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Dom Amore: With Caitlin Clark's quiet arrival at Mohegan Sun, the fun begins

Dom Amore, Hartford Courant on

Published in Basketball

UNCASVILLE, Conn. — It began about 11:02 a.m. and it began quietly. Caitlin Clark, one of the most famous and certainly the most discussed athlete in the world at this moment, jogged out with her new teammate to shoot some baskets.

This was the way Clark would want it to be, a natural thing she has done nearly all her life. The immense hype that follows and surrounds her is relatively new, and will push hard against it from the outside, but she’s wearing it and it looks comfortable.

“I try to carry myself in the way I always have,” Clark said Tuesday, as reporters clustered for an interview following the morning shoot-around, this, too, to be a new normal for her. “Go about your business, be a good human, enjoy the game. There isn’t any fake persona that I put on. I think that’s why people enjoy watching me play; they see a real human being, I’m just like every single one of them. I don’t feel any pressure about the way I have to act or the way I have to perform.”

Clark appears impervious to all that follows her, not deaf to it or arrogant about it, but unaffected by it. This will be tested as the games and weeks go by. She’s not a collegiate player now, she’s a pro and plays for teams in a league that wants as much media exposure as she can generate. Her arrival with the Indiana Fever brings enormous expectations, that she will be able to do all she did at Iowa, where she was college basketball’s all-time leading scorer, and more as she gets more experience.

It won’t take more than a few off nights in this environment for the “What’s-wrong-with-Caitlin?” stories to start. The face of women’s basketball, she’ll be asked to comment on every aspect, even issues, such as pay and air travel, that preceded her by years.

And everywhere she goes, starting with sold-out Mohegan Sun Arena on Tuesday night, she will be watched by thousands, young and old, the majority seeing her for the first time and expecting Clark to conjure up something extraordinary just for them, something she rarely failed to deliver at Iowa. It’s impossible, but it’s a burden the great ones bear.

Once the first one is behind her, the games will come quickly, seven in the first 12 days. Clark is known for her intensity on the court, as a perfectionist, but she plans to “allow herself a little grace” as she transitions to something new.

“The most important thing is continue to be yourself and give yourself grace,” Clark said before scoring a team-high 20 points in a 92-71 loss to the Sun in her WNBA debut. “Not everything is going to be perfect. I know the outside world thinks I’m going to do some amazing things, but that may take some time. Things aren’t going to be perfect all the time. … If something isn’t perfect, my life’s not going to end.”

Clark said she slept well Monday night, even if she was staying in a casino for the first time in her life. She planned to spend the afternoon hours studying more film of the CT Sun, noting their physical style of play, hydrating and hanging out. He parents traveled to Connecticut, so their presence were to make things feel more like an extension of her college career.

 

“These environments don’t scare me, impact me at all,” she said. “Just embrace it, enjoy it. I’m sure there will be a lot of basketball fans here that really appreciate the game. I’m just ready to get out there and go for it. It doesn’t really feel like my first game. It just feels like I’m going into a basketball game you prepare for the same way you always have. Obviously, this is a different magnitude but for me, this is just basketball, you just go play basketball and have fun doing it.”

More unique still is that Clark, 22, joins a league and a team of older players, bigger, more experienced with the speed of the game and hardened by professional life, in the WNBA and overseas. Yet she will be expected to lead, to stand out, to create a rising tide to lift all in the water.

“She’s really just a big kid, that’s the best way I can put it,” said former UConn star Katie Lou Samuelson, 26, one of Clark’s new teammates. “Not that I didn’t think she was humble, but she is so down to earth and so normal about everything that’s happening We’re all aware of what’s going on and she is clearly this presence that everyone comes to see and everyone wants to be a part of. You see Caitlin Clark shirts everywhere you go, it’s amazing to see, but she’s just really a regular kid.”

Yet Samuelson is already noticing more people recognizing the other Fever players because of the attention Clark has brought. The Fever’s preseason home game drew 13,000, more than any regular-season game last season.

All No.1 overall draft picks, regardless of the sport, carry high expectations, most are expected to lift their team from somewhere below mediocrity. Clark is expected to raise the entire league, and the sport, in the U.S. consciousness. This is a lot to process, a lot to wear on one’s shoulders.

But wear it, Caitlin Clark will. So far, it seems to fit. She has our attention, she has a sport to sell, and she’s ready to sell it.

“The biggest thing, I hope the (the fans) can enjoy the product that’s on the floor,” she said. “I hope they continue to turn on the TV and support teams, whatever team it is across The W. Often times people fall in love when they give it a chance. Hopefully they’ll give it a chance and keep coming back.”


©2024 Hartford Courant. Visit courant.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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