wnba

Can we stop with the Caitlin Clark hate, please?

Indiana Fever rookie Caitlin Clark is handling herself with grace and doesn't deserve the ire of those trying to tear her down.

LAS VEGAS — They arrived early. Some wearing black and gold Iowa t-shirts. Others were in blue and gold Indiana Fever gear. All with the No. 22 adorning it.

The Caitlin Clark Experience came to town Saturday and the hottest ticket on the Las Vegas Strip was at Michelob Ultra Arena. Clark’s popularity knows no bounds, sort of like the range on her jump shot.

Clark, the No. 1 overall draft pick of the WNBA’s Indiana Fever, leads her team in scoring, averaging 16.7 points a game. She also leads it in turnovers with an average of 5.2 per contest and it had resulted in an 0-5 start before the Fever finally got into the win column Friday, beating the Los Angeles Sparks 78-73 in front of a team-record sellout crowd of 19,103 at Crypto.com Arena.

In fact, every appearance by Clark has resulted in a sellout crowd and it was more of the same Saturday as 10,399 jammed into Michelob Ultra Arena for Indiana’s 99-80 loss to the two-time defending WNBA champion Las Vegas Aces to drop to 1-6 so far. Each of Indiana’s seven games, which have come in a 12-day span, have been played in front of sellout crowds as an average of 13,560 have shown up. 

They’ve come out partly for their love of the home team and in part out of curiosity over the slender guard from Iowa. But they’re showing up. They’re tuning in on television. They’re weighing in on social media platforms though Clark said she wisely stays away from social media.

All of this is good for women’s basketball. If you can’t see that, I don’t know what to tell you. 

It’s got to be difficult for Clark to navigate life on and off the court. She has been the recipient of several endorsement deals, including a shoe deal from Nike and an equipment deal from Wilson. With it has come jealousy from those who don’t deem her worthy of such largesse and that she hasn’t earned the right to reap such financial rewards when she has yet to accomplish anything at the professional level. Oh, and teams are gearing up defensively to stop her and make the game hard for her.

And it’s gotten downright nasty at times when it comes to the criticism. Some have played the race card, saying as a white person, Clark gets favoritism when it comes to marketing while a player like the Aces’ A’ja Wilson, an African-American woman who is well on her way to the Basketball Hall of Fame when she’s done playing, had to wait six years to get her shoe deal from Nike.

Aces coach Becky Hammon defended Clark after practice Friday, saying: “We love Caitlin Clark. I think she’s amazing. I watch (her) every time I possibly can. Our league loves her.

“This narrative of everybody hating on Caitlin Clark, and even the black and white thing … knock it off. It’s not there. It’s not there. So shut down the noise.

“And by the way, what is she, 22? She’s a 22-year-old woman with a lot of pressure. She’s not perfect. She’s a rookie in the league. So back off.”

Understand that Clark did not seek any of this. She merely wants to play and try and win. Nobody would turn down an opportunity to supplement their income and nobody was crying foul when Chicago’s Angel Reese, another rookie, got a deal with Reebok. Or when fellow rookie Cameron Brink has endorsement deals for New Balance or a number of other companies.

Clark’s challenge is to find her footing with her teammates, earn their respect and trust, help change the losing culture with the Fever while growing as a professional athlete and person. That’s the goal, plain and simple. 

“It’s been a whirlwind,” Clark said after Friday’s win. “This is my job, this is what I love to do, but I never want to lose the fun of the game, and nights like tonight remind me why I love playing basketball.”

Saturday, the stars were not aligned in Indiana’s favor. The Fever were on the second of a back-to-back and were playing a Las Vegas team coming off a loss and four days’ rest.

So it’s little surprise Clark and the Fever struggled. She played 28 minutes, had just eight points, turned it over six times and had seven assists and five rebounds. Her night was illustrated on a single play when she tried to bring the ball up court in the first quarter only to have her pocket picked by Jackie Young who would go on to covert a layup.

Her good friend and former Iowa teammate Kate Martin wound up outscoring her with a 12-point effort that came with their Hawkeyes coach Lisa Bluder sitting courtside.

“It’s really cool to have had that moment,” Martin said of her pregame meet-up and hug-out with Clark. “We’re both trying to make it in this league. It was great to see her.”

Clark is learning that she doesn’t always need to score to help her team. She had several dazzling assists in Friday’s win over the Sparks and while her defense can stand some improvement (what rookie’s couldn’t?), she’s working on it. 

The Fever will get there. Change doesn’t happen overnight. It took the Chicago Bulls time to get accustomed to playing with Michael Jordan and the team needed to change coaches and add players to the mix before they were championship timber. 

This is not to say Clark is Jordan with a X chromosome. But her wish for greatness parallels Jordan’s and if she’s willing to put the time and work in and be a good teammate, perhaps she will have the success she desires and she’ll one day have a tearful hug with the WNBA championship trophy. 

“I think everything is an adjustment,” she said before tipoff Saturday. “I felt a little passive my first couple of games. But lately, I’ve been more assertive, looking for my shot, working with my teammates. Definitely feeling more comfortable.”

Christie Sides, her coach in Indiana, said she’s doing everything she can to help Clark make a smooth transition.

“Caitlin’s still trying to learn the league,” she said. We’re trying to help her each day by communicating with her as much as we can, give her as much information as she can handle.” 

Clark and the Fever return to Las Vegas July 2. The stage will be bigger as the game will be played at T-Mobile Arena, which seats 19,000 for basketball. Perhaps she’ll get a chance to experience the city a little.

“I’ve never been to Vegas before,” she said prior to Saturday’s game. “I’m excited to be here. I hope to come back and play some roulette — put some on ‘Black 22.’”

She may return in July a far more polished player. For now, let’s follow Jonquel Jones’ advice that the New York Liberty forward said after their first meeting with Clark: “Let’s give her space to learn and grow.” 

And while we’re at it, let’s back off on the hate, shall we?