Caitlin Clark And The Two-Way Street

When SportsCenter host Scott Van Pelt prompted Diana Taurasi with a question about the talent arriving in the WNBA this year, she was quick with a blunt, in-character answer: “Reality is coming.” The 20-year Phoenix Mercury vet struck a note of caution after Iowa’s Final Four win over UConn. “There’s levels to this thing and that’s just life, we all went through it. And you see it on the NBA side and you’re going to see it on this side. You look superhuman playing against 18-year-olds, but you’re going to come with some grown women that have been playing professional basketball for a long time.”

After Angel Reese was picked seventh overall by the Chicago Sky in Monday’s draft, she said she had left LSU seeking precisely this education. “I want to hit rock bottom. I want to be a rookie again,” she told reporters at the draft-night presser. “I want to be knocked down by vets and get up and grow and be a sponge.” Reese offered one easy rebuttal to the fuss over Taurasi’s now-viral quote: Good players always want to prove themselves against the best competition. Besides, generational suspicion in sports long predates Taurasi or the WNBA. An entire podcast industry exists for 2000s NBA role players to say that they, personally, would have locked up Steph Curry and beaten the Durant-era Warriors in four.

Longtime sports journalist Christine Brennan acknowledged as much when she wrote about Taurasi’s comments and others made by Breanna Stewart, though she rationalized her frustration by pointing out the different stakes. “But women’s sports still have so much catching up to do, which makes any resentment toward the greatest thing to come along in a long time (and maybe ever) even worse,” Brennan wrote in a recent column, headlined “Caitlin Clark is best thing to happen to WNBA. Why are some players so frosty toward her?” The proof of their silliness was in the ticket sales and marketing, she argued. “No matter how frosty Stewart and Taurasi want to play it, WNBA teams know it’s Clark who now is their biggest draw, their meal ticket.”

Once a woman has been accused of frostiness and resentment, she can’t win, right? I’d be surprised if Taurasi weren’t occasionally envious of the opportunities allowed to this generation of players—recall that this is only the first class of WNBA rookies whose every NCAA tournament game was nationally televised—in the same way I imagine an older generation of players was once envious of Taurasi. The theorist Sianne Ngai has written about the way envy is “moralized and uglified” so that it is “stripped of its potential critical agency—as an ability to recognize, and antagonistically respond to, potentially real and institutionalized forms of inequality.” Envy becomes “a reflection of the ego’s inner workings rather than a polemical mode of engagement with the world…a person’s envy will always seem unjustified, frustrated, and effete—regardless of whether the relation it points to is imaginary or not.” 

See also  A Sunday Night With The Caitlin Casuals

Still, I sensed less resentment in Taurasi’s words than I did a certain hard-earned wisdom—even something approaching nice. Here’s my own rebuttal to the fuss: Brennan gave Taurasi’s answer the reality TV edit, captured it in the least generous light. Her full quote says something much more interesting. “Not saying that it’s not going to translate,” she continued right afterward. “Because when you’re great at what you do, you’re just going to get better. But there is going to be a transition period, where you’re going to have to give yourself grace as a rookie.” 

Taurasi suggested the rookie’s real battle may not be against the “frosty” veteran, but against herself. In the past, the league has struggled to shepherd college stars to a similar kind of professional stardom, and many of those stars were made to feel like this was a personal failing. “There was the whole ‘Three to See’ thing that was going to save the league,” said Elena Delle Donne in a Ramona Shelburne article about Clark’s on- and off-court transition to the pros, referencing the WNBA’s marketing efforts around the prospect trio of Delle Donne, Brittney Griner and Skylar Diggins-Smith in the 2013 draft. From the story:

“It’s not just basketball, it’s life,” [Delle Donne] said. “She’s going to be pulled in so many directions, asked to do so much media, to do meet and greets at all the away games. Those were things that I said yes to in the beginning, and probably middle of my rookie season, I called my agent and I was like, ‘We need to shut this down. I am hitting a wall. I’m so exhausted.’ You’re coming off college and then the league wants you to do all these appearances because you’re the one they want to see.

“I’m sure she’s got incredible people on her corner, but it’s so much. And you feel the pressure. You want to grow the game, so you do it. But then I guess there just came a point for me where I was like, ‘I am so exhausted. If I’m not performing on the court, it doesn’t matter what I’m doing with these off-court appearances.’”

As Brennan and others tell it, Clark is happening and the WNBA is being happened to. That part isn’t all untrue; every great player has some effect on their league. Clark’s will be profound. Judging by the ticket sales for the Indiana Fever’s road games, it already has been. But it feels wrong to consider their relationship in only one direction, especially when the player in question wrote “To meet Maya Moore” and “Be in the WNBA” on her second-grade dream board. (She has yet to acquire the Bernese Mountain dogs and the restaurant.) And while it is surely more fun to heave up takes formed three months into watching women’s basketball, it can be instructive to listen to a player when she speaks.

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At her pre-draft press conference, commissioner Cathy Engelbert said she was happy for the league to “inherit” these household names. One hopes the heir will be less clumsy this time around. But on draft night, the household names, who have never known a world without the WNBA, spoke of a different inheritance, too. Celeste Taylor said she grew up a New York Liberty ball girl on Long Island. Nika Mühl used to queue up Griner highlights in her living room in Zagreb; she could only watch the WNBA on YouTube there, but she made it work. When Hall of Famer Tamika Catchings came to Rickea Jackson’s Lady Vols practice one day, “she was acting like she knew me, you don’t even know, but I was over here like, Girl, you’re Tamika Catchings. That was pretty cool to experience.” Cameron Brink’s mother helped develop Dawn Staley’s signature shoe, and also worked with Catchings and Jennifer Rizzotti as a product line manager at Nike. “I think I just grew up having so much admiration for these women,” Brink said. “And it was just really upsetting to not see that reciprocated by the public…there were a lot of times where I was just kind of dumbfounded by the negativity.”

The draftees themselves—the “meal tickets”—don’t seem to find this moment so parasitic. Even if they didn’t know they’d be wearing Prada and Balmain and Jason Wu when they heard their names called, even if they didn’t imagine this night being a ticketed and sold-out event with 2.4 million TV viewers, they had no doubt they could end up here. This is the WNBA working as it should, as a two-way street: Give a 9-year-old Caitlin Clark something to shoot for, and she’ll do her part to get here. She is happening to the WNBA because the WNBA happened to her, and she and the WNBA will happen to someone else, who will also make this league a little bit better and a little more appealing to the next 9-year-old. In exchange for a real and stable place to play, these women can offer their astonishing talents. WNBA players have always held up their end of the bargain; this draft class says that it wasn’t in vain.

In her writing, Ngai infuses envy with political potential. Through Clark, the rest of the world has come to further understand the untapped value in women’s basketball, unacknowledged for so long. In a typically wise 2021 piece about the state of the WNBA for Sports Illustrated, Kate Fagan mused about the collective industry failure to make a bigger star of Taurasi, “evidence enough that our sports world is not a meritocracy, as we like to believe”:

Yeah, Taurasi should have been the Jordan, but maybe, just like the league itself, she was ahead of her time. Maybe the Jordan is about to walk through the doors. And when that player does arrive, all the scales and models that say women’s basketball players get only this much—this much airtime, salary, marketing dollars, investment—will be blown to smithereens.

There’s another, older Taurasi quote that feels relevant. It’s from late in the extremely wine-powered four-hour Instagram Live she did with Penny Taylor, Sue Bird, and Megan Rapinoe during the pandemic, not long before the virtual 2020 WNBA draft. They spent much of their conversation wondering about the players in that class, whose career would be best, what would translate. “My legacyOh my godthe fucking lega—like, when they ask a 24-year-old, ‘What do you want your legacy to be?’” Taurasi dropped the faux interview voice and settled back in her own. “Bitch, you gotta fucking live something.” Now comes the fun part, when hype and reality each make room for the other.

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