Because Caitlin Clark, the best show in college basketball, came to town and fans of the Maryland women as well as the traveling Iowans responded accordingly, every seat in Xfinity Center was taken. So many young girls and boys were in the crowd. And bless their little hearts — they don’t know better. In their eyes, they got to see a very cool basketball player and the buzzy atmosphere she creates, the boos of mixed hostility and admiration and the thunderbolts of shouts and applause. It was a scene and yet, for the youngest fans in attendance, completely normal.
Far greater than Clark adding 38 points to her career total and moving within 66 of the NCAA women’s scoring title as she led No. 3 Iowa to a 93-85 win was her chiseling yet another inch from the barrier that obscures the women’s game from mainstream audiences. When Clark, a senior who still has one more year of eligibility remaining, decides to walk away from her stately seat in college, she will leave a trail of logo threes, delicious dimes and eloquent news conferences that should be imitated by the ballers coming behind her. Members of the next generation have the template. All they have to do is watch.
Fox did a solid for its college basketball viewing audience by bumping the game to a prime-time slot. The network even dedicated a camera that followed Clark as she created her latest masterpiece and live-streamed it on TikTok — Ohmygah did she get her first touch of the game beyond the cursive script of “Gary Williams Court” and then take one dribble into a deep three over the outstretched hand of Lavender Briggs?! Fire emoji!
Next Sunday, when Fox airs Iowa’s game at Nebraska, Clark will serve as an appetizing prelude to the Super Bowl. Then, three of her five remaining regular season games will be streamed on Peacock. As tennis star Frances Tiafoe, who switched up his schedule so he could watch Clark from a courtside seat Saturday, summed it up: “She’s box office.” Networks understand this and have featured her as the brightest star in college basketball over the past two years.
Clark’s games have been more accessible than the college work of Kelsey Plum, who set the scoring record while at Washington. Plum was and is an amazing player. But her time did not meet this moment, where there’s more attention on women’s sports. Same for Sabrina Ionescu. Same for Sue Bird. And Diana Taurasi, Candace Parker, Carol Blazejowski. And those USC legends whose greatness can only be seen in standard definition: Lisa Leslie, Cheryl Miller and Cynthia Cooper.
So while it might seem like recency bias to crown Clark, in this case, give her her flowers. Call her the greatest. And as we’re enjoying her singular talent, understand how one woman can change and positively impact a whole generation.
For many old heads in the building, Saturday night felt bigger than a game, like the kind of atmosphere we’ve only seen in men’s basketball. The Maryland student section geared up every time Clark touched the ball, but even in its chorus of boos was the throb of anticipation. It was a boo that wanted to say much more: We kind of have to hate you because you’re not a Terp and stuff, but you’re literally the reason we’re here on this Saturday night.
I had to watch myself from committing fits of uncontrolled violence against my colleague and seat neighbor Kareem Copeland. You’re not supposed to cheer from press row, kids, and I kept my dignity. But when Clark came downcourt in the closing seconds of the first half, hit ’em with a behind-the-back dribble to her left, then spun from the top of the key to her right, stepped through and banked in a shot while getting fouled, I might have turned and grabbed Copeland, needing to brace myself because that move nearly took me out of my seat.
I watched a dad react to another play; thankfully for his daughter, his response was a bit more understated. When Clark delivered a bounce pass to a cutting teammate, one of her 12 assists, that led to an open layup from the left block, the father turned to his little girl and shook his head. Maybe it was in disbelief because she makes the game look so easy, so pure, so fun — and at times, so pouty. Many times, Clark acts like your favorite NBA player, complaining about fouls and no calls. Alas, witnessing greatness also means witnessing human frailty.
After the game, as she entered the cramped interview room, two uniformed police officers from Iowa escorted her. They follow her everywhere. Her celebrity has grown, so cautious protection has become necessary. But as she sat and fielded questions about being an avatar for kids to look up to and growing the women’s game — how many other players in college sports have to tackle such meaty topics? — Clark seemed at ease in embracing her power.
“That’s one of the privileges in being in the position that I am — that I get to be a role model and our whole entire team gets to be role models. People look up to us,” Clark said. “Young girls, young boys, no matter who they are, I think the thing I would just say to them is the same thing I’ve said all my career: Just dream big. I came to Iowa with huge aspirations, and now I’m getting to play in front of 15,000-plus every single night and that’s so cool. Those are moments that you can really only dream of and now I’m living it every single day of my life, and that’s really special.”
One day, maybe it doesn’t have to be so special because the next Caitlin Clark — and the next, and the next, and the next — will have learned from her and then elevated the game to higher heights. Everything we witnessed in College Park — the downtown threes, the energizing runs of a highly competitive game played in front of loud and passionate fans — will be the standard. Clark’s greatest impact will be felt five, 10, 20 years from now when we’re not going gaga over a moment. It’ll be just another great night in women’s basketball.