When Michael Jordan arrived in Paris in 1997 for a preseason corporate showcase known as the McDonald’s Championship, the French press treated his appearance with Christ-like reverence. “Michael Jordan is in Paris,” wrote the local tabloid France-Soir, as memorialized in David Halberstam’s bestseller Playing For Keeps. “That’s better than the Pope. It’s God in person.”
Caitlin Clark didn’t inspire such flowery prose when she showed up in Evanston, Illinois, to take on Northwestern on Wednesday night, but there were several comparisons to another deity: Taylor Swift. In a mile-long line wrapped around Welsh-Ryan Arena before the game, a number of young girls carried signs adorned with Swift lyrics and pictures of the singer side-by-side with the Hawkeyes’ guard.
“I’ve had the time of my life watching 22,” read one sign as a callback to Swift’s 2010 song “Long Live.” Another read “Caitlin Clark is FEARLESS on the court.” There was also of course a sign that read “I don’t know about you, but I’m feeling 22,” with a heart around Clark’s name.
Clark isn’t quite as omnipresent as Taylor Swift or Michael Jordan or God, she only seems that way as she makes what’s likely her final college tour with Iowa. Clark started her college career in the aftermath of the pandemic, when the only fans in the stands were family members. As a senior, she’s a full-blown national sensation. Clark’s appearance on Wednesday triggered the first sellout for a women’s basketball game in Northwestern history. On average, the team only fills about 22 percent of the 7,000 capacity arena. When Clark came to town, the line to get in started forming in the cold at 10 a.m.
Clark entered this game with 112 made three-pointers on the season, while Northwestern had made 111 as a team. It’s a stat that would be unbelievable for anyone else, but Clark has a habit of making the unbelievable happen before your eyes. On this night, she would go on to break Kelsey Mitchell’s Big Ten record for career points and move into No. 2 on the all-time women’s college basketball scoring list. She’s going to pass the leader, Kelsey Plum, well before Iowa heads into the Big Ten tournament.
Each remaining game of Clark’s college career feels a coronation, a chance for the fans to shower her with adoration as she tries to give them the show of a lifetime. That she’s doing it for her non-blue-blood state school as a homegrown star from West Des Moines makes the story even sweeter. Clark will have a long professional career playing in the WNBA and for USA Basketball in the Olympics, but the origin story is always the best part, and it’s playing out for all to see right now.
“None of this comes just because of me,” Clark said after the game. “There’s people around me that let me be successful no matter what area of life it is.”
Clark can defer credit all she wants, but the atmosphere at Northwestern told a different story. Clark is a rare phenomenon, and there are only so many chances left to catch a glimpse.
Clark never needed to ascend to being college basketball’s biggest attraction — it happened from the moment she stepped on campus at Iowa City. As a freshman, Clark led the country in scoring and finished third in assists. As a sophomore, she led all of America in both categories. Viral clips of Clark’s moonshot step-back threes and nightly scoring explosions made her a star in the sports world, but she transcended into a new realm of fame as she led the Hawkeyes to the national championship game as a junior.
Iowa’s title game bout with LSU will go down as one of the most memorable women’s college hoops games ever. The in-game taunting between Clark and Tigers star Angel Reese fueled national dialogue for a month, and made it all the way to the Oval Office. Iowa ultimately came up short, but Clark’s thoughtful response to the discourse minted her as a crossover star for the ages.
Clark entered this season saying that she would treat it like her last in college basketball, even if she has the option to return next season for her “Covid year.” While the WNBA hangs on her arrival, Iowa and their opponents are reaping the rewards. The Hawkeyes began this season by breaking the attendance record for a women’s college basketball game when they hosted DePaul at the school’s football stadium in front of 55K screaming fans. Since then, Clark has shattered both TV ratings and ticket sales, driven record revenue for Iowa, amassed multi-million dollar NIL deals, and seen her trading card sell for $78K. Somewhere along the way, she hit one of the best buzzer-beaters you will ever see to stun Michigan State from nearly half court.
Clark’s numbers so far in her senior season are patently absurd. She’s taking and making more three-pointers per game this season than NBA leader Stephen Curry despite the fact that college games are eight minutes shorter. She has a usage rate north of 40 percent — which has only been done twice in NBA history — but she’s scoring more efficiently than she ever has with a scorching 64 percent true shooting mark. Clark’s Player Efficiency Rating is 46.4 right now. The NBA record, set by Nikola Jokic last season when he broke Wilt Chamberlain’s 1962 mark, is 32.85.
Clark’s basketball-reference page is starting to look as ridiculous as Barry Bonds’ baseball-reference page, but there’s so much more to her game than just numbers. On the court, Clark feels like a combination of Curry and LeBron James: she can overpower defenders with her size, strength, and craftiness around the basket, and she also has unlimited shooting range. There has never been a star who can play with this much usage but still be so effective off the ball. Put James Harden’s pick-and-roll ability with Klay Thompson’s movement shooting and you start to get the picture of Clark this season. No one comparison truly fits her because she’s her own singular force.
As it’s happened, Clark has become the avatar for the growing popularity of women’s sports. The NBA Finals were on tape delay until college stars Magic Johnson and Larry Bird entered the league. Could Clark have the same effect on the WNBA when we look back on it in 20 years? For now, she just wants to give both the lifelong Iowa fans and the young girls screaming her name a show to remember.
“You know, there’s a lot of crud going on in the world right now,” Iowa coach Lisa Bluder said after the Northwestern game. “So it’s nice to have something that people can be happy about and joyful about.”
There’s only one thing that’s eluded Clark on her rise to superstardom thus far: a championship ring. Clark spent four years tearing up the high school record books at West Des Moines’ Dowling Catholic, but never won a state championship. She fell one win short of winning a national championship last season with the Hawkeyes.
Clark has a great chance to get her first ring this season. The Iowa roster has changed a bit around her with the graduation of long-time star post scoring stud Monika Czinano, but these Hawkeyes feel sleeker and faster than last year’s Final Four team. While LSU loaded up with big-time talent in the transfer portal over the offseason, the Hawkeyes didn’t add anyone to their rotation, instead counting on internal development and continuity to maintain their dominance.
So far, it’s working. After a 110-74 win over Northwestern, Iowa moved to 20-2 on the year. The Hawkeyes are sitting pretty for the No. 1 seed in the 2024 NCAA tournament. The expectations on this postseason certainly don’t see to be wearing on Clark, at least not yet.
“I don’t feel much pressure coming into these games,” Clark said after the win at Northwestern. “The more people, the more calm I am.”
In reality, Clark doesn’t need any more validation. Her impact on her state, her school, and her sport is already evident for all to see. Time is running out on the Caitlin Clark show at Iowa, but the closing chapter promises to be the most thrilling one yet.