Caitlin Clark’s WNBA debut came with struggles and loads of hope

UNCASVILLE, Conn. — This Is Your Life, Caitlin Clark: No. 22 jerseys and her parents in the stands, shrieking little girls and wide-eyed adults of all ages, electricity in the air inside a sold-out Mohegan Sun Arena on this Tuesday night anticipating jaw-dropping 3-balls all the way from Iowa or magical passes few NBA savants have been able to make.

This Is Your Dream Life, Caitlin Clark:

“I’m so lucky, like I get to do this as my job — I think this is definitely up there with some of the best moments of my life,” Clark said before the first night of the rest of her magical basketball life, the night when she began her WNBA career with the Indiana Fever against the hometown Connecticut Sun on multiple ESPN/Disney+ channels, when her mesmerized legion of fans and admirers and corporate and commercial partners alike were gripped with “What can she do for an encore?” fever.

Fever guard Caitlin Clark (22) looks for an opening against Connecticut Sun forward DeWanna Bonner (24) in the first quarter. David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

Dream lives are not immune to nightmare nights, however, and this was one of them for Caitlin Clark.

She never imposed her will on the night. She wasn’t the best player on the court: The Sun’s Alyssa Thomas was. The chemistry with her and her teammates was poor. She would zig and they would zag. Clark managed to drill a pair of 3s in the fourth quarter when the game was out of reach and finished with 20 points (on 5-for-15 shooting, 4-for-11 from downtown) with only two assists — and a ghastly 10 turnovers in the Fever’s 92-71 loss to the Sun.

“A lot of things to learn from,” Clark said. “There’s gonna be good ones, there’s gonna be bad ones.”

The worst moment for Clark in her lime green sneakers came with two minutes left in the first half, when elite defender DiJonai Carrington stripped her at midcourt and scored on a layup.

It seemed to temporarily wake her up.

Clark shook off a hard foul and spill underneath the basket to sink a pair of free throws and drilled a left-wing 3. A roar went up, even here in enemy territory. She had missed six of her first seven shots and her first three 3s. The half ended however, with Clark raging at one of the officials after losing the ball on one of the many suffocating double teams she was confronted with. “Some uncharacteristic stuff,” Clark said.

Fever guard Caitlin Clark speaks during a conference after the team’s season opener. AP

The start was extra ugly. She had two fouls and zero points and a seat on the bench for 4:47 of the last 4:51 of the first quarter. Finally, following a steal, Clark got on the WNBA board with a driving lay-in with 5:24 left before intermission.

Welcome to the WNBA, rookie.

“I think I would have enjoyed to play better,” Clark said.

This was in many ways the first night of the rest of the WNBA’s life, a life dragged out of the shadows of the sports consciousness by The Caitlin Clark Phenomenon.

She is the main event, eyeballs across America glued to her every step on every stop as the fresh phenom face of the Fever and the WNBA.

Caitlinsanity. Caitlinmania. Caitlin Fever. Take your pick.

She was the queen of the ball only a little more than a month ago, and if she can help elevate the women’s professional game the way she did the college game, she will be celebrated as royalty.

Lights, Camera, Caitlin!

There will be growing pains for Clark playing against seasoned, more physical professionals, but watching her grow will be part of the fun.

There will never be nights when she does not play with a joie de vivre and a will to win that can be intoxicating. There will not be many nights when her court vision does not allow her to thread the needle with the prettiest precision poetry-in-motion passes you will ever see.

Fever guard Caitlin Clark (22), forward Katie Lou Samuelson (33) and guard Erica Wheeler (17) on the bench against the Connecticut Sun. David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

There will be nights when her long-distance 3s will clang off the rim. There will be nights when she lobs an entry pass underneath and it will be too short and stolen.

And Tuesday was one of them.

“Obviously I’m disappointed. Nobody likes to lose,” Clark said.

It can be a burden being asked to be the face of the league as a rookie, but she has handled the trappings of fame with a poise and a grace and a maturity that belies her 22 years every step of the way. As much as there are moments when she understandably longs to feel normal, she nevertheless has mostly managed to embrace the public-eye microscope on her. She recognizes that fans — 8,910 on Tuesday night — show up to see her. She understands the responsibility to the game.

Fever guard Caitlin Clark (22) puts up a 3-point shot. AP

She has opened the door to charter flights for all teams, for more national television exposure, to playing in soldout bigger arenas, and eventually to rising salaries. Her eight-year Nike deal is worth a reported $28 million. If anyone can start to slam the door on pay equality, it is her.

Good for her and good for all the women who will follow. Good for her that she elevated the sport the way she did at Iowa and changed the landscape and the possibilities for little girls — and boys — with a ball and a dream. Good for her that she has been such an inspiration.

“I think I’m ready for this moment,” she had said before the game. “You only get your first WNBA game one time so you better make the most of it and soak in every single second.”

Even Jalen Brunson has off nights. There will be better encores.

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