Feared and loved, Iowa’s Caitlin Clark is taking women’s basketball by storm

(Artur Galocha/The Washington Post; AP)
16 min

IOWA CITY — Ten years later, her brother’s hair still hasn’t fully grown back.

Before Caitlin Clark was making her case as college basketball’s most thrilling talent, she was a middle child in West Des Moines, Iowa, who insisted on tagging along with her two brothers and countless cousins. The 21-year-old junior guard, who has risen to national prominence thanks to her Stephen Curry-esque shooting range and video game-like statistics, spent summers bicycling and winters yearning for a snowboard she could use to cruise down hills. She played softball and soccer before briefly experimenting with piano, only to conclude that her breakneck approach to life clashed with the instrument’s varied pacing.

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Basketball was the constant as she climbed from all-boys youth leagues to become Iowa’s top prep recruit at Dowling Catholic High. Now the Naismith player of the year semifinalist is preparing to lead the Iowa Hawkeyes on her third March Madness trip. Clark’s intensity and demonstrative nature on the court have won her plenty of fans but also some critics, who think she shoots too often and talks too much trash. Hecklers targeted her in high school, and Iowa Coach Lisa Bluder said opposing coaches have told Clark during games that she’s not as good as she thinks.

If the shade from rivals gets to her, she doesn’t let on. Clark is on a mission to lead Iowa (26-6) to its first Final Four since 1993, to be a No. 1 WNBA draft pick and to defy gender-based preconceptions much like Serena Williams, her favorite athlete.

Indeed, Clark will stop at nothing, as she proved during a game of basement basketball with her younger brother, Colin, when both were preteens. One minute, the siblings were trading buckets on a Nerf hoop. The next, Clark shoved Colin headfirst into a wall, leaving him with a nasty gash that required a trip to urgent care and four staples.

“When it gets really quiet, that’s a sign of danger,” Anne Clark, Caitlin’s mother, said over dinner at an Altoona, Ia., steakhouse. “We were trying to stop the bleeding. We had just put in light carpet. I might have said, ‘Not the carpet!’ Colin still has the little cut in his head. It’s his war wound now.”

Clark doesn’t cringe at the memory or offer a belated apology, instead noting that she was merely giving as good as she received. Perhaps that helps explain why she was ready to take the reins at Iowa as a freshman and why her coaches invoke Kobe Bryant to describe how she craves pressure and conflict.

“If I wanted to hang out with the boys, I had to hold my own,” Clark said during an interview at Carver-Hawkeye Arena. “They didn’t take it easy on me. Every family function, it seemed like I would go inside crying. They wouldn’t pass me the ball. In the Easter egg hunt, I wouldn’t get enough eggs. It was just one thing after the next. I got picked on, but I loved it. That’s what made me who I am.”

A homegrown prodigy

In the heart of basketball season, Interstate 88 out of Chicago is flanked by frozen lakes, silent farms and foggy cornfields, a trucker-friendly route with hardly any elevation change. The parking lots at Herbert Hoover’s presidential library in West Branch, Iowa, were nearly empty on a weekday in early January, as were downtown Iowa City’s bars and restaurants during the university’s winter break. Even the souvenir magnets at Eastern Iowa Airport in Cedar Rapids acknowledge the solitude: “What happens in Iowa, stays in Iowa . . . but nothing happens in Iowa.”

Clark has changed that, as the home crowds have swelled to more than 15,000 and young girls crowd the court to take photos with her postgame. The state of Iowa has a rich women’s basketball history dating from the 1920s, when teams fielded six players instead of five. An Iowa City boutique sells T-shirts that proclaim the state as the “center of the women’s college basketball universe,” with coastal powerhouses such as Connecticut and Stanford well over 1,000 miles away.

No one here, or anywhere, has seen a player quite like Clark. The 6-foot floor general has driven record television ratings for the Big Ten Network and received social media shout-outs from NBA stars LeBron James and Kevin Durant, who appreciate her refined game, showmanship and competitiveness in the face of double teams, traps, full-court presses and junk defenses.

“When you couple her edge with her skills and her IQ, that’s what takes her over the top and makes her rare,” Durant said in a telephone interview. “She can pretty much do everything on the floor, score from any angle, shoot deep threes and create for her teammates. But she has that feisty side to her. She has that dog in her, as people call it. She’s trying to do everything for her team because she can’t lose.”

Clark’s athletic gifts and drive were obvious to her sports-obsessed extended family from an early age. Her father, Brent, played baseball and basketball at Division III Simpson College; her older brother, Blake, played football at Iowa State; and several of her cousins have played collegiate sports.

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Brent, a sales executive at Concentric International, and Anne, a former marketing executive, wasted no time enrolling their young daughter in a local boys’ basketball league. Before long, an angry parent from an opposing team, who was upset after a blowout loss, went to the league’s director to demand that Clark’s team forfeit because she is a girl. The request was denied, and Clark was named the league MVP at the end of the season.

“They were really [upset] about how a girl could beat all these boys,” Clark said. “I definitely deserved MVP. It wasn’t a pity award.”

Around that same time, Clark’s first-grade teacher phoned the family to discuss the results of a timed math challenge. Clark had finished second in her class, and she was devastated. The teacher offered advice that never stuck: “Caitlin needs to relax.”

When Clark was a third-grader, her father drove her to watch the WNBA’s Minnesota Lynx in Minneapolis, and she briefly met Maya Moore. Too excited to ask for an autograph or a selfie, Clark settled for a bear hug — an embrace she now credits as the moment she fell in love with basketball. The Clarks stoked their daughter’s burgeoning hoop dreams by gathering her siblings and cousins together in the laundry room, turning off all the lights and holding mock player introductions, complete with flashlights to mimic an arena’s spotlight.

Recruiting letters began hitting the mailbox when Clark was a seventh-grader, though her parents shielded her from the attention until she was a high school sophomore in hopes of preserving a normal childhood. The handwritten notes and promotional posters eventually filled two oversized Tupperware tubs.

By the time Clark was 13, she had switched to girls-only leagues and was playing up several grade levels in search of better competition. With no interest in video games, she hit tennis balls against the garage, threw tight spirals with her father and lobbied her parents for a full-size basketball court in the backyard. They compromised by placing a hoop above the garage and by extending the driveway so she could spray paint a three-point line at the appropriate distance.

Battling wind gusts that buffeted her shots, Clark honed her three-point range. Her father rebounded and encouraged proper shooting form from all distances. To compensate for her skinny frame, Clark studied Moore, James and Durant to see how they used their bodies to finish in traffic. Playing soccer helped her see passing angles, as did grainy YouTube video of Pete Maravich.

The Dowling Maroons played a fast-paced style, and they turned Clark loose as a freshman starter. She dropped soccer after her sophomore year so she could focus on basketball year-round, given that she was juggling her school team, her All-Iowa Attack AAU commitments and invites from USA Basketball. In time, she racked up all-state and McDonald’s all-American honors, and she was named Iowa’s Miss Basketball in 2020.

“The student sections loved to chant ‘Overrated!’ at me,” Clark said. “It brings out your best. I laughed.”

Clark led the state in scoring as a junior and senior but graduated without winning a state title. Her high school career ended with a stunning upset loss to Sioux City East in the regional finals.

“I can still see her,” Brent Clark said. “She crumbled and fell to the floor. She came to me not long after the game and was kind of tearful. I said to her that she had a fabulous career. She was the first one in the line to congratulate the other team. The next morning, she was up and at a 7 a.m. faith-based discussion group. No matter who you are, that’s hard to do.”

Her own stage

Shared values brought Clark to the Hawkeyes.

Clark never changed high schools or AAU programs, and Bluder has been an institution at Iowa for 23 seasons. Clark was a homebody, according to her mother, who had little interest in far-flung blue bloods. Jan Jensen, the Hawkeyes’ associate head coach, had played college basketball in Iowa, and she sold Clark on the program’s family culture during a six-year recruiting marathon.

Most importantly, Iowa was prepared to give Clark the keys to its up-tempo, read-and-react offense from day one. While dining at Orchard Green near campus, Bluder found out that the Hawkeyes had prevailed over Notre Dame, Iowa State and others for Clark’s commitment. The ecstatic coach ordered champagne to celebrate.

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Clark made an instant impact, leading the country in scoring as a freshman and becoming the first woman to rank first in both scoring and assists during her sophomore campaign. This season, she has emerged as a leading candidate for Naismith Player of the Year honors after averaging 27 points, 7.5 rebounds and 8.3 assists while leading Iowa to the Big Ten tournament title and the Seattle 4 Region’s No. 2 seed in the NCAA tournament. The Hawkeyes’ offense ranks first in scoring and third in pace, so her exploits often blur together.

“I don’t think I could play basketball any other way, honestly,” she said. “I do everything fast. I drive fast. I do my homework fast.”

Clark is best known for her deep shooting range: She feels comfortable pulling up from 32 feet — roughly 10 feet behind the women’s three-point line. When she can step into her shot off the dribble or while running up the court, she can launch from even deeper than that. Clark blushed at the Curry comparisons, noting that the Golden State Warriors star only counts his three-pointers as makes during practice if he swishes them. Clark dreams of getting to that level and holds herself to the swishing standard when she works on her free throws.

When she has made a few threes in a row, Clark can’t resist a heat check. During one practice scrimmage, she scored 22 points in a two-minute stretch, capping the flurry with a one-legged floater while falling out of bounds. Yet Clark, who ranks second nationally in points per game and stands first in assists, prides herself on being a “general,” not a gunner, because of her wide-reaching authority.

“There’s always backlash that I take too many shots or that I’m a ball hog,” she said. “My assist numbers speak for themselves, too. I’m scoring. I’m facilitating. I’m leading.”

Clark has showcased her wide-reaching game throughout her junior season, registering four triple-doubles and sealing the Big Ten tournament title with 30 points, 10 rebounds and a season-high 17 assists in a blowout of Ohio State. Her most electric moment came in a Feb. 26 victory over Indiana, which was ranked second in the country at the time. With her team trailing by two with 1.5 seconds left, Clark raced around the top of the key, corralled an inbounds pass and stepped into a deep game-winning three-pointer that rattled through at the buzzer, causing the Iowa City crowd to erupt at the 86-85 victory.

“She’s the best all-around player that I’ve ever coached,” Bluder said. “She’s the player of the year because of her impact on our team compared to other players who have surrounding people who can take some of the pressure off mentally or defensively. Having that name ‘Connecticut’ or ‘South Carolina’ helps you get votes automatically. She gets a lot of shots, but she also gets the best defensive player all the time. When the [stakes] get higher, that’s when she gets better.”

Team staffers insist that Clark has an off-court alter ego, that she is a goofball who might stroll into lunch wearing a bathrobe. Her parents encourage her to find time in the offseason to relax on the beach in Florida or at Lake Viking in Missouri, and the entire family attended a Kansas City Chiefs game over Christmas break.

These attempts at balance are mostly in vain; Jensen said molding Clark has been “the challenge of a lifetime.”

Iowa’s coaches describe an ongoing tug-of-war between Clark’s innate self-assuredness and her growing willingness to trust her teammates. Clark has been instructed to save her longest attempts for the end of quarters or late in the shot clock, and she has learned that feeding center Monika Czinano can crack the opposing defense from the inside out.

The Hawkeyes thrive off Clark’s confidence and marvel at her audacious Michael Jordan shrug celebrations when she hits a big three-pointer, but they also must cope with the nagging issue identified by her first-grade teacher: She can be too hard on herself. That perfectionism can manifest in knee-jerk reactions, which occasionally cause her to lose focus. Iowa’s coaches have stressed the importance of moving on from mistakes, and Clark’s teammates have learned to assemble like security guards around her to de-escalate brewing confrontations with referees or opponents.

“I get mad,” Clark admitted. “You have reactions that you don’t always love in the heat of battle. I’m full of passion no matter what I’m doing. I’m going to give you every single part of me. I’m going to give my heart to this. I want young girls to know that you can play with joy and passion.”

In a January win over Northwestern, a frustrated Clark received a technical foul for shouting a profanity to herself after missing a shot. Though Bluder put Clark through a leadership course aimed at refining her communication skills and tone, the 61-year-old coach was quick to push back against criticism concerning on-court demeanor.

“What makes me upset is that a men’s basketball player can act like that, and he’s just being a player,” Bluder said. “But if a women’s basketball player does the same things, oh, it should stop. I don’t know why we should be judged differently based on our sexes. I hope she changes some of these conversations.”

Ready to dance

Clark’s craftsmanship and flair will undoubtedly make her a top pick in the WNBA draft, and she said she “obviously want[s] to be the number one pick.” Durant can already envision how she will transform her first professional team.

“Whoever gets her is going to fill the seats up, win some basketball games and have some fun while she’s there,” he said. “She’s one of those players who attracts other players and who attracts casual fans and turns them into real fans.”

When, exactly, Clark enters the draft remains to be seen; she could stay at Iowa for a fifth season because of the NCAA’s coronavirus eligibility guidelines. While she won’t need to make a decision for at least a year, the NCAA’s new name, image and likeness rules, which allow athletes to earn endorsement income, could play in Iowa’s favor. Clark, a marketing major with a 3.88 grade-point average and dreams of working as a front-office executive in pro sports, already has struck lucrative deals with Nike and the Hy-Vee supermarket chain.

“It will be very difficult,” said Clark, who is “50-50” on whether to stay for a fifth season. “I love this place. You’re playing in front of a lot of people, doing it in your home state, doing it with your friends. Turning pro, you’re traveling all the time, you’re only playing three months a year, you’re moving to a whole new city where you probably don’t know anybody. NIL definitely makes it more of an incentive to come back, in a way. It adds another pro on the pros and cons list.”

For now, Clark is focused on making the Final Four after a second-round loss to Creighton last year. That upset represented a step back from her freshman season, when the Hawkeyes advanced to the Sweet 16.

Clark spent last summer adding eight pounds of muscle and chewing on the fact that the pinnacle of her sport has, so far, remained just beyond her reach. Iowa’s NCAA tournament losses stung just like her final game at Dowling. And second place will never be good enough, whether it’s a first-grade math quiz or the Naismith Player of the Year voting.

“It does drive you,” Clark said. “Growing up, I’ve always been right there, chasing the number one spot. I feel like I am the best player in the country. I’ve put in a lot of time in the gym to believe that. The confidence I have when I shoot the ball is because of the work I put in during the summer. Why wouldn’t I want to be at the top?”