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If at first you don't succeed ...

Anna DeForge saw her approaching from the corner of her eye.

But even as Swin Cash continued her way, DeForge figured the Detroit Shock star was just getting into position on the court.

DeForge never expected what happened next.

"Hi, Anna," Cash casually said.

"She knew who I was," DeForge said recently, recalling the memory from a game last season. "It was a validation and meant a lot to me. People around the league were starting to know who I was."

After ill-timed illness and injuries sidelined her WNBA career for two years, DeForge finally emerged as one of the league's rising stars in 2003. The 5-foot-10 guard for the Phoenix Mercury averaged 11.9 points, shooting better than 41 percent form the field and 3-point line, and her peers weren't the only ones who noticed. Although Phoenix struggled to win just eight games last season, foes still couldn't afford to overlook DeForge, and opposing coaches devised game plans to limit her offense.

A year later, things haven't changed, except that with Diana Taurasi alongside her in the Mercury's backcourt, DeForge and Phoenix are pointed toward a playoff spot. As the league break nears, the Mercury (11-12) are in fourth place in the Western Conference, and DeForge's 15 points per game ranks 10th in the league while her 43.5 percent accuracy from downtown ranks third. And on Thursday, DeForge will make her WNBA All-Star debut in the USA vs. WNBA Game at Radio City (7 p.m. ET, ESPN).

Though a new coach, a revamped roster and Taurasi account for much of the Mercury's turnaround, don't discount DeForge's influence. Though she doesn't have the name recognition of players such as Taurasi, Lisa Leslie, Katie Smith or Sheryl Swoopes, DeForge's game is comparable. And the story of her rise -- and perseverance -- are even more inspiring.

Though DeForge had been the 16th overall pick in the 1999 ABL draft, she was forced to rely on free agency in the WNBA. And from the beginning, despite impressive performances in college (Nebraska) and in the ABL (San Jose Lasers), she had to prove herself all over again.

In her first year with the WNBA, we refused to give DeForge an exemption from a local tryout for our franchise in Detroit, which I was head coach of at the time. DeForge didn't argue, paid the $100 fee everyone else had and then went head-to-head with the competition. Since the field included a 57-year-old grandmother and a 4-11 woman who had barely dribbled the ball before, the tryout was probably more of a mental test.

DeForge made the team as the Shock's 11th player, and although she barely got out of her warm-ups the first 14 games of the 2000 season, her tremendous work ethic and willingness to study game film on her own time made DeForge stand out. Even after three-hour practices, DeForge didn't want to leave the court.

Then during a long road trip, three of our perimeter players suffered injuries. We ended up starting DeForge in the second half of a game in Phoenix, and the next day, started her for tipoff against Utah. It was a big game as DeForge was facing her old San Jose Lasers teammate, Jen Azzi. All of my assistants told me not to start DeForge, but we ended up winning the game, and DeForge's 14 points, seven rebounds and six assists in 37 minutes were the story of the game.

That was really her first big moment in the league, and reinforced that DeForge had talent. She went on to start nine more games that season, and averaged 5.4 points while shooting 40.5 percent from the field.

Then, during the 2001 draft, Detroit traded DeForge to Houston for Jen Rizzotti. At the time, DeForge was in incredible shape, training five to six hours a day. But shortly into preseason camp, DeForge began having blackouts. Though she was later diagnosed with hypoglycemia, no franchise can take a chance on a free agent, and Houston cut her less than five days into camp.

For the first time in as long as she could remember, DeForge was forced to sit out a season. So that summer, she worked to change her diet and get her condition under control. Once that happened, DeForge found her way into the NWBL, and ended up as the league's leading scorer with 24 points per game in January 2002.

By the time the 2002 WNBA training camps opened, she was in peak shape, and had already impressed several coaches after more than holding her own against established players such as Swoopes, Kelly and Coco Miller, Becky Hammon and Tina Thompson in the NWBL.

Anne Donovan, who was Charlotte's head coach at the time, brought DeForge into camp. But bad timing struck again, and after catching an elbow to her eye, DeForge -- who had recently had Lasik surgery -- was sidelined for another week. The Sting had no choice but to cut her, causing DeForge to miss her second straight season.

Still, even two years on the sidelines didn't dissuade DeForge. She returned to the gym and lifted weights six days a week, and spent equal time working on her weaknesses, improving her footwork, balance and angles.

That offseason, DeForge again shined in the NWBL, using her only opportunity for games to her advantage. She spent $6,000 to move to Chicago to play with the Blaze, and when training camp opened for the 2003 WNBA season, she was among the 18 players in Phoenix' camp.

Preseason camp was brutal, but even as some of her teammates struggled with the high altitude in Flagstaff, DeForge never missed a practice. And though she came off the bench behind Edwina Brown, Kristen Veal and Tamicha Jackson early on in camp, DeForge never got rattled. She remained confident, and it showed, as she nailed five 3-pointers and scored 25 points in the Mercury's final preseason game. Not only did she make the roster, but eight games into the season, DeForge was put in the starting lineup -- and hasn't left since. She led Phoenix in scoring and minutes, ranked second in steals and by season's end was named team MVP. She also finished second for the league's Most Improved Player award.

But the doubting didn't stop. The Mercury's woeful record worked against DeForge, and some critics called her a one-hit wonder. And that's why Cash's greeting had met so much. It reminded DeForge to remain confident.

She rode that self assurance into another solid NWBL performance, and teamed with Swoopes, Cheryl Ford and Sheila Lambert to lead the Dallas Fury to the NWBL title. And the league's MVP honor didn't go to Swoopes, Thompson, Ruth Riley or Tamika Catchings. DeForge won it, and the 3-point shooting contest at the league's All-Star game, too.

This season, most doubters have become believers, and that's because DeForge can take anyone off the dribble anytime, anywhere. She might not have the quickness of some of her peers, but her guile and footwork more than compensate. If you take away her move, she'll counter with alternative moves because she knows how to create separation and get her shot off against anybody in the league. Much like Jeff Hornacek, DeForge gets her shot off when you don't think she can.

DeForge, the only WNBA player of the week this season who won't be competing in the Athens Games, has dramatically improved her defense as well. Though that was a weakness in her game three years ago, DeForge now guards every opponents' top perimeter scorer. Her left hand also is as good as anybody's in the league, and she's a great passer. It's a bold prediction, but it's not too hard to picture DeForge and Taurasi teaming up in the 2008 Olympics.

As for Taurasi? The two couldn't complement each other better, and combine as the highest-scoring backcourt in the WNBA right now (32.7 points). They have great basketball minds and know the game inside and out, and while one can penetrate and pitch, the other is deadly from the perimeter.

Of course, Taurasi didn't know who DeForge was a year ago.

And now?

"Anna's been the most consistent player on our team this year," Taurasi said.

Nancy Lieberman, an ESPN analyst and Hall of Famer, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's women's basketball coverage. Contact her at www.nancylieberman.com.