UNCASVILLE, Conn. -- Caroline Hartley was sitting down outside her parents' fish market in Maine when she received her birthday present: a new basketball with a piece of paper taped to it. She then read what that paper said and her jaw dropped.
"It's WNBA tickets!" she screamed. What happened next was a mix of emotions she couldn't contain. She brought her hands to her mouth in awe. Her face turned red in shock. She began to cry with joy.
It was two weeks ago when Maribeth and Jim surprised their 12-year-old daughter with tickets to her first WNBA game. It's been 11 days since their video went viral on Twitter, with players and teams around the league embracing Caroline's genuine excitement.
"I thought instantly, 'Oh, my god, I want to meet her,'" Connecticut Sun guard Layshia Clarendon said.
The best birthday present Caroline could receive turned from a dream into reality on Friday, and it was better than she could have imagined.
It was more than the upgraded seats to courtside, the ability to shoot hoops with Jewell Loyd and meet her favorite players, the chance to bring home some signed memorabilia and a custom jersey, and a personal shout-out from Chiney Ogwumike on the scoreboard during a timeout. It was a feeling of fulfillment, of joy, of pure elation.
"It's beyond words," Caroline said.
Caroline had been playing basketball for years before she found out about the goliath that is UConn. She was in fourth grade when Breanna Stewart capped her college career with her fourth NCAA title with the Huskies.
"I was really impressed with how great they played and how nobody was ever a ball hog or nobody kept the ball to themselves," Caroline said.
(For what it's worth, she's never been to a UConn game, either. Hint, hint.)
Even though the UConn legend went all the way to Seattle, Caroline followed her as best she could in the WNBA. Buying League Pass this year has also helped.
But Caroline's local team, albeit three hours away, is the Sun. So the four Hartleys (including 10-year-old brother Jack) drove from Scarborough, Maine, to Mohegan Sun, just so their daughter could finally watch a WNBA game in person.
Jim and Maribeth run Pine Tree Seafood & Produce Company, only a couple of miles from Old Orchard Beach. Vacations, especially in the summer, are hard to plan. They wanted to gift Caroline tickets for her 11th birthday last year, but their summer turned hectic when Caroline's All-Star softball team kept winning and had a tournament in Pennsylvania.
The clothes Caroline got last year were nice, but they didn't compare to the WNBA tickets. Heck, even the tickets to see a Taylor Swift concert later this year weren't in the same category as her first professional women's basketball game.
"Her reaction for the Taylor Swift tickets was substantially more subdued with the WNBA tickets," Maribeth said jokingly.
After lunch, they arrived at the arena at 4:00 for a special tour, walking through the same hallways Kiss and the Rolling Stones once graced. With her headband, orange Sun shirt and turquoise shoes, Caroline took everything in with her family, watching dance teams rehearse and gazing at the banners in the arena.
Eventually, the players began to file in for warmups. Clarendon was among the first to step onto the court, and she did a double-take when she realized the young girl standing on the baseline was the same one from the video.
"Realizing we have a league for young girls to look up and to play into, how big a deal that is ... it made me a little teary-eyed," Clarendon said.
Caroline took a seat on the Sun bench, and Clarendon soon joined her for a little one-on-one time.
"I hope we convert you to solely a Connecticut Sun fan," Clarendon told Caroline. "But I'm a fan of Stewie too."
Loyd was among the first Storm players out of the tunnel, and she instantly recognized Caroline. She invited her onto the court to take some shots, and after some encouragement from Dad, she put up jumper after jumper after jumper.
That's when a tall 6-foot-4 figure emerged from the tunnel in bright yellow Storm gear, basketball in hand. Caroline saw her walking up from a mile away.
"I have something for you," Stewart told Caroline. "I know we're in Connecticut, but ..."
Then she handed her a green Storm shirt.
"The first time I watched [the video], I didn't realize she was coming to this game," Stewart said. "And then once I did, I was like, she needs some Storm gear too. I know Connecticut's gonna swag her up, but she needs some of our gear too."
The Sun wouldn't be outdone. Jasmine Thomas introduced her to everyone on the bench and hugged the family. Then Ogwumike, her favorite Sun player, came over with a surprise: a customized No. 12 jersey with "Hartley" on the back. Caroline immediately put it on and never took it off, beaming as each player autographed her back.
"She represents everything that we play for, everything that we stand for, everything that's special about our game," said Ogwumike, who had Caroline feed her a couple of assists during shootaround. "Her enthusiasm was amazing. I think she had the time of the life."
That she did. It was a close game until the Storm used a pivotal 16-2 fourth-quarter run to help clinch a 78-65 victory. Right after the buzzer, Stewart took off her green-and-white KDs, grabbed a Sharpie from someone on the scorer's table and signed them. She walked over to the birthday girl to give her one last gift.
"We have all been in that position," Stewart said. "We've all been that young fan to somebody."
Ogwumike told her anytime she wants to come to a game, "We got her." Caroline's parents both laughed at the thought of what they could possibly get her when she becomes a teenager.
"She's going to try out," Jim joked.