Caitlin Clark may have moved past WNBA hazing with win over Mercury

Caitlin Clark came to Phoenix on Sunday, creating the kind of stir you might expect from a Taylor Swift tour stop.

She left with the biggest victory of her professional career. 

Clark flirted with a triple-double in the Fever’s 88-82 win over the Mercury, her first victory over a WNBA team with a winning record. But the moment was far bigger than that. 

This was America’s most popular women’s basketball player beating the greatest of all-time before a sellout crowd of 17,071. 

Mercury's Diana Taurasi goes up for a layup over Fever's Caitlin Clark on June 30, 2024. (Jeremy Sc...

This was the day when the “Indiana” on Clark’s T-shirt stood for “In Diana’s house.” This was a new kind of reality check. 

If you came for the spectacle, you left feeling satisfied. A crush of fans arrived at Footprint Center wearing Iowa Hawkeyes gear. Fans swarmed her for pregame autographs. Her official introduction elicited a shrieking reaction that once followed The Beatles across America.

But the best snapshot came before the game when Clark finished a pregame interview, something she’s doing on all visiting cities just to soothe the overwhelming media demand. Waiting for her outside the interview room was Ann Meyers Drysdale, one of the original icons of women’s basketball. Meyers Drysdale rose to stardom before the WNBA existed, once signing a contract with the Indiana Pacers in 1979. She made history, even if she didn’t make the NBA. 

The two embraced and then walked arm-in-arm down the hallway, providing a powerful visual and a powerful reminder: Pioneering is hard work. It takes time, talent and really thick skin. It takes patience and poise. Clark seems to check every box. 

Clark has single-handedly lifted a niche sport into the mainstream, even though her staggering popularity has been met with predictable jealousy and pettiness from her professional peers.

For that reason and more, Sunday’s game in Phoenix was circled on the calendar. It was the first matchup against Mercury star Diana Taurasi, the player who had predicted a “reality check” in Clark’s rookie season. She was right about that. 

Taurasi was also chided for her brusque attitude, for refusing to gush over the WNBA’s newest star. The criticism is absurd. Not only is an affront to the athletic arena, but it ignores the ruthless, cutthroat competitiveness that makes Taurasi the greatest of all-time. 

The game had all the smoke. Five technical fouls in the first 15 minutes. Three reviews for flagrant or hostile acts in the first half. Yet the game also featured a grudging level of respect between the two stars. 

Beforehand, Clark talked of how she idolized Taurasi as a young girl. And when the game began, Taurasi and Britney Griner both dapped up Clark with friendly hugs that seemed to break the ice, that seemed to make the sport a better place. 

Taurasi was even in good spirits after the loss, even though the Footprint Center crowd had given Clark an impromptu standing ovation when she walked off the court. 

The gestures seemed meaningful. They seemed like the WNBA might be done hazing and hating on their hotshot rookie, who has withstood every mental and physical challenge, handling her business with considerable grace.

Now, maybe the league and its most popular player can finally grow and soar together. 

Reach Bickley at dbickley@arizonasports.com. Listen to Bickley & Marotta weekdays from 6 a.m. – 10 a.m. on 98.7 FM Arizona’s Sports Station. 

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