IOWA CITY, Iowa — Her likeness was sculptured out of butter at the state fair and a tribute to her was a highlight for an Iowa marching band football halftime show.
She was the main draw when she played golf in the pro-am event ahead of the PGA Tour’s nearby John Deere Classic and she greeted thousands of fans at both an IndyCar race and a minor-league baseball game, where a line began forming 10 hours ahead of time and wrapped around the stadium.
She helped teammates build a Habitat For Humanity house, led a fund-raiser for a local food pantry and hosted a basketball camp for 600 kids that sold out in four hours.
Oh, she also joined teammates on a 12-day tour of Italy and Croatia, made an ad for Nike and went to New York to pick up the Sullivan Award as the top amateur athlete in the United States.
Down time, to be sure, has been scarce for Caitlin Clark in the months since she swept national player of the year awards and led the Iowa Hawkeyes to their first NCAA championship game in women’s basketball. LSU’s win over Iowa set a viewership record and it had fans buzzing in part because of a kerfuffle involving Clark and Tigers star Angel Reese.
That seems long ago now. Clark and her teammates are on the cusp of a new season, and she said she is recharged. She’s undecided on whether this will be her last year with the third-ranked Hawkeyes. She could return for a fifth season in 2024 or move on to the WNBA, perhaps as the No. 1 draft pick.
For now, the Caitlin Clark Craze is at its zenith in the state of Iowa. There’s no bigger celebrity between the Missouri and Mississippi rivers, and last season’s AP player of the year easily ranks among the most popular American female athletes.
“I feel like I was just a freshman and I was playing in front of no one. It was just our families that were sitting over there,” Clark said in an interview with The Associated Press in an otherwise empty Carver-Hawkeye Arena. “Now I play in front of a sold-out arena, everybody screaming at me after games begging for my autograph. Whenever I go out in public, people always know who I am, so it can get tiring at times.
“I don’t think it’s an inconvenience at all,” she added. “It’s something you would never take for granted because it’s so cool. The position I get to be in and the things I get to do, and the amount of joy that I’ve brought people…. I feel like I’m the same person I’ve been ever since I stepped on campus. But my life has changed so much.”
Clark, who grew up two hours away in West Des Moines, entered Iowa as a five-star recruit and exceeded the hype. Her prodigous scoring, 3-point shots from near halfcourt and her swagger, along with the success of the team, have led to a near-doubling of season ticket sales to a record 13,000. That’s 5,000 more than the Iowa men sold.
Clark’s statistical achievements are among the greatest in the history of women’s college basketball: 90 straight double-figure scoring games and a 27.3-points-per-game career average with 43 double-doubles and 11 triple-doubles.
She set NCAA Tournament records for points, assists and 3-pointers last season and became the first player in tournament history with back-to-back 40-point games. She was the first Division I player to go over 1,000 points and 300 assists in the same season. She enters this season needing 811 points to become the Division I all-time leading scorer.
It’s not just the numbers that have made Clark a transcendent figure. She’s as much entertainer as basketball player.
The fans love her or hate her for how she carries herself with supreme confidence and can back it up. She said she wouldn’t want it any other way. Those Michael Jordan-like shrugs when she makes a 3 from the logo off the dribble are part of her identity. She’s uber-competitive and thrives on getting into opponents’ heads, whether it’s from wearing them down physically, making a well-timed wisecrack or just being, as she calls it, “feisty.”
“If I’m just straight-faced and play with no emotion, I’m not going to play good basketball, and nobody wants to watch that,” she said. “Whether it’s high-fiving your teammate, picking them off the floor, pointing and smiling and thanking your passer after you make it 3, those are the emotions you need to have. You get feisty about something, that’s the competitive juices that you have inside you and that’s what makes you great.”
Clark will have to make an adjustment this season with Monika Czinano and McKenna Warnock having departed. Clark, as the point guard, had a special connection on court with Czinano in the post. Warnock took pressure off Clark as another perimeter scoring threat.
Clark is at her best when she’s generating offense in transition. This year she hopes to get better at using screens to get open in the halfcourt game.
“I might not always have the ball in my hands playing the 1 at the next level,” she said, “so I want to be more comfortable playing off the ball some.”
One thing that won’t change is the Hawkeyes’ up-tempo style, which is tailored to Clark and naturally makes her the focal point. The dynamic easily could create jealousy. That’s never been a problem, coach Lisa Bluder said.
“Caitlin has a little bit more attention,” Bluder said, “but when her light shines, it shines on everybody in that locker room, so let’s all enjoy it.”
Gabbie Marshall said Clark merits the spotlight and is a good teammate.
“She wears her crown the right way,” Marshall said.
Teammates actually provide Clark with a protective cocoon. Kate Martin said she and other players will accompany Clark in public and, if Clark is not up to it, shield her from people who want to talk, take a picture or ask for an autograph.
“She’s got to protect her time and her mental energy,” Martin said. “She obviously does things on her own like going to class, and people are pretty respectful of her. If we’re walking downtown or going to the grocery store, it’s always nice she can have a couple people with her so it’s not just her getting ransacked on her own.”
Clark said she likes being in position to help the game grow along with fellow collegians such as Reese and Hailey Van Lith of LSU, UConn’s Paige Bueckers and Stanford’s Cameron Brink.
Privileges come with being an ambassador for the game. Clark’s name, image and likeness valuation is estimated at more than $750,000 this year, according to On3.com. She has NIL deals with State Farm, Nike, Buick, Bose, H&R Block and regional grocery giant Hy-Vee.
“I kind of get to be in the spotlight and I get to change people’s viewpoint of how they see women’s basketball,” she said. “The amount of people that have come up to me and said, ‘I’ve never watched women’s basketball before before you and your team…’ Some people could take that as a negative. But to me that’s a positive. We’re finally getting them to turn on the TV and watch it, but not only watch it once. They’re coming back for more.”
Women’s basketball surely gained some new fans with the show Clark put on in the NCAA Tournament and the excitement of the championship game, which was punctuated by LSU’s Reese directing the “you can’t see me” gesture at Clark and pointing at her ring finger. Clark made the same gesture in the Final Four game against Louisville.
The Reese-Clark dynamic sparked discussions about sportsmanship and race. Clark said she is ready to move on. Reese says things are fine.
As for the butter sculpture and all the other honors, the bond between Clark and her home state is undeniable and adds to the joy of everything she’s accomplished.
“That’s kind of the whole reason I came here,” she said. “That was my mission, to take this team to the Final Four. And then, obviously, we reached the national title game for the first time ever in program history. When I was 17 years old and I committed to Coach Bluder in high school, that was the same dream.”
Image credits: AP