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Iowa’s Caitlin Clark takes mindful approach to stardom

With a temperature below 0 degrees Fahrenheit outside, an 8 p.m. tipoff time, and an unranked opponent, going to watch the No. 2-ranked Iowa women’s basketball team’s game against Wisconsin on Jan. 16 might not have been worth the effort. But don’t tell that to the near 15,000 people packed inside Carver-Hawkeye Arena, all donning black, their eyes fixated on the video board above centercourt.

As flames danced below from large canisters on the hardwood, the four-sided jumbotron suspended above played a pregame hype video containing highlights from throughout past seasons. The finale to that montage displayed the main reason why fans from across the state ventured to Iowa City.

Before the screen faded to black, star guard Caitlin Clark stood alone on a stage, her arms outstretched laterally, motioning her hands as if to say, “Bring it on.”

In a span of three seasons, Clark has not only become the face of the Hawkeye squad but also a national superstar, arguably the biggest name in college basketball, shining a brighter light on the team than ever before. For fans, her dominance is awe-inspiring and a joy to watch. For the longtime Iowa media, her meteoric rise to fame reflects an evolution of maturity, awareness, and perhaps most importantly, an appreciation for the moment.

“I think something that I try to live by is that all the love you feel, the praise — that's the level you’re going to feel all the hate, too,” Clark said during a press conference following Iowa’s victory over Indiana on Jan. 13. “So you’ve got to stay right in the middle.”

Clark isn’t just any student-athlete. She walks with a police escort, signs autographs with fans of the opposing team, and even has her own State Farm commercial. Yet before attaining this ‘rock star’ status, the West Des Moines native started as a relatively unknown quantity, playing for pandemic-reduced crowds of just a few hundred spectators her freshman season.

In just her fourth-ever collegiate contest, a matchup with rival Iowa state on December 9th, 2020, Clark put on a show, dropping 34 points as the Hawkeyes mounted a 17-point fourth-quarter comeback in an 82-80 triumph.

For Iowa basketball reporter John Bohnenkamp, who has covered the women’s team for the past 10 years, that evening was the moment he realized Clark’s star power and her ability to put Iowa on the map.

“That was the sign that she could be really special,” Bohnenkamp said. “You could see the talent there."

From one star to a supernova

Clark isn’t Iowa women’s basketball’s only transcendent talent in recent memory. Two seasons prior to Clark’s debut, forward Megan Gustafson left her final mark in a Hawkeye uniform, earning Naismith Player of the Year honors for her senior season before moving on to the WNBA. Gustafson’s No. 10 now resides in the rafters at Carver, and the 6-foot-3 forward held the program’s all-time scoring record – that is, until Clark surpassed her in November 2023.

Like Clark, Gustafson was admired by fans for her driven character and personality, Bohnenkamp said. But her height often made her role on the court feel unattainable for other aspiring players.

“For young kids growing up, you could identify with the work ethic, but you couldn’t identify with being a post player, you know, unless you were taller than the other kids,” he said regarding Gustafson. “With [6’0”] Caitlin, especially when it comes to kids, they look at that and say, ‘Anybody can do that.’”

One of these kids is Sidora Varner, who was in attendance for the game against the Badgers alongside her father, Ryan, and sister, Sloan. A resident of Eldridge, Iowa – an hour’s drive east of Iowa City – Varner explained how she tries to model her game after Clark, adding that she hit a three-pointer during one of her games.

“When she [hits] a three, her emotions – it’s really fun,” Varner said.

Those post-bucket Clark celebrations, whether they be Michael Jordan’s shoulder shrug or pro wrestler John Cena’s ‘Can’t see me’ move, have only become more frequent as the guard has increased her scoring average each season. So too have per-game attendance numbers for both home and away games, according to Iowa Athletics.

After averaging 11,115 fans per home contest and 9,158 per away duel last season, both of those figures have jumped in 2023-2024 as the Hawkeyes have sold out every home game for the first time in program history. Sellouts have also occurred when the team visits other schools, including Purdue, Minnesota, and Rutgers.

Such an influx of fans is a welcome sight for Kathy Mossman and Margaret Cretzmeyer, ages 69 and 76, respectively. The pair of friends have grown up around sports: Cretzmeyer’s dad was a Hawkeye track coach while Mossman played under Iowa’s first women’s basketball coach, Lark Birdsong, in the 1970s.

According to Mossman, the women’s team played in the campus field house before the construction of Carver, and even then, they played in a side gym in front of minimal crowds. Even during Gustafson's playing days, Bohnenkamp remembered curtains sometimes had to be drawn at the arena to cover up rows of empty seats.

“That’s a huge difference in terms of what Caitlin’s done to draw attention to the game and just how phenomenal a player she is — people just want to come see her,” Mossman said. “But at the same time, you end up supporting the team, [Iowa head coach Lisa] Bluder, and the whole program.”

Caitlin Clark Record Tracker: Points, assists, rebounds and award milestones for Iowa superstar

Aware of the spotlight

With such a large fan base, Clark can’t help but notice the swaths of her jersey throughout the stands. Even when she’s focusing on the game at hand, the 21-year-old still keeps an eye out for the next generation.

“Going back to [the game against Wiscsonsin], she gives her shoes to a little girl,” Bohnenkamp said. “And when they asked [Clark] why, she was like, ‘We were doing stretching, and I noticed this little girl doing the same stretching exercises we were.'"

“I even see young men with [Clark’s] No. 22 jersey on, and I love that,” Cretzmeyer added. “It means there’s an acceptance for women who excel in sports, just like there is for men who excel at sports."

This graciousness extends beyond the hardwood as well. Varner tells the story of spotting Clark through the hood of a sweatshirt at an Iowa City Hy-Vee grocery store in September 2023 and running over to introduce herself.

“She’s just really sweet,” Varner said. “She gave me a hug and talked to me about my sports.”

While Clark regularly makes time to chat with fans, she’s also perfected the art of letting her play do the talking.

“[During the game], the Wisconsin players were giving [Clark] crap from the bench, and a couple of years ago, she would have been right back at them,” Bohnenkamp said. “And now, instead, she’s like, ‘I’ll go hit a logo three.'"

About the Author

Matt McGowan is a sophomore at the University of Iowa and has been on the staff of The Daily Iowan, the university’s student newspaper, since his freshman year. With The Daily Iowan, Matt has covered women’s tennis, men’s wrestling, and other sports. He has been on the football beat since the spring of 2022 and is the editor of The Daily Iowan’s Pregame edition, a weekly print solely devoted to football. Check out one of his favorite stories, a profile on Iowa center Logan Jones.