How Caitlin Clark deals with fame and expectations: 'I wouldn't want it any other way:'

INDIANAPOLIS — For a while now, Caitlin Clark has been on top of the world.

She led Iowa women’s basketball to back-to-back national championship games and accomplished just about everything there was to as a college athlete. She became Division I basketball all-time leading scorer and took her home-state school to a place it hadn’t been in 30 years.

So, she was ready for a new test.

Benbow: You had to see it to believe it. The Caitlin Clark effect is real and it's potent.

“When she's excited about a challenge, and she's excited about an opportunity, she comes in ready and she is set to go,” Iowa associate head coach Jan Jensen said. “And I don't think that's been any different whether it's from junior high to high school, you know, high school to an AAU program, from high school to college, from college to the W. The kid is just ready, and she's excited. And she's always about the next frontier.”

Clark was the consensus No. 1 pick for the WNBA draft since she won her first National Player of the Year award in 2023. The Fever made the obvious choice on April 15, setting Clark on that next frontier, in the WNBA. In Indianapolis.

Indiana Fever Caitlin Clark (22) poses for a photo Wednesday, May 1, 2024, during the Indiana Fever media day at Gainbridge Fieldhouse in Indianapolis.
Indiana Fever Caitlin Clark (22) poses for a photo Wednesday, May 1, 2024, during the Indiana Fever media day at Gainbridge Fieldhouse in Indianapolis.

The recognizable life of Caitlin Clark

Since moving to Indianapolis, Clark has realized no matter what city she is in, she will be recognized in one way or another.  She has a personal security guard, Steve, who will always be nearby when she’s doing media interviews, revving up the crowd in the Pacers’ Indy car before a playoff game, or even just sitting in a box during a Pacers game at Gainbridge Fieldhouse.

People are still able to come up and talk with her and ask her to sign something — including one woman who asked her during a Pacers game to sign her ultrasound.

“That was definitely a first,” Clark said in Dallas on May 3. “It was cute, it was funny. I think at the same time they had all their friends around, and I don’t even think they had told their friends, because their friends were like, ‘What?’, and then I signed the ultrasound, but it was a cute little moment.”

With the help of name, image, and likeness in college, Clark has become a household name — transcending her recognizability to more than just women’s basketball fans. She is appearing in State Farm and Gatorade ads across the country, and people know who she is whether they’re basketball fans or not.

In some ways, it’s similar to Taylor Swift’s level of fame — maybe not on a global scale, but at least in the U.S. There are fans selling out around to see Clark play in a Fever uniform, leading to multiple opposing teams exchanging their original venues for bigger ones when Indiana comes to town.

Gainbridge Fieldhouse had over 13,000 fans for a preseason game against Atlanta on May 10. The last time the Fever had that many fans in the building was 2016, when 17,000 came to see Fever legend Tamika Catchings’ last game.

The Fever have 36 of their 40 games on national television, which is more than the reigning back-to-back champion Las Vegas Aces and runner-up New York Liberty. Indiana’s season-opener is going to be simulcast on Disney+ — the first live sporting event on the streaming platform.

Indiana Fever guard Caitlin Clark (22) signs autographs Thursday, May 9, 2024, after the preseason game against the Atlanta Dream at Gainbridge Fieldhouse in Indianapolis. The Indiana Fever defeated the Atlanta Dream, 83-80.
Indiana Fever guard Caitlin Clark (22) signs autographs Thursday, May 9, 2024, after the preseason game against the Atlanta Dream at Gainbridge Fieldhouse in Indianapolis. The Indiana Fever defeated the Atlanta Dream, 83-80.

“A lot of my fans are young girls and young boys, and a lot of women’s basketball fans are young girls who are inspired to be like us one day,” Clark said. “I think (Disney+) is a great resource to show our game, show our platform, and I hope they continue to do that, not only with Fever games, but across the board in the WNBA.”

Still, though, there are some times that Clark wishes she could lead more of a "normal" life.

The documentary ‘Full Court Press,’ which follows Clark, former South Carolina center Kamilla Cardoso and UCLA guard Kiki Rice through the 2023-24 college season, came out in four parts this weekend.

One scene shows Clark and her boyfriend, Connor McCaffery, going to an Iowa City breakfast spot, The Dandy Lion, the day after one of her games in January. As they’re waiting for a table, people walk up to them, saying “We came from Chicago to see you,” “You’re amazing.” At one point, she steps out of the restaurant to take a photo with some fans in the cold January air.

“The hardest part about being Caitlin Clark, I would say, is having to feel like you’re always, like, on,” she said in the documentary. “You just have bad days, and there are days where you don’t want to talk to anyone, but somebody comes up to you, and this is their 10-second interaction with you, so you better smile and be kind, but at the same time, you just want to be normal sometimes.”

But Clark knows what it’s like to be on the receiving end of those interactions with people’s favorite players. She met her basketball idol, Maya Moore, when she was 12 years old, and the kindness Moore showed to her shaped her interactions with her fans now.

And these interactions, like the one Clark had with Moore, are growing the game.

“People definitely know who I am, so sometimes it’s hard to go out and do what I want to do,” Clark told reporters in Indianapolis. “But I wouldn’t want it any other way. That’s the best way to help grow women’s basketball, it's the best way to get fans excited about what we’re gonna do here, so I think people are just as excited as we are.”

How she gives herself grace through the process

A lot of people expected her to come in and be exactly who she was in college — score 30 points and dish out nine assists per game. Not only is she playing against the best players in the world now, but she’s also playing with them.

Clark knew she wasn’t going to be able to come into the WNBA and dominate right away. The WNBA is on a different level than college — it’s less than 144 of the best players around the world, including those from the NCAA and around the world.

“Caitlin, I think she understands going into this that, you know, there's going to be probably some moments, some days, and then times when she can't possibly continue to live up to what everybody wants her to be,” Jensen said. “And it's not an excuse that she's setting. It's just simply by the fact of like, ‘I don't know what I don't know, at this point. I know it's faster. I know that I'm playing against the best in the world. I haven't had that training. So I'm going to be who I am but I know that I got a lot to learn.’”

The WNBA has a faster pace, there is more physicality and a higher number of games in a shorter period. There are two-a-day practices in training camp, and Clark came into a team with a lot of talent in Aliyah Boston, NaLyssa Smith and Kelsey Mitchell.

No matter how talented her teammates are, though, there’s always a learning curve with new teammates — especially when the newest one is a point guard. Clark’s teammates will need to get used to her unique passes and ability to find holes on the court, and it’s a learning process for both sides.

It showed in the preseason-opener when Clark only had two assists compared to five turnovers. Some of those turnovers came from overshot passes or ones her new teammates weren’t ready for, and some potential assists didn’t pan out because of missed shots. But at that point, they had only been practicing together for five days. The connections were starting, but they were nowhere near perfect yet.

But that was something Clark knew was going to happen. She had to go through a transition period, as well as her teammates.

“Just giving myself grace,” Clark said. “It's going to be a learning period for me, but at the same same time, still have the same confidence and belief in yourself that you've always had. That's what's got me to this point of just being myself, so continuing to be me, but also like, there's gonna be things for me to learn and I'm gonna learn very fast, you know, there's not much time to mess around. So I think continuing to be myself but also like, give myself grace.”

She scored a team-high 21 points in the preseason-opener, but 16 of those came in the first half. Clark was also put in a high-pressure situation her first time on a WNBA court — down three points in the final seconds, the coaches went to her for a potential game-tying shot.

She was off-balance shooting the ball, and it fell short. But at the end of the day, it was a preseason game — the first that she ever played in.

“Caitlin or anyone else that's playing, there's going to be times when you're hooping you're hitting your shots, and there's always going to be times when you're missing shots,” Aliyah Boston said. “... When it comes to games, Caitlin, I mean, I think she's gonna feel it, but also we have a group around her that's gonna be like, listen, you know, we trust you, we know you can knock them down, you got the next one.”

Indiana Fever guard Caitlin Clark (22) reacts to scoring three points Thursday, May 9, 2024, during the preseason game against the Atlanta Dream at Gainbridge Fieldhouse in Indianapolis. The Indiana Fever defeated the Atlanta Dream, 83-80.
Indiana Fever guard Caitlin Clark (22) reacts to scoring three points Thursday, May 9, 2024, during the preseason game against the Atlanta Dream at Gainbridge Fieldhouse in Indianapolis. The Indiana Fever defeated the Atlanta Dream, 83-80.

Embracing the pressure of the No. 1 pick

Clark has long been heralded, even before she was officially picked first overall in April, as the person who can potentially save the Fever franchise. She was the second-straight No. 1 pick for the Fever, following Boston, and every team in the WNBA that has had multiple consecutive No. 1 picks have won championships in the next three years.

There’s a larger media presence around the Fever this season — both local and national media are coming in droves to see how Clark will lift this franchise, one that hasn’t been to the playoffs since 2016, back to relevance in the league.

It’s a lot of pressure. But she embraces it.

“There's always gonna be expectations and pressure on my shoulders, and pressure on this team to be really good, and that's how you want it,” Clark said. “We wouldn't want anything else. We would want people showing up to our games, people expecting us to win a lot of basketball games this year, expecting myself to play really well, but I don't think it's anything that's ever been different for me. So I think continuing to be myself, relying on the people around me — it was the same thing in college, but now I'm surrounded by more talent, surrounded by really great coaches. So rely on those people and, you know, embrace the pressure.”

The Fever have a simple goal for this season: return to the playoffs since Catchings retired. There are eight spots in the WNBA playoffs, and the bottom four teams who miss it go into the lottery.

Indiana was competing for a playoff spot up until the final week of the season last year. With all of its new additions in 2024, though, the Fever are confident in their chances to get out of the lottery.

“The number one goal is definitely going to be playoffs,” Boston said. “And not just playoffs at lower seeds, but hopefully even in the middle of the pack just because that’s how we want to come in this year, and that's how we want to compete and just make it hard for teams.”

It might be too lofty for Indiana to hope to compete for a WNBA championship this season — the team is still pretty young, with three of its starters having fewer than three years of experience.

Going up against the superteams Las Vegas and New York have created for a title may not be in the cards this season. But that doesn’t mean Clark hasn’t thought about it. She’s someone who always has lofty goals — and she knows how to achieve them.

“She came (to Iowa)  wanting to do something that hadn't been done for a long time — take us to a Final Four,” Jensen said. “And she's going to go to the league, wanting to be a part of something that hasn't been done for a while, and that's get (the Fever) to the top.”

Follow IndyStar Fever Insider Chloe Peterson on X at @chloepeterson67.

This article originally appeared on Indianapolis Star: How Caitlin Clark deals with fame, expectations of WNBA rookie season