorrow. It made the party even more special, just unbelieveable. I think I was in a whole different world than everybody, because I just kept thinking, I'm actually going to get another shot! I can't even describe how excited and happy I was."

After the party she packed and left Monday for Indianapolis, where she passed physical exams and met the team and coaches. She signed a contract for the remainder of the season and began practicing with the team on Tuesday, and has been busy since then practicing, learning the plays, watching film and continuing with conditioning and lifting.

"Everybody's been wonderful," says Benningfield. "The coaches are great, the teammates and players are just wonderful. They've been helping me out with everything -- plays, how to get around town, that kind of thing. I was staying in a hotel right across the street from Conseco, and then I moved into an apartment about 20 minutes outside of the city where all the other players are staying. So I have my own apartment now."

In several ways, it's a perfect fit for Benningfield. Indianapolis is only two hours from her hometown of Louisville, and four-and-a-half hours from Nashville. Julie Plank, a former assistant coach at Vanderbilt who was heavily involved in recruiting Jenni during her high school years, is now an assistant with the Fever.

"She's always been someone who really worked hard, who's a great team player, that was really competitive and could play multiple positions," says Plank. "I think that's what she did at Vanderbilt, and that's what we've always liked about her. I think she can do a number of different things, and so much of the pro game is being able to use that versatility. I know she didn't play much her senior year, but she was always someone we were interested in, and we made the decision to bring her in."

And a little frosting on the cake is that Kate Starbird, a former Stanford star who pays for the Fever, will also be playing with the Club Estudiantes in Madrid this winter. They'd already exchanged a few emails, but as teammates they'll have a chance to get to know each other first, which should make Benningfield's first professional experience overseas much easier.

After the Fever's season is over, Benningfield will report almost immediately to her team in Spain, which begins preseason training today. Although Indiana is currently in last place in the Eastern Conference, the Fever is only two games out of first, making the playoffs a real possibility. If that happens, she'll be able to remain with the team through the playoffs; otherwise, she'll report within four days after the regular season ends Sept. 19.

In the meantime, she's trying to make the most of the remainder of the WNBA season. "I'm just trying to be a sponge and soak up as much information as possible, because I know every team has a different philosophy and different ways of playing the game," she says.

"Obviously I want to play, but at this point in time, I'm just going to be happy and accept and respect everything that I get. I know I've worked hard for it, and I really appreciate Indiana giving me the opportunity. It's just incredible they did that for me."

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Photos by Whitney D., Copyright 2004 for Top Stories