The Caitlin Clark Show comes to College Park — Jacy Sheldon talks Ohio State, WNBA

The IX: Basketball Wednesday with Howard Megdal, Feb. 7, 2024

COLLEGE PARK, MD — They come from all over to see Caitlin Clark do the extraordinary, to see what no one else sees, a passing lane that materializes once she spots it and fires the basketball to a teammate, an opening to get a shot off from 30 feet out that no one else could attempt, let alone make. But they come now, too, to watch Clark do the mundane.

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So it came to pass that several hundred people gathered around an escalator at the Iowa team hotel, hours before the game on Saturday night against Maryland on the road, to simply watch her descend a staircase without the need to walk the steps herself.

“I drove five hours for this,” a woman holding a sign behind me said with a mixture of satisfaction and wonder, presumably referring to the entire experience of seeing Clark play and not just the escalator part.

One by one Iowa team figures descended amid cheers and screams, players still wrapping their heads around the experience of living as The Beatles, 21st century women’s basketball edition. Jan Jensen, the longtime Iowa assistant coach, ate it up, high-fiving liberally and thanking those who showed up before hustling to the team bus. Lisa Bluder stopped to address the crowd. And then came Clark, all business, at some level used to this.

“I take it in, everywhere I go,” Clark told us after we assembled in the Maryland media room for postgame, 38 points, 12 assists and another Hawkeyes victory later. “And obviously I’m grateful. It’s changed my life in some ways more than others, just being aware of my surroundings… people spend a lot of time, money and resources to come see us play, and so whenever I step on the court, I just want to have a lot of fun. And I’ve been able to find a lot of joy and calmness in that.”

Her joy radiates outward, to her teammates, to Bluder, who is obviously having the time of her life, and to a sold out crowd in College Park — yes, another one for Clark — who made a show of booing whenever Clark touched the ball, a simultaneous show of respect and fear, and delighted on how the underdog Terrapins made Iowa work for this victory.

That the Maryland crowd, despite a more-than-respectable showing from the visiting Hawkeye fans, was overwhelmingly Terrapin supporters reflects the message that some are still struggling with — women’s basketball was not some dormant, undiscovered place prior to Clark’s arrival, one person cannot save women’s basketball because women’s basketball does not need saving.

The questions to Maryland head coach Brenda Frese were almost comical — as if the title-winning leader of a program that has sold out the XFinity Center plenty of times before was used to playing in front of 30 people. Whereas in reality:

There is a line of thought among, usually, media members who hadn’t previously discovered women’s hoops that as they discover the joys of the sport, it is everyone’s first time doing so, and players and coaches answer gamely but wearily, the way one might in a romantic relationship when all your partner wants to discuss is the state of the relationship itself.

What is happening to Caitlin Clark isn’t a women’s basketball phenomenon, a question of the women’s game merely elevated to the profile of men’s hoops. It is a sports phenomenon, full stop. After all, we do not see crowds of people gather just to see Tony Perkins descend an escalator. I’ll bet you don’t even know who Tony Perkins is! (He’s Iowa’s leading scorer in men’s basketball, for the record, and yes, I had to look that up.)

Clark is armed with a preternatural ability to spread the accolades around. She took time to call Frese “one of the best coaches in the country”, she saluted the crowd, even those who booed her. She specifically shouted out the Maryland band. It is an ease with the level of fame that few ever experience, let alone at 22 — yes, 22, she is not much older, for the record — that will serve her well when she transitions into a face of the WNBA, alongside A’ja Wilson and Breanna Stewart and Alyssa Thomas.

We’ll probably hear about how Clark is going to save the WNBA, that league suffering from dramatic leaps in attendance and television ratings. It will be just as silly.

But Caitlin Clark is here to leave women’s basketball in significantly better shape than when she found it, growing up rooting for the Minnesota Lynx of Maya Moore and Seimone Augustus and Lindsay Whalen (often attending the Target Center amid sold out crowds), all tasked in their own times with “saving” the sport and instead doing what every epic figure does — keeps the sport growing, and allowing those of us here for the ride to have so much fun along the way.

Happy Basketball Wednesday, and happy National Girls and Women in Sports Day, or as we call it here at The IX: Wednesday.

This week in women’s basketball

Sabreena Merchant and Ben Pickman catch up with Becky Hammon.

PJ Brown all over the turmoil in Arizona, of course.

Love seeing A’ja Wilson on The Late Show.

We’ve been breaking a ton of WNBA moves and analyzing them at The Nextmake sure you’re subscribed — but we also had this, from Jenn Hatfield, on Natasha Cloud’s impact off the court in DC.

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Five at The IX: Jacy Sheldon, The Ohio State University

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Written by Howard Megdal

Howard is the founder of The Next and editor-in-chief.