No doubt Caitlin Clark revolutionizing women’s hoops


(From the college level to the pros, in Indiana, with Seymour women playing crucial roles, and around the nation, in person and on television, women’s basketball is reaching unprecedented heights of popularity, propelled by Caitlin Clark and other new faces. The Tribune examines the developments in a four-part series.)

The day the Indiana Fever played its first home game of the 2024 season, Caitlin Clark transformed from a larger-than-life basketball player into someone who magically did become larger than life.

Outside the Hyatt Regency in downtown Indianapolis a 150-foot-tall advertising banner connecting the No. 1 overall pick in this year’s WNBA draft with Gatorade was unveiled. It seemed big enough to be seen from Cincinnati.

Inside Gainbridge Fieldhouse on May 16, a team that finished 13-27 in the WNBA last season was cheered by a sellout crowd of 17,274 fans. They swooned even at free throws made or passes completed by Clark.

The face of a new generation of women’s professional basketball, and a heralded rookie class, fresh from smashing college basketball scoring records, the 6-foot guard from the University of Iowa has emerged as an American phenomenon.

The gregarious, light-hearted, but oh-so competitive Clark is as omni-present on the internet as Taylor Swift, the most popular pop artist in the world, and in public Clark is as much a threat to be mobbed as the Beatles at the height of Beatlemania.

Just days ago, an online outlet published a story headlined, “10 Things You Might Not Know About Caitlin Clark.”

She has accepted the demands of fame calmly, but wonders what else sports reporters might ask. On game days, barely into her pro career, Clark may be called on for three press conferences daily — after Fever morning shoot-around, pre-game and post-game.

“That’s crazy. I love you guys,” Clark said. “But we’ve got to cut that back. I feel you know everything about my life at this point.”

At this “point” is just age 22, after the most decorated career in women’s college basketball history. But Clark is new to “the W,” as the WNBA brands itself, and attracting a whole new level of hype.

The WNBA has just 12 teams with 144 roster spots. What a narrow pinnacle the summit of the mountain is. Think Mount Everest, but with climbers trying to push others over a cliff. It is difficult to make a final roster and more challenging to make a mark. Especially so for a rookie. Never mind one being asked to shape-shift almost like Gumby.

True to form, hair-trigger-finger typists on the internet are insatiable wanting to know more, more, more about Caitlin every minute. Others fire off word assaults, calling her a player of privilege because she is white, or else dissing Fever coach Christie Sides for subbing for Clark.

“The criticism, it’s just a lot,” Sides said. “The hate and the foul language directed at these players.”

In some ways, Clark is being asked to hurry up and save the league. The W has been waiting to become the Next Big Thing on the American sports landscape for 28 years and riding the slim shoulders of a pony-tailed prodigy from Des Moines suits its purposes.

Hers too, because this is what Clark has dreamt of since elementary school — to make it to the top. Prepping for her first pro game in Connecticut, Clark bubbled enthusiastically.

“I feel like a little kid,” she said. “I’m giddy with excitement. I can’t wait for the game to get here. This is basketball. Just have fun.”

Showing no nerves, Clark has offered thoughtful answers to the barrage of questions and never dipped into controversy, even when baited.

It’s been less than two months since Clark’s last college game. But her name recognition is probably sneaking up on President Joe Biden’s, or ex-prez Donald Trump’s, with better approval ratings. Of course, neither of them can sink 30-foot jump shots.

If Clark was an Indy 500 car, she would be layered in sponsor decals. Clark’s path has been smoothed by deals with State Farm, Xfinity, Gatorade, Nike ($28 million and a signature shoe), Wilson Sporting Goods all plastering her Name, Image and Likeness (to borrow an NCAA term) around. After majoring in marketing with a minor in communications, it might be said Clark is swiftly using her college education.

The Fever, a rebuilding team that missed the playoffs last year to earn that No. 1 pick, began slowly in this campaign that runs till September. Clark deserved a mixed report card, some good scoring, some crisp passing, but too many turnovers and fouls. Fever forward Katie Lou Samuelson said teammates must help Clark because is “being hounded” so intensely defensively by opponents.

Yet the Caitlin Clark Effect (as some call her impact) has ignited rooting passions from little boys and girls imploring parents to buy No. 22 Fever T-shirts and with fans storming box offices.

The home opener drew that 17,000-plus and the Connecticut Sun attracted 8,910 for the Fever, its first sellout in 21 years. At the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, the New York Liberty sold out 17,700 seats for the Fever. Back home, the Fever sold out again – on a Monday night. Then the Fever headed West, selling out in Seattle, Los Angeles and Las Vegas.

“There was just a buzz in the air,” Clark said before one game, but she could have said that before all of them.

Overnight stardom

Few people’s lives change so abruptly. As a Hawkeye sophomore Clark stamped her footprint on the Big Ten. A year later she was nationally known in women’s basketball. By her senior year, Clark was a nationwide sensation.

Days before the WNBA player draft in New York, Clark appeared on Saturday Night Live, trading jokes with Michael Che on Weekend Update. Che cracked maybe Clark will wear an apron since Iowa had retired her 22 uniform jersey. She whipped out an autographed pink apron for him. Touche.

Elsewhere, a woman walked into a bar in her neighborhood wearing a top displaying a rooting interest in Caitlin Clark. When one guy said, “Who’s that?” the other men in the hard-drinking establishment hooted him down.

Others in the Cult of Caitlin might visit the north side of Indianapolis. Before Clark became a member of the Fever an artist showed faith general manager Lin Dunn would draft her.

Kwazar Martin painted a mural on the rear side of a warehouse-type building at 1825 W. 18th Street. Who gets a public piece of art drawn of them before even joining the home team?

A year earlier, the team, which won a WNBA title in 2012, but hasn’t reached the playoffs since 2016, drafted South Carolina center Aliyah Boston first. This was Vegas-type good luck gaining the first pick in the lottery again.

The televised WNBA draft was an extravaganza. Clark went No. 1, outfitted in Prada designer clothes. Other college stars such as Angel Reese, Cameron Brink and Kamilla Cardoso glamorized as if it was the prom times 10.

Broadcaster Rebecca Lobo said Clark was the right choice for Indiana. “You cannot find a better fit than Caitlin Clark,” Lobo said.

Clark summarized the W as home of the best women players in the world and said she was committed to getting better.

Better? While totaling more than 3,950 points to top everyone who came before in major college basketball, in setting assists records and leading her team to the NCAA title game twice, Clark conquered all collegiate worlds. Record-setting ratings followed when she played on national TV.

Clark, renowned for great court vision feeding teammates, blew fans’ minds by lofting three-point shots from what seemed to be distant area codes.

In perhaps the ultimate Clark TV commercial, Xfinity dug up another Caitlin Clark, a city planner from Scottsdale, Arizona. Demonstrating not just anyone named Caitlin can master her routines, the other Caitlin stumbled through some drills. The ad concludes with real Clark throwing down a long-range basket with back-up Clark standing near the half-court logo plaintively asking, “She shoots from here?”

To illustrate one level of Caitlin craziness, a betting outlet fed data to three AI operations and returned predictions stating Clark will be rookie-of-the year, become the W’s all-time leading scorer and end up in the Basketball Hall of Fame.

That was prior to her playing her first pro game.

Women’s pro beginnings

The WNBA’s time-has-come creation followed the 1996 U.S. Olympic women’s gold-medal championship blitz after the unit went 60-0 while playing together for 10 months while covering 100,000 miles. That group topped Brazil in Atlanta as the rhythms of the then-popular Macarena song reverberated.

Several U.S. players were destined for special things, including Hall of Famer Lobo, Lisa Leslie, who scored 29 points in the 24-point title win, Sheryl Swoopes, Dawn Staley, the current South Carolina coach, and others.

Players immediately promoted a dream.

“When I was a kid,” said Leslie, a 6-5 center who played for Southern Cal, “I never had women to watch. What we’re doing is going to be great for little girls.”

Two women’s pro leagues started. The American Basketball League began play that same year, featuring such teams as the New England Blizzard and the Nashville Noise, but folded in 1999. The WNBA began in 1997, and with considerable NBA backing, it stuck. Welcome to the W, as the league says.

The Fever began play in 2000. At the home opener this May the team passed out commemorative 25th anniversary tickets.

It took until 2005 for the Fever to post a winning record and its only title came in 2012. Much of the success was owed to the skill of Tamika Catchings, with Dunn coaching.

Dunn, 77, returned recently as general manager to guide a renaissance and end the playoff drought. Her goal is a three-year turnaround.

Last year, the Fever picked Boston first and she became rookie-of-the-year. Guard Grace Berger of Indiana University also was chosen in the first round.

When Clark came to Assembly Hall to face IU, she was booed when introduced. When drafted by the Fever Clark said, “I hated playing at Indiana and they hated me.” She hoped things would be OK in Indianapolis. No one told her Hoosier fans boo everyone in visiting starting lineups, but Berger smiled and said, Well, maybe it was a little louder for Clark.

The Clark hysteria has made her a multi-million-dollar baby through endorsements. It is an irony of the limitations of the WNBA and its 40-game season Clark gets just $76,535 as her rookie-capped salary.

The Clark spotlight is so bright it creates enormous pressure to make good in a hurry.

At the end of one story was this comment: “There’s a million moms out there worried about her. I hope she’s eating well, getting good sleep. So much on her, but she’s human and needs to take care of herself.” The writer did not expressly say she wished to adopt Clark.

The W realizes Clark is a precious property. When fans flocked around the Fever during travel to Dallas for an exhibition game, the overdue subject of team charter flights hit the headlines. The transition is now underway. With the Fever’s hectic early schedule and little time for practice, game film may be the in-flight movies.

Clark Fever jerseys sold out in hours. Her love life was dissected in gossipy fashion online. She dates Connor McCaffrey, who works for the Pacers and is the son of Iowa men’s coach Fran McCaffrey.

At the Fever Gainbridge opener, plenty of fans of all ages dressed in Clark T-shirts, some of them her old Iowa jersey, some in new Fever tops. Travis Thomas, from Iowa, and Susan Wynter, flew into Indianapolis for the game from Melbourne, Florida, and Thomas’ brother outfitted them.

“We got off the plane and he handed us T-shirts,” Thomas said.

Despite ups and downs Clark’s equanimity and assurance seem in balance. The Fever faced a brutal schedule against two of the W’s top teams from last year, twice each, then a western road swing, starting out 0-5.

In her first game, at Connecticut, Clark scored 20 points, but committed 10 turnovers. Versus the New York Liberty she committed five fouls. In a rematch against New York, Clark scored 22 points with 8 assists, but had 6 turnovers. Clark was at her best at Seattle with 21 points, 7 rebounds, 7 assists and no fouls.

When the Fever finally won, 78-73, at Los Angeles, Clark scored 11 points, gathered 10 rebounds and made 8 assists and 4 steals.

Overall, those are realistic results for a good rookie adapting to a higher level of play and new teammates on a losing team. In one game, Clark tumbled to the court twisting her left ankle. The Fever and sponsors probably met in the closest ER with mini-heart attacks before being assured she was OK.

The sound vibe swirls around Clark daily. There are suggestions she is so popular only because she is white and not gay. Intense fans called for Sides’ firing because Clark did not get to take the last shot in a close game.

LeBron James jumped in, advising Clark to stay cool, just be herself (she has repeatedly said that’s her plan) and block out the commotion.

Clark’s youth is periodically illuminated. She had never before played a game in New York. She had never visited Las Vegas and was amused by the glitzy gambling scene. Sometime, she teased wryly, she will go back and play roulette, betting on her lucky number — 22. Yes, her jersey number.

Regardless of controversial opinions voiced, criticisms barked, Clark has only engaged in civil discourse with all, taking the high road while looking at the big picture.

“I think the more opportunities we can give across the board, that’s what’s going to elevate women’s basketball,” Clark said. “The parity in women’s basketball is what’s making more people want to come watch it. I think the more we can spread the love, show people, show their talent, show their teams — that’s just going to continue to elevate it.”

Perhaps when Caitlin Clark completes her basketball career, she will enter the diplomatic service.

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