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Caitlin Clark

Caitlin Clark’s arrival brings much-needed theatre and pettiness to the WNBA

Like all saviours, the first thing on Caitlin Clark’s to-do list is dragging a cross up a hill while people yell at her.

The airplane is a good example. In no small part because Clark has brought women’s basketball into wider focus, a long-running fight to get WNBA players off commercial and onto charters was recently won. Clark’s team, the Indiana Fever, was one of the first to post from its new ride.

In the pictures, Clark is shown slumped so far back in her seat that she is practically horizontal – a pose that suggests she is trying not to soak up all the attention while simultaneously not wanting to seem too cool for everyone else at school. Those are some awkward photos.

One opponent noted that only two of five travelling teams flew that weekend (the league was still trying to corral jets). This was widely interpreted as a glancing shot at Clark.

Clark’s NCAA nemesis, Angel Reese, drew a more direct line – “getting a WIN in a packed area [sic] not just cause of one player on our charter flight.”

WNBA players wanted jets and, having got them, need someone to blame.

It’s been a tough first few weeks all over for the world’s most famous rookie. Indiana has won only one game in seven. Clark’s stat line has been halved in the transition to pro from college.

I’m sure that in your life, you have many times shown up to a new job and right from Day 1 been the most productive employee the company has had. Had the CEO calling you up and saying, ‘Maya, we thought Microsoft was a successful business, but we had no idea how successful it could be until you got here.’

It doesn’t work like that in sports, either. Still, Clark is still being held to the usual unreasonable standard.

The U.S. sports conversation is currently two things – people screaming at each other about an NFL season that is still three months off, and people screaming at each other about whether Clark is a bust.

The WNBA should be delighted. This could not be going any better for it.

If Clark had dominated from the first tip, the league would have looked ridiculous. In order to go from ‘I watch women’s basketball for one player’ to ‘I watch women’s basketball’, people have to believe the product is elite overall. Therefore, Clark must suffer. At least to begin with.

If Clark had come in on everyone’s shoulders, that would also have been terrible.

The real knock on women’s sport isn’t quality of play, it’s quality of conversation. It’s great that they’re all community leaders who want to be role models to little girls and boys, but do we have to talk about it all the time? For once, can’t there be some adult workplace aggro in women’s sport?

Of course the rest of the league isn’t happy to see some rook swanning in with a US$75,000 salary and US$28-million sneaker deal. Only five WNBA players have signature shoes. Clark got one before playing a game.

Cathal Kelly: Caitlin Clark needs to watch out for circus hucksters who don’t have her best interest in mind

Clark also signed a deal to develop her own basketball line with Wilson. One other person has done that – Michael Jordan.

In fairness, she had played professionally by the time that second partnership was leaked. Four whole games.

If you just started following along in April, you wouldn’t think Clark was joining the WNBA. You’d think she was founding it. That should upset her colleagues, including her teammates. Their reputations have been impugned by implication.

You watch Indiana Fever highlights and you see the effect of that. The first month of any season is a feeling-out period. But the dozen or so people who’ve guarded Clark so far are consistently D’ing her up like it’s the last five minutes of a Game 7. The only thing missing from the pursuit of Clark up and down courts across the United States is the sound of bloodhounds baying.

Whenever an opponent is asked about Clark, you can’t be sure what you’re going to get. Former league MVP A’ja Wilson first ripped her obliquely, then defended her directly, then completely dominated her Fever team in a lopsided victory on Saturday night.

Charles Barkley spurred headlines when he came to Clark’s defence – “All the money and visibility she’s bringing to the WNBA, don’t be petty like dudes.”

No, please. Do be petty. Petty is good for everyone.

The WNBA doesn’t need another great player. It has had plenty and it didn’t make a dent. What it needs is theatre. It needs people to understand there are sides, and then it needs them to take one.

The important thing isn’t that people love or hate Clark, or anyone else. It’s that they have a feeling about them that is not ‘Who?’

Clark hasn’t done anything wrong, but petty is what she deserves. She’s been crowned the greatest in history before getting in the ring. The upside to that is a great deal of money. The downside is pressure and irritation.

If she’s as good as people believe, things will work out. But it should be a struggle. The resentment should be real, as well as understandable.

So far, Clark is managing it. Like Jordan, the secret to her charisma is that she has none. Though she knows everyone is combing over everything she says, she’s neither trying to be liked, nor to be disliked. It’s harder than it looks.

It can’t go on like this for too long, but it’s good that Clark is losing big to begin with. In order to have a hero’s arc, she has to bottom out before the rise.

As long as people are talking about it, taking shots, causing Clark to draw sympathy, which builds long-term affinity, things are going as well as they could. If you’re the WNBA, every time Clark loses a lot, you win a little.


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