George Bremer: Clark's next act? Lifting WNBA

Apr. 8—Caitlin Clark fell just short of a storybook ending Sunday, but there's little else she failed to accomplish during an iconic career at Iowa.

Now, it's time for the next challenge.

In less than a week, Clark is expected to be the No. 1 overall pick in the WNBA Draft and join the Indiana Fever.

Despite the bad-faith arguments you've likely heard elsewhere, it's a moment the 22-year-old has been anticipating for quite some time.

"I think the biggest thing is the WNBA is what I grew up watching, and those rivalries and competitive games were something I just loved and thrived on," she said between NCAA Tournament games in Albany, New York, a little more than a week ago. "I loved watching their competitive passion and their fire."

Growing in Des Moines, Iowa, Clark particularly followed the Minnesota Lynx.

Led by former Connecticut star Maya Moore — the No. 1 overall pick in the 2011 draft — the Lynx won four WNBA titles in a seven-season span, including one during Moore's epic rookie year.

It made an indelible impact on a young girl who grew up to become the all-time NCAA Division I scoring champion.

"I think more than anything, I just loved the Minnesota Lynx, the team that they had, the players that they had," Clark said. "Obviously, they built kind of a dynasty there, and Coach (Cheryl) Reeve, what she was able to do with her players — whether it was Maya Moore, whether it was Lindsay Whalen, whether it was Rebekkah Brunson, you could go down the line.

"I just loved that team and supporting that team and what they were able to do for women's basketball, for me. They were my inspiration growing up, and they still kind of are, and that's what I kind of live by."

Clark now finds herself on the other side of the role-model dynamic.

She's signed countless autographs for young girls — and boys — after most Hawkeyes games this season, and she takes her responsibility as one of the most famous athletes on the planet seriously.

Indiana seems like a perfect fit.

Fans across the state will appreciate Clark's perimeter shooting prowess, pin-point passing displays and blue-collar work ethic.

It's not difficult to imagine youngsters soon pulling up in their neighbors' yards to shoot long-distance 3-pointers at their own driveway, mimicking Clark's signature style.

Comparisons to Indiana Pacers legend Reggie Miller seem inevitable.

But this won't only be a central Indiana phenomenon.

Clark's exploits at Iowa did not only lead the Hawkeyes to back-to-back national championship games after being absent from the Final Four stage for three decades. She raised the profile of the entire sport to unprecedented levels.

The final three games of her college career were the three most-watched games in women's basketball history.

An estimated 12.3 million viewers witnessed Iowa's national championship game rematch against LSU in the Elite Eight. The number rose to 14.2 million viewers for the Hawkeyes' Final Four victory against UConn.

And South Carolina's win in the title game drew an estimated 18.7 million viewers, the most for any basketball game — men's or women's, college or pro — since 2019.

It wasn't just Iowa games feeling the boost.

Heading into the Final Four, ESPN reported the 60 NCAA Tournament games it aired averaged 1.5 million viewers — a 127% increase over 2023, which had been the highest rated women's tournament of all time.

The WNBA anxiously awaits.

"I have to congratulate Iowa on an incredible season, awesome," South Carolina coach Dawn Staley said during her on-court victory speech. "And I wanna personally thank Caitlin Clark for lifting up our sport. She carried a heavy load for our sport, and it just is not gonna stop here on the collegiate tour.

"But when she is the No. 1 pick in the WNBA Draft, she's gonna lift that league up as well. So, Caitlin Clark, if you're out there, you are one of the GOATS of our game, and we appreciate you."

Much has been made in recent days about whether Clark deserves to be called "the greatest of all time." Former college stars weighed in with varying opinions. Many said she needs a national championship to truly lay claim to that crown.

That didn't happen with the Hawkeyes' 87-75 loss in the title game.

But the argument is moot.

Wherever she ranks in any mythical pantheon of stars — from Nancy Lieberman to Cheryl Miller, from Rebecca Lobo to Brianna Stewart, from Chamique Holdsclaw to Candace Parker and many, many more — she's indisputably the right player with the right skillset in the right place at the right time.

Clark won't be the first great player to pull on a Fever jersey. Just last year, South Carolina's Aliyah Boston was the No. 1 overall pick and averaged 14.5 points and 8.4 rebounds in a rookie of the year season.

Four-time Olympic gold medalist Tamika Catchings led Indiana to its only WNBA championship in 2012 and averaged 16.1 points while shooting 35.5% from 3-point range over 15 seasons with the Fever.

Clark has work to do to reach those dizzying heights.

But she has a chance to be the most important player the league has ever seen.

Of the countless comparisons soon to be drawn for her pro career, the best fit might be Larry Bird.

They'll soon share a spot in Indiana basketball lore. They have similar games. And Bird — alongside fellow Hall of Famer Magic Johnson — absolutely transformed the NBA in the early 1980s.

That's the kind of legacy Clark can have in the WNBA.

It's already the legacy she's leaving behind at Iowa.

"She has raised the excitement of our sport," Hawkeyes coach Lisa Bluder said Sunday. "There's no doubt — just because she does things in a different way than anybody else can do. Plus, she has all the intangibles. She's a great student. She's a great role model. She does everything — she loves being that role model.

"I really think that, when she came in as a freshman and she said, 'We're going to the Final Four,' a lot of people laughed at her — and maybe even laughed at her for coming to Iowa, quite honestly.

"But she believed. We believed, and she got everybody else in that locker room to believe. And that is not an easy thing to do."

History might not repeat, but it often rhymes.

Bet against Clark at your peril.