Three reasons Caitlin Clark is so relatable - whether you're a fan, player or parent

Hawkeyes guard Caitlin Clark says she knows she is a role model for young girls and boys. "The thing I would just say to them is the same thing I’ve said all my career is just dream big.”
Hawkeyes guard Caitlin Clark says she knows she is a role model for young girls and boys. "The thing I would just say to them is the same thing I’ve said all my career is just dream big.”

Editor's note: What makes Caitlin Clark so special? Steph Curry, Maya Moore other hoops legends weigh in.

COLLEGE PARK, Md. — Maybe you have to witness the Caitlin Clark Experience in person to truly comprehend it.

From floor level, you see it all closer: the behind-the-back dribbles, the flying rebounds and coast-to-coast layups before the other team can get settled on defense. You see the twisting, slashing moves to the basket and the 3-pointers that go down after you think a defender has her smothered.

You see the smile, too. It can come in the huddle with teammates, or sitting at the podium with one of them after a game, or looking back at you when you ask her a question.

"I came to Iowa with huge aspirations and now I’m getting to play in front of 15,000-plus every single night and that’s so cool," Clark said Saturday night after scoring 38 points to help beat Maryland and get within 66 points of the NCAA women’s scoring record. "Those are moments that you really can only dream of and now I’m living it every single day of my life and that’s really special."

When No. 4 Iowa hosts Penn State on Thursday, the 6-foot senior point guard can put a significant dent in, or may even break Kelsey Plum’s women's scoring record (3,527). You wonder if there was a moment when everyone – her parents, her coaches, her fans - realized Clark was capable of an achievement such as this. Few parents, even the most optimistic ones, start kids out with such lofty goals.

Dickson Jensen, Clark’s former AAU coach for the All Iowa Attack in her home state, describes her rise to superstardom as a “stepping process.” Jensen, who met Clark when she was in sixth grade, says she could take older kids to the rim as a young player. She scored 60 points in a game as a high schooler. She averaged 26.6 as a freshman at Iowa and has come back even better each season.

As you speak to those close to her, you understand something deeper about Clark, too: Through it all, she has remained Caitlin, the daughter, the teammate and the engaging personality. She’s driven to succeed, yes, but she’s always had a healthy understanding of herself.

"My wife and I say this a lot: she’s almost a natural at this stuff," her father, Brent Clark, tells USA TODAY Sports. "She doesn’t ask me for advice and I’m not telling her how to handle it. On the podium, no one is telling her what to say, that’s just her. If anything I just tell her, with all her accolades, to stay humble and stay hungry because there’s always someone else out there working hard."

It takes more than just being a superior player to be a star. It takes effervescence, for sure, and some humanity – a feeling he or she can instill in us that they are like us in some ways.

Three reasons why we all – whether fans, sports parents, young athletes or even someone who doesn’t fit into those categories - can relate to Clark.

1. Caitlin Clark once got cut, and she used the experience to get better

It happened when Clark was 16, when she had already played against kids a few years older than her in AAU ball. Clark and her father were in Colorado Springs at tryouts with Team USA’s U17 World Cup squad in 2018.

"I got the phone call," Brent says. "She was crying and just said, ‘I got cut.’ And it wasn’t even the last cut, it was the second-to-last cut! And she had been on the team the previous year, the summer before was the qualifying team.

"So I drove over, picked her up − they basically put you on a plane and send you home right away − and she cried for about five minutes straight and I let her. Then I just told her, ‘From here on out, you need to put that away and just use it as motivation,’ and that’s exactly what she did. That summer, playing with the All Iowa Attack, they won the national championship."

Jensen, her coach on that team, saw an opportunity. It was tough for Clark to get to the rim against girls 6-2 and taller that she faced in the Team USA camp. She realized she needed a pull-up jump shot. She started taking hundreds upon hundreds of shots per day, moving as far back as the logo on the court.

"That was about the time that she developed her step-back," Jensen says. "She became a much, much better shooter and a deep shooter."

2. Caitlin Clark's parents allow her to be herself

"There are a lot of parents that ruin young players," says Jensen, whose program has sent kids to Division I programs all over the country and to the WNBA. "I’m not gonna quote names but I know multiple examples of kids that could have been terrific young players and the parents just don’t have it in perspective and it’s disappointing. Social media is a large part of it. The NIL is becoming a huge part of it and, also, just the transfer portal, and the ability that, if Mom and Dad don’t like it, they can just leave."

Clark hasn’t gotten caught up in her success because her parents, Brent and Anne, haven’t let her.

"You’ll never hear from her parents that, ‘Oh, boy, isn’t Caitlin Clark the greatest thing in the world?’ " Jensen says. "They’re continuing to keep her grounded and they’re grateful for everything that Caitlin has been able to receive. They don’t think they deserve anything. Everything’s earned and nothing’s promised."

Her former coach describes her as fun, playful and a little sarcastic, even when the joke’s on her. Near the end of a game against Kansas State, one of Iowa’s two losses this season, Clark front-rimmed a 3-point attempt when Iowa still had a small chance of coming back. She has since joked with Jensen about her bad shot. In the final seconds of the game against Maryland, when Iowa had things in hand, she took a long baseball pass from a teammate and blew a layup.

She had a big smile after she missed.

"She’s still playing," Jensen says. "She’s playing a game, and a lot of these college athletes, it turns into a job and when it’s your job, some days you enjoy it and some days you don’t and, over time, you probably don’t enjoy it as much as you should."

3. Caitlin Clark inspires in more ways than just scoring points

Sawyer Smith, left, Karmella Moore, center, and Callie Krabetsky traveled from Pittsburgh to watch Caitlin Clark play at Maryland.
Sawyer Smith, left, Karmella Moore, center, and Callie Krabetsky traveled from Pittsburgh to watch Caitlin Clark play at Maryland.

Everyone on Iowa’s team is in a fast, continuous motion on offense until someone is inevitably open. They rely on each other, trust each other. It doesn’t matter who gets the shot.

During stoppages of play, they often smile, laugh, and soak in the moment.

You saw similar joy on the faces of kids who lined up about three hours early to watch Clark play against Maryland. There were girls and boys wearing her No. 22 jersey.

"She is a really good player and she’s a really, really good athlete and she has such great sportsmanship," says Karmella Moore, who traveled to the game from Pittsburgh with her school-aged basketball teammates Callie Krabetsky and Sawyer Smith.

Matt King and his high school-aged daughter, Riley, flew in from Georgia. Other fans came from North Carolina and Iowa. Clark said after the game she is aware of the fans, especially the kids, who root for her and of the larger responsibility she carries.

"I think that’s one of the privileges of being in the position that I am is I get to be a role model and our whole entire team gets to be role models," she says. "People look up to us – young girls, young boys, no matter who they are and I think the thing I would just say to them is the same thing I’ve said all my career is just dream big."

Contributing: Lindsay Schnell

Steve Borelli, aka Coach Steve, has been an editor and writer with USA TODAY since 1999. He spent 10 years coaching his two sons’ baseball and basketball teams. He and his wife, Colleen, are now loving life as sports parents for a high schooler and middle schooler. For his past columns, click here.

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Caitlin Clark: Three reasons she's inspiring. Hint: She's like us