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BOZICH | Grace Berger's journey from family driveway to IU to WNBA is complete

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- One day, you're wearing your green No. 9 Rajon Rondo Boston Celtics' jersey and practicing ball-handling in the driveway.

The next day, you're pulling on your No. 34 Indiana Fever jersey and preparing for your professional debut.

One day, you're driving your daughter across America to high school, AAU and all-star basketball events.

The next day, you and your wife pack for an overnight trip to Indianapolis to watch your soon-to-be 24-year-old baby daughter begin what you hope will be a long, productive WNBA career.

Friday is the next day for Todd Berger and his wife, Mary Charlotte.

Around 1 p.m., they will begin their drive to downtown Indianapolis to watch their youngest child, Grace, play her first regular-season pro basketball game against the Connecticut Sun at 7 p.m. in Gainbridge Fieldhouse.

"It's pretty overwhelming," Todd Berger said.

"We're just really proud of Grace and really happy for her. It's more that we're happy for her because she worked so hard at being good at basketball.

"She kind of put all of her eggs in one basket because she spent a lot of time in her youth practicing basketball."

On Friday, Todd and Mary Charlotte will share the ride to a Fever game that Todd and Grace used to make two or three times every season.

Dad and daughter are basketball junkies. They attended games for the Fever, Pacers, the University of Louisville men and women and other teams.

Don't overlook an unforgettable January 2016 drive to Cleveland to watch LeBron James and the Cavaliers host Steph Curry and the Golden State Warriors on Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Curry had 35 (and James 16) in a 132-98 Warriors' victory.

"We used to talk about basketball in the car but we don't do that as much any more because she knows so much more than me," Todd Berger said with a laugh.

"She used some term (about hedging ball screens), and I said, 'I don't know what that is.' She said, 'You don't know what that is?' I told her that I had no idea what that means."

Friday night will merely be the latest exclamation point Grace Berger has delivered in a career that began in the family garage. Dad constructed a makeshift 7-foot goal for his son, Jack, to practice his jump shot. Grace, not her older brother, dominated that goal.

Neighbors like former University of Kentucky and NBA stars Rick Robey and Nazr Mohammed would stop their cars while driving past the Berger home to marvel at her persistence in working on fundamental drills over and over and over and over.

Whenever the Bergers took a family vacation, they had to pack more than sunscreen. Two basketballs were mandatory. Even on vacation, Grace dribbled balls in each hand for at least 90 minutes.

"Every night," Todd Berger said. "She had to do that or she really couldn't go to sleep. It just bothered her."

Although Todd played basketball at St. Xavier High School and Transylvania University, he said "Uncle Google," taught his daughter the game.

A Google search is where she found the ball-handling drill. Ditto for the George Mikan Drill, which convinced her to learn to make layups with either hand. She attended Rondo's basketball camp. She taught herself how to wiggle free for mid-range jump shots, the way Paul Pierce did it for the Celtics.

She borrowed Pierce's No. 34. Pierce became her favorite player. ESPN analyst Holly Rowe has promised to introduce Berger to Pierce one day.

In high school, at Sacred Heart Academy, she was a star, a productive varsity player starting in her freshman season. The only frustrations there were making a single Kentucky Sweet Sixteen without winning a state title,

Ditto for her career at Indiana University, where Grace Berger competed for five seasons, leading the Hoosiers to back-to-back-to-back NCAA Tournaments, the 2022 Big Ten regular season title and the No. 2 national ranking for coach Teri Moren. Berger will take her spot in the IU Athletics Hall of Fame as soon as she is eligible.

But first is her latest greatest basketball adventure: a spot with the Fever, which selected Berger with the seventh overall pick in the WNBA Draft last month.

"Grace uses the term surreal a lot (about being drafted that high)," Todd Berger said. "But it was kind of surreal. This is all overwhelming. You get overwhelmed with emotions.

"Of all the girls who have tried and practiced ... there are a lot of girls that practiced like Grace did and never make it.

"Then, of all the people who did that, Grace actually made it and actually got drafted. It's just kind of overwhelming at times. Sometimes you feel guilty because (Grace) did it and all these girls working didn't."

Getting there is difficult. Staying there is more difficult. Berger will begin the season as a Fever reserve. In two preseason games, she averaged two points and two rebounds in less than 15 minutes a game.

Berger saw the harsh realities of professional sports when the Fever waived former Louisville star Emily Engstler as well as Destanni Henderson, an all-American from South Carolina, prior to the season. There are only 12 teams and 144 roster spots.

The Fever expects a crowd of more than 6,000 for opening night. A significant percentage of that group will be Grace Berger fans making the drive from Bloomington and Louisville.

During the Fever's home preseason game, the crowd chanted for coach Christie Sides to put Berger in the game.

"It's intense," Todd Berger said. "We're nervous.

"We want her to succeed, and it's a bit of a step up from from college to the WNBA. Everybody is bigger and stronger and athletic.

"I feel like she's going to do fine. She needs to get comfortable. We're a little nervous but we've been nervous our whole lives about Grace playing basketball. It's nothing new."

Grace Berger's remarkable journey from the family garage to the WNBA will officially reach its next stop in Indianapolis on Friday night.

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