Wednesday, June 19, 2024

Team USA and the WNBA are fools. Caitlin Clark is too important to be bullied and snubbed.

Must read

Women’s basketball and women’s sports in general have a hero in their midst. Neither cherishes her enough.

Caitlin Clark isn’t just a spunky, trash-talking rookie guard who plays for the Indiana Fever and, like Steph Curry, launches ICBMs with less conscience than the crazy brigadier general in Dr. Strangelove.

Through no contrivance of her own, she has become iconic. A female icon for the sporting world. An American icon for her country … which she will not be allowed to represent.

Clark was not named to the U.S. Olympic women’s basketball team.

This, in the same fortnight in which she was flagrantly fouled frequently and violently enough that a legion of numskulls drew comparisons to the Neanderthal NBA of the 1980s and 1990s — an NBA that the NBA has been trying to outgrow for the past two decades.

They have spited their noseless faces. They have bitten their feeding hand. They are ignorant of the buttered side of their bread.

» READ MORE: Caitlin Clark, Angel Reese, Kim Mulkey made women the center of the sports world ahead of the Final Four. Awesome.

This is so dumb. Clark should not be beaten and hidden, like my golf game. She should be protected and displayed, like a priceless work of art.

It was so easy.

The WNBA should have sent a message. The message: Knock it off.

It should have suspended Chicago Sky enforcer Chennedy Carter, the most egregious assailant thus far, who hip-checked Clark to the floor in a game June 1. Carter could have appealed her suspension from one of the chartered flights whisking her hither and thither; the WNBA is flying private for the first time this year, thanks in no small part to the financial windfall that is Caitlin Clark.

USA Basketball should have sent a message and named her to the squad.

The message: She’s bigger than all of us, and we will profit from her presence.

AT&T, Microsoft, and the three alcohol vendors (yeah ladies) must be super stoked that the most popular athlete in the richest country will not be representing their brands this summer. Nike, an Olympic sponsor that also just signed Clark to a $28 million deal, is getting shafted twice. It’s probably ecstatic she won’t be wearing her signature shoe in front of a global audience in the most fashion-conscious city on the planet.

» READ MORE: Somehow, the Phillies are better off without Rhys Hoskins. Rob Thomson (and I) didn’t foresee this

The WNBA and Team USA, like so many “traditionalists,” just don’t seem to get it:

This is the WNBA’s big chance.

She is Her

Women’s basketball finally has a crossover superstar. It has, maybe, a six-month window. The Caitlin Clark Phenomenon is fresh in people’s minds. They should saturate our consciousness with all things Caitlin (no, not Jenner). This is their best window to sell season tickets and WNBA jerseys and Team USA sweatshirts; their best chance to sell to the world their magnificently talented league and their magnificently entertaining game.

It doesn’t matter if Clark isn’t the most magnificent player in that game. She’s the most important player, maybe in the history of the league. Consider: She drew more than 20,000 fans Friday to a game played in Washington to an arena that holds five times more people than the Mystics’ usual home court, where the game originally was scheduled. This was the WNBA’s biggest regular-season crowd in 25 years, and those fans didn’t show up to witness great basketball. The competing teams had three combined wins and 20 combined losses.

Clark is that big.

For the past two years, despite the dominance of golfer Nelly Korda and the brilliance of reigning WNBA MVP Breanna Stewart and the continued existence of the greatest gymnast in history, Simone Biles, it was Clark who captured the hearts of American sports fans, playing an electric game out of backwater Iowa City. Why? Because she’s audacious and authentic, crass and efficient. She owns her faults and fights her own battles.

In other words, she’s the quintessential American.

She just won’t be representing America.

There hasn’t been anyone quite like her in any sport since Billie Jean King. She’s the girl next door who kicks down doors. She’s white and she has a boyfriend, but it doesn’t seem to matter, since every race and every orientation seems to identify with her.

Purity, schmurity

Please, enough with the alleged sanctity of Olympic inclusion. Christian Laettner made the otherwise all-professional Dream Team in 1992. The best college player, Shaquille O’Neal, and the best point guard alive, Isiah Thomas, did not.

Baseball literally has a rule that says every team must be represented at the All-Star Game, even the Pirates.

As for the cheap shots … she’s no ordinary rookie.

You know what happens if Clark lands and breaks her wrist after Carter’s hip check? She’s out until the playoffs. Say bye-bye to those ratings and ticket sales. WNBA ratings have skyrocketed. Attendance is up 40%. Angel Reese is not the reason (nobody tell her).

Clark is a special sort of unicorn. The only basketball player in the TV era who caused this type of pre-career buzz was LeBron James, and, yes, LeBron got beaten up, but the NBA didn’t need LeBron to make it relevant. Wilt, Kareem, Doc, Magic, Larry, Mike, and Kobe had already done that.

Rarefied air

Clark matters to her sport and to her demographic more than any of them did. She matters like Venus and Serena, like Annika and Martina, and the empress of women’s sport, the divine Ms. King.

She should be protected as a pro and exploited as an Olympian. We should be fed Caitlin Clark like Oliver was fed gruel: exclusively, and pining for more. We should be absolutely nauseated by her omnipresence; by her pin-straight hair and her crooked grin and her taunts and her flops; by her outrageous range and her dumb turnovers and her lousy defense.

She’s not a great player yet, and might never become one. That’s irrelevant. She has charisma and talent, and her narrow shoulders are broad and strong enough to expose lazy American sports fans to the most underexposed elite league in the world, the WNBA.

Neither Stewart, nor A’ja Wilson, the best player on the best team (Vegas), nor Diana Taurasi, Brittney Griner or Elena Delle Donne has been able to do what Clark has done:

Make you read this column.

Be nicer (and smarter)

So don’t beat her up. Don’t freeze her out.

Don’t let the league’s bullies bully her (yeah, it was kind of a flop, but still). Don’t leave her off the Olympic team. Not unless you want the canoe slalom to outperform USA Women’s Basketball on NBC (canoe slalom actually is pretty dope, but nobody watches).

Besides, it’s not like Clark can’t play.

» READ MORE: Mike Sielski: Let’s be real about the Caitlin Clark discussion, and about her

She won rookie of the month in her first month. She dropped 30 on Friday (and had just three points in her previous game). Strictly speaking, she might not be Team USA-worthy, but she’s not going to embarrass the United States in France (unlike a former president did six years ago on the rainy 100th anniversary of Armistice Day).

Even if Clark is overmatched, and even if she is underqualified, so what? Olympic participation can be symbolic.

Jason Kidd went to China in 2008 at the age of 35, purely as a figurehead: He averaged just 13 minutes and 0.86 shots per game.

Taurasi has worse stats than Clark this season. I love the “White Mamba,” as Kobe called her, and she can still ball, but nobody besides hard-core fans is going to tune in to see a 42-year-old go for a sixth gold medal.

Clark, on the other hand, would be must-see TV. Think Michael Phelps. Think Usain Bolt.

Caitlin Clark is a colossus. Celebrate her. Protect her. Now.

Because she won’t be a colossus forever.

Latest article