Home U.S. News Six Feet Tall and Tons of Swagger: Why Caitlin Clark Is Different

Six Feet Tall and Tons of Swagger: Why Caitlin Clark Is Different

Six Feet Tall and Tons of Swagger: Why Caitlin Clark Is Different

When Caitlin Clark moves — weaving through defensive traffic; waving unsubtly for a teammate’s pass; wriggling free enough to catch, fire, catch fire — people tend to follow.

This instinct informs every opponent’s scouting report, to the extent that anybody can prepare one with confidence: a triple-underlined directive to shadow Clark, the biggest star in college basketball, lest she splash another 3-pointer from the Hawkeye beak in the University of Iowa logo near midcourt.

At perpetual sellouts, at home and on the road, crowds approaching 15,000 crane their phones in her general direction from pregame stretches through postgame autograph sessions. Young girls and old men tug at “22” Clark jerseys that flap above their knees. Small delegations from her Manhattan marketing firm file in to appraise their new asset. Stewards of the sport, wary from experience, permit themselves to wonder if something might be different this time.

“I’ve stayed away from basketball,” said C. Vivian Stringer, the Hall of Fame former coach at Rutgers and Iowa who retired in 2022. “But how can you stay away from Caitlin Clark?”

The question carries far-reaching implications — social, financial, semi-existential — for Clark’s sport, her state and the long and sometimes halting march of women’s athletics in America.

Last spring, Clark’s rolling spectacle seemed to signal a breakthrough. The national championship game, which Iowa lost to L.S.U., attracted some 10 million viewers, a runaway record for a women’s final. This month, Clark is poised to become the leading Division I college scorer in women’s history, a chase chronicled basket by basket on ESPN with a nightly fervor once reserved for touchdown passes and steroidal home-run marks. She is also threatening the overall Division I scoring record set more than 50 years ago by Pete Maravich, the master showman to whom she is often compared.

“I saw somebody called me, like, Ponytail Pete,” Clark said before last year’s title game. She did not dispute the compliment.

Whenever this season ends, Clark — who grew up in West Des Moines, two hours from campus — will face a fateful decision: return to Iowa or go pro, where attention and TV viewership lag behind the college game?

And basketball fans will face their own, consciously or not: Will they care as much when Clark is somewhere else? When she moves, will they follow?

“I don’t know the answer to that,” said Lisa Bluder, Iowa’s coach, nodding at a long history of peaks and plateaus in women’s basketball. “I wish I could positively say yes.”

Many data points are encouraging for Clark personally, at least, and for the long-term health of the college game. A new television deal values the women’s tournament at about $65 million annually, according to the N.C.A.A., a roughly tenfold increase from the last contract. Clark’s rise, coinciding with the name-image-and-likeness era in college sports, has already positioned her to cash in with major endorsements.

In October, the team played before a record 55,646 people in an exhibition game inside Iowa’s football stadium, a number that quickly found its way onto T-shirts. Clark’s trading card has fetched precedent-busting five-figure bids at auction. In Iowa City, proprietors say, business at local restaurants can more than double on game nights, offset only slightly by an uptick in replacement costs for glasses lost to excessive celebration.

“People are jumping out of their chairs, drinks are flying,” said Matt Swift, who co-owns a dozen restaurants in the area. “It’s gone from something you maybe put on the television at the restaurants to mandatory TV.”

Often, it is the less quantifiable metrics that resonate most. At road games especially, where guests are less accustomed to Clark’s rhythms, venues swell with a kind of frantic murmur whenever the ball swings her way, as if she might shoot it before it arrives. At home, amid a ferocious blizzard recently, thousands of fans drove past overturned semis in very-sub-zero Iowa temperatures to reach Carver-Hawkeye Arena in time to see her. Many ordered ice cream once inside.

“Savages,” Clark has said admiringly of the team’s faithful.

And in almost every section, children carrying homemade signs (“I Wanna Be Like Cait,” “Here To Watch and Learn”) stare with unbending focus, hoping she might look back.

“You want these?” Clark said after a home victory over Wisconsin, lifting her sneakers toward a bespectacled girl she had noticed mimicking the team’s leg-swinging stretches before the game. The child accepted them wordlessly, turning away from Clark briefly to beam without giving herself away.

Clark likes to say she was “just that young girl,” traveling to games around Iowa with family and glimpsing her future. Her arc from home-state prodigy to national export has become the stuff of local lore: the kid with shooting range so boundless on the driveway hoop that her father had to remove grass from the lawn to make room; the competitor so pitiless that her brother needed staples to close a head wound after a childhood Nerf game; the girl who swiped M.V.P. honors in a boys’ youth league.

“Parents were mad. They’re like, ‘How can you give it to a girl?’” Clark said recently. “It’s still kind of those same battles to this day.”

For Iowa, the team and the state, Clark’s maybe-final season exists in a kind of liminal space. She is still theirs; she is also everyone’s. She is plainly ready to compete professionally but might well be better served staying put. She is a 22-year-old who unwinds with video games and ESPN in the cluttered two-bedroom apartment she shares; it just happens that the ESPN sessions sometimes include her highlights (“Her Beakness,” one anchor calls her, referencing the team mascot), and the clutter comes from her corporate partners.

“Lots of Nike shoe boxes,” Kylie Feuerbach, her teammate and roommate, said of their spoils. “Six or seven crates of Gatorade.”

At times, Clark can seem wearied by the collective toll — the traveling din (“Caitlin! Over here! Caitlin!”), the abundant asks, the small matter of leading a team with renewed Final Four aspirations.

“I’ve seen them want her to sign a lot of people’s heads,” Jan Jensen, Iowa’s associate head coach, said of the fans.

Clark declined repeated requests for a wide-ranging interview through her school and her management firm, whose clients include Tiger Woods and Peyton Manning.

When she does speak publicly, she often retreats to the safety of platitudes, sounding something like the politicians who wander the grounds each election season at Iowa’s state fair (where a butter sculpture of Clark was among last year’s attractions).

“Every day brings a great challenge,” Clark told reporters flatly after a recent game at Rutgers, wiping her face at one point with a deep breath, pulling at her ponytail, leaning against a table after another triple-double. “Every day is a lot of fun for me.”

She stood to leave, and the cameras followed.

It was that look that stood out immediately, those who know her say: the productive impatience with failure, the merry swagger in attaining its opposite.

From her freshman season, Clark tormented the male managers and team assistants who tried to guard her in practice, raining gleeful profanities after each jumper.

Even low-stakes contests off the court, like video games with friends, could crackle with must-win fury. “She’ll be playing some Fortnite in her room,” Feuerbach said, “and I can hear her screaming.”

Will McIntire, a friend and graduate assistant who has defended Clark in practice for four years, recalled a dispute of theirs earlier this season, when Clark accused McIntire of flubbing a scouting report. He conceded nothing. They kept jawing.

“She’s like, ‘You’re a little bitch,’” he said. “I’m like, ‘Say it again.’ She said it again.”

Bluder, the coach, started laughing from the sidelines, McIntire said. He did, too. Not Clark.

“She was pretty serious in the moment,” he said.

For all the contributions Clark hopes to make to the game, her most indelible might be this: In a sport where proudly maniacal men — Michael Jordan, Larry Bird, Kobe Bryant — have long been celebrated as avatars of win-at-all-costs tenacity, cursing out teammates and opponents in equal measure, Clark has modeled a competitive streak as blazing as anyone’s in modern basketball.

She taunts. She yells. She works referees. She beckons the crowd, holding her hand to her ear.

“She’s shown a lot of families that are raising a young girl who’s really wired with that passion,” Jensen, the associate head coach, said. “This is the female athlete. Allow them to be.”

There are games when Clark can appear almost permanently irritated — at herself, at the calls, at the ground — landing with extra force when she comes down after a deep 3, dropping her raised right arm like a guillotine when the shot rips through the net, shaking her head a bit as she hustles back on defense.

Seeing passing angles that even veteran teammates can fail to anticipate, Clark still visibly clenches sometimes when players bobble her deliveries. She goes to the bench only for quick breathers or to watch the closing minutes of blowouts, her endurance sustained by an off-season training regimen that includes 300 shots a day (a hundred 3s, a hundred free throws, a hundred from midrange) with conditioning interspersed to simulate the exhaustion of gameplay.

“Ice cold,” said Nadine Domond, the women’s coach at Virginia State University in Division II and a former player at Iowa and in the W.N.B.A., remembering Clark’s relentlessness even in high school. “You don’t become Kobe. You were Kobe before.”

Clark has indulged some fine-tuning from team staff. Mindful that opponents and their fans hope to rattle her, Bluder has infused her coaching with well-laid tests.

Megan Gustafson, who was Iowa’s all-time scoring leader before Clark eclipsed her, recalled visiting a practice last fall, when a scrimmage referee’s officiating had already displeased Clark.

“Bluder was like, ‘Well, we’re just going to keep going,’” said Gustafson, who recently signed with the W.N.B.A.’s Las Vegas Aces. “The next play, drive to the basket, great shot and Coach Bluder takes over and personally calls the charge. She knew Caitlin was heated from the call before and wanted to apply a little more pressure.”

As a playmaker, Clark quickly established her long-range proficiency as a freshman, when she averaged nearly 27 points.

She has often been likened to Stephen Curry, the greatest shooter in N.B.A. history, though the comparison can stretch beyond their defining skill. “Steph just looked like your brother,” Domond said, noting Curry’s normal-seeming physical build (6-foot-2 and slight) in a game of giants.

For Clark — six feet tall, with quick-twitch speed and herky-jerk guile — “It’s like, ‘That could be my sister,’” Domond said. “‘That could be my daughter.’”

Coaches say Clark has grown as a passer, and now moves more effectively without the ball.

Monika Czinano, a former teammate who has been playing professionally in Hungary, said it was clear early on that Clark “wasn’t used to having to rely on a lot of people.”

“It was kind of a struggle for her,” Czinano said, “because she knew she had to trust people.”

With trust has come occasional good fortune. During a fast break against Wisconsin, Clark whipped a pass with such velocity to a teammate, Kate Martin, that Martin blocked it with her hands to protect her face, inadvertently deflecting it to another teammate for a layup.

In lower moments, Clark can seem more self-flagellating than short fused. Last year, she received a technical foul after saying “damn it” to herself after a miss — the sort of low-grade offense that is rarely penalized in the men’s game. She posed days later with a supporter in a “Damn It” shirt. The team posted the image to social media with a smiling-in-sunglasses emoji.

“I like the competitiveness,” said Tom Newell, 66, a fan who traveled to the Wisconsin game from his home in Virginia to see Clark play and check Iowa off his now-completed list of the 50 states to visit.

Newell said he was more heartened than bothered last year by a controversy involving Clark and Angel Reese of L.S.U., who mimicked a favored Clark celebration late in L.S.U.’s championship win. When Reese, who is Black, seemed to face harsher criticism for her showboating than Clark ever had, many saw a racist double standard.

And as media coverage seemed primed to pit the two against each other, Clark would have none of it. She said Reese had done nothing wrong and suggested the episode was good for the game.

“Men,” Clark said, “have always had trash talk.”

Stephen A. Smith, ESPN’s take-slinging prince, began with the obvious.

“Let’s tell the world the worst-kept secret,” he said in October, sitting with Clark before an audience of thousands at Iowa’s homecoming. “Whenever you do go to the W.N.B.A., you’re going to be the No. 1 overall pick.”

Clark smiled. She had a tough decision, she allowed. “What do you guys think?” she said, holding out her microphone.

The chant built instantly: “One more year!”

Though Clark is a senior, Covid-era eligibility rules would allow her to return for a fifth season.

Iowans have made their peace with saying goodbye. But not just yet.

“She can go pro,” one fan, Sara Arafat, said before the Wisconsin game, as her 6-year-old daughter Avery leaned over a security rope to watch warm-ups in a “Caitlin Clark Is My Hero” shirt. “But one more year.”

For historians of the game (and the program) like Bluder and Stringer, it is fitting that Clark has brought such recognition to Iowa in particular. The state was a hub for an early variation of women’s basketball, played 6-on-6, that endured at high schools into the 1990s. And the university’s longtime women’s athletic director, Christine Grant, was a pathbreaking advocate for women’s sports. Today, a quote from Grant is displayed inside the arena: “I was told by many people women are not interested in sport,” it reads. “I could never buy that.”

Already, Clark has converted some holdouts. Bill Seaberg, whose own No. 22 hangs in the rafters for his 1950s contributions to the Iowa men’s team, said he had not followed the women’s team much until Clark came along. Now, he is tickled by the numeric company.

“Her shooting is just extraordinary,” Seaberg, who turns 90 this spring, said when reached at his home in Colorado.

Clark’s wider effects on the game might well become clearer once she leaves.

Val Ackerman, the Big East Conference commissioner and founding former president of the W.N.B.A., cautioned that the sport had seen surges in interest before: the Connecticut-Tennessee rivalries of decades past; the dawn of the W.N.B.A. more than 25 years ago, when attendance often exceeded 10,000 per game. (The average attendance last season was 6,615, the highest since 2018.)

“There have been stars. There have been peaks. There have been magic moments,” Ackerman said. “The difference now is the societal tides have changed. The winds have shifted. I think people are more accepting now than they were a generation ago about strong women doing things that guys do. Maybe not dunking but pretty much everything else.”

There is hope that the hype around Clark will lift the W.N.B.A., no matter where she lands. (The Indiana Fever own the first pick in this year’s draft.) But as with last year’s L.S.U. run-in, Clark’s popularity has at times elevated uncomfortable questions about race within the game’s fan base.

In a sport with no shortage of standout Black athletes, it has not gone unnoticed that many of the players to achieve broader fame recently are white. One of them, Paige Bueckers of UConn, has lamented this publicly. And despite being this year’s title favorite, the University of South Carolina (and its predominantly Black roster) has often received less attention than Clark and Iowa, who toppled South Carolina in last year’s tournament.

Still, few have suggested that Clark, so versatile that for much of the season she has led the nation in both scoring and assists, is not exceptional on the merits.

Marketing executives view Clark as an especially bankable investment, with a global reach that could expand if she plays in this summer’s Olympics. She has appeared in commercials produced by State Farm and Goldman Sachs.

Friends seem grateful for Clark’s fits of sponsor-assisted gift-giving — Nikes, Bose headphones.

“We’re like, ‘Dope, Caitlin,’” Czinano said. “‘Do more deals.’”

Clark has also shown a high capacity for the viral social media snippet: buzzer-beaters, no-look passes, meme-able celebrations.

A clip of her game-winner (from the beak) against Michigan State quickly exceeded a million views on X. Clark herself has nearly 900,000 followers on Instagram.

“She has that aura,” said Jeff Kearney, Gatorade’s global head of sports marketing. “Grown men, grown women, little boys, little girls — she resonates.”

Historically, even top W.N.B.A. players have played internationally in the off-season to supplement their income, most famously (and distressingly) Brittney Griner in Russia — a testament to the sometimes peripheral place of women’s basketball in the American sports hierarchy.

A W.N.B.A. rookie contract would pay Clark around $75,000 initially; the highest-paid veterans make north of $200,000. While the potential benefits of another high-visibility year at Iowa are uncertain, it is something of a misconception that Clark would invariably dent her long-term finances by leaving: Some key endorsements would be coming with her.

For stalwarts of the game, who have helped steer it since the passage of Title IX, such details are important but secondary, obscuring the distance the sport has traveled.

Stringer, who was honored in a pregame ceremony before watching Clark play at Rutgers last month, said she had found herself overwhelmed by the arena’s environment, in the best way.

She had coached in empty gyms and Final Fours. She had seen the sport’s bigotry and its beauty.

But as Stringer looked around that night — the full house in midwinter; the talent that made it so; the 9-year-old girl wearing Grinch-green Nikes because Clark wears them — she was quite certain she had never seen this.

Women’s basketball,” she said, drawing out the word. “Who knows how far it can go?”

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