For one fan, it's gotta be the shoes

Haley Paulson is 11, an age when anything seems possible. She is also an aspiring basketball player and serious WNBA fan. So what happens when a little girl and one of her big idols have a momentary connection?

Haley was sitting courtside at the Chicago-Minnesota game earlier this month in Minneapolis. The Lynx are her team, but Chicago's Elena Delle Donne is one of her favorite players. So she went prepared to cheer for both sides. Arriving early, she saw Delle Donne on the court stretching and yelled out to get her attention.

"Then she lifted up her Maya Moore jersey, pointed to the No. 11 Delle Donne T-shirt underneath, and put her finger up to her lips and said, 'Shhhhh,'" Haley's father, Greg Paulson, said. "Elena got a good laugh out of that and went back to work."

When the players headed to the locker room, Haley and other kids ran over to snag pre-game autographs. Delle Donne signed Haley's shirt, and the youngster raced back to tell her dad of their exchange.

"I told Elena I wished she played in Minnesota, and then I'd take care of her dog, Wrigley, while she was on road trips," said Haley, who clearly knows her Delle Donne facts. "She said that would be awesome, and she'd totally take me up on that. It was so cool."

It would get cooler, though. A few minutes later, a member of the Sky's staff came over and tapped Haley on shoulder. Smiling and with one hand behind her back, the staffer said she had something to give to Haley from Delle Donne, and asked if she might consider taking off the Lynx jersey and sporting just the Sky shirt for this game.

Haley agreed -- hey, her Lynx were already safely into the playoffs, after all -- and then was stunned as the woman handed her a pair of basketball shoes autographed by Delle Donne. With an extra-special touch.

"She wrote, 'Shhhh' on one of them," Haley said. "So they are, like, personalized. I was so happy, I almost started crying."

This is just one child's story. But these kinds of things happen around the WNBA. There are autographs signed, pictures posed for, clinics performed, hugs given, Twitter requests answered.

There are wonderful initiatives like the Phoenix Mercury "hiring" another 11-year-old girl, Mia McPoland, as an honorary assistant coach through the WNBA playoffs. Mia has a rare bone-marrow disorder, and the Mercury hope to bring publicity to the National Marrow Donor Program. The franchise will help host a marrow registry drive at U.S. Airways Center in Phoenix before Friday's playoff opener against Los Angeles.

The WNBA is in its 18th season. The league and its players are all about basketball, yes, but also other things. Like empowerment and encouragement. And if you think that sounds corny, consider the Haley Paulsons of the world, who remind us how inspirational it can be to look up to someone who stands very tall, indeed.

This stuff matters. It makes a difference. And not just to the youngsters. Ask a player like Delle Donne what it means to her to know she is so adored by children like Haley.

"I love the kids right back just as much as they love me," Delle Donne said this week, on the eve of the Sky's Eastern Conference semifinals series with Atlanta. "To think about the people I looked up to when I was younger and how amazing I thought they were and how much I wanted to emulate them, I take that very seriously. I try to be the best role model possible for anyone who's looking up to me."

Such as Haley, who lives with her family in Edina, a Minneapolis suburb. She has been a WNBA fan since she was in first grade and has seen the Lynx win two championships.

Her parents, Greg and Christine Paulson, have encouraged her passion for basketball with season tickets to the Lynx. And to give her a "carrot" to help her meet the practice goals she sets, they reward her with courtside seats for one game.

"I have to earn it," said Haley, who's now starting sixth grade. "Every other day, I do a workout that my dad and I came up with. I do pushups, then shoot floaters, left-handed layups, right-handed layups, jump shots, step-backs, and stop-and-pop."

Haley knew exactly which Lynx game she wanted this season for the up-close view: Aug. 7, when Chicago visited Target Center. That way, she could see Delle Donne. The Sky star has battled the recurrence of Lyme disease this season; it forced her to miss much of June and July, including the All-Star Game. The contest against the Lynx was just the fourth game back for Delle Donne after her extended time away from playing.

"I like how she has every part of the game down, and her shot's amazing," Haley said. "She's an all-around player like Maya Moore."

Greg Paulson has become as big a WNBA fan as his daughter is, loving the opportunity that watching games gives him to bond with her. He also appreciates how much role models mean to her, and how she learns from them.

"She started playing at a really young age, but she had some problems dealing with failure," Greg said. "So I started taking her to high school games so she'd see that the big girls would make mistakes, too, but they'd move on. Same with the WNBA.

"I know she has paid attention to things like this: She can see Maya Moore miss her first four shots or something, but it doesn't change Maya's confidence level. To have that comparison, and then also be able to meet these players -- not only does it provide a life lesson, but her love of the game just goes through the roof."

Being a regular at Lynx games, Haley has collected her favorite Lynx players' signatures, including Moore's. Adding Delle Donne's autograph made her special game a perfect night. But then getting the shoes made it something Haley will never forget.

Greg said Delle Donne's kind gesture didn't just inspire Haley to work even harder at basketball, but also to look for her own ways to give back to others. Incidentally, even several days after Haley got them, she kept the shoes nearby her all the time.

"Now, me and my dad have to find a case to put them in," Haley said, adding with a laugh, "And then no one can touch them. Except me."