A Sunday Night With The Caitlin Casuals

BROOKLYN — Yeah, yeah, she’s growing the game or whatever, but I took a bit personally the number of CLARK jerseys and shirseys, Iowa and Indiana, that I saw on the backs of fans in downtown Brooklyn ahead of a Sunday night game with a Finals-esque crowd—Caitlin Clark’s second in New York as a visiting pro. I love the Liberty team she traveled to face, and with love often comes a fierce, irrational protectiveness. I did not want the best (yes, the best) team in the WNBA relegated to the backdrop for a threes merchant who does not yet know how to play defense. While I could allow for a certain number of midwestern visitors rooting for their gal in the big city, I would proudly gatekeep the hell out of anyone focusing on this game only because, like, Deadline(?) might report on it. My vindictiveness was handsomely rewarded.

Liberty fans were still the majority in the building, and as the team improved to 7-2 they got to enjoy a lopsided win, 104-68. The amount of support for Clark was tough to measure, because … well, because there was almost nothing to cheer for. This is about the extent of it: one long three-pointer at the start of the second (while Ellie the Elephant, the most popular creature in New York these days, stole her thunder along the sideline).

The enthusiasm for an enemy bucket—not saturating the building, but audible from every direction—irked me a bit. It never had a chance to return. Clark did lead her team with five assists and snagged a couple of steals, but her 1-of-10 night from the field helped make this her least impressive game as a Fever yet. The players who did have a stellar time were basically everyone in seafoam green. Jonquel Jones dominated the inside. The newcomer Kennedy Burke impressed off the bench. Betnijah Laney-Hamilton couldn’t miss. Every Libs starter picked up at least four dimes. For those who were there to see one particular special guest, I hope they left with the same impression as a flabbergasted Pat McAfee during Clark’s home debut: that the Liberty “might be the greatest team assembled of all time.”

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I can’t say I’ve never cheered for a visiting athlete. Specifically, what this game reminded me of was being back in my home state and seeing Shohei Ohtani’s Angels take on the Tigers. In one of those games, he smashed his 40th home run of the year while also pitching eight innings. It was August, the Tigers were double-digit games back of a playoff spot, and his performance was nothing short of astonishing. It would take a very hard heart to avoid any public display of admiration after seeing that longball sail into deep, deep right after he’d already obtained 21 outs with his arm. But Caitlin Clark is not Shohei Ohtani—yet—and the Liberty are not the 2021 Tigers, thank goodness. When Clark is sharing the court with royalty like Breanna Stewart and Sabrina Ionescu, it’s hard not to wonder why they weren’t receiving this level of crossover attention. And that wonder can degrade into something a lot like resentment.

There was a man in my row who was certainly behaving as if he had bet the over on Clark points and had no other rooting interest in the game. There was also, I think, one “We Want Caitlin” chant from a few rowdy guys on the other side of the arena as time wound down and Clark sat. Act like you’ve been here before, I wanted to say, even if this is your first game.

However, I’m thinking today, maybe that’s a reasonable excuse. I am someone who cannot remember a time when I wasn’t a sports fan. I take my game-going responsibilities for granted—that I understand the rules of the sport, that I don’t get up to leave in the middle of the action, that I root for a team and not just an individual. But it’s not like I was born with that knowledge. There was a time, for example, when I had to be taught that it’s wrong to cheer when a player on the other team gets hurt. It feels both concerning and ridiculous, in retrospect, that I ever thought otherwise, but fandom is a learning experience. The more you see, the more you understand. While I won’t ever abandon fiercely held principles like “root for your hometown team above all,” maybe I can be the kind of community member that models good fan behavior more than she judges those who are new to this.

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Sunday was a win for my team attended by over 17,000 people. And while my investment in the Liberty doesn’t and shouldn’t hinge on whether or not they open the upper bowl, I couldn’t help but feel optimism as I exited alongside a suffocating mass of people who’d paid to see a women’s pro game. Some percentage of that throng probably hadn’t given much thought to the Liberty before. (Once I was among them.) All in attendance received the best possible first impression. Maybe they’ll return, with a different name on the back of their jerseys.

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