Caitlin Clark and Iowa find peace in the process

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ON A COLD, snowy Monday night in January, Caitlin Clark walked into a dimly lit restaurant in Iowa City and looked around the room for her parents. They smiled from a back table and waved her over. It was her 22nd birthday. Three teammates and the head Iowa Hawkeyes manager were with her, and soon everyone settled in and stories started to fly — senior year energy, still in college and nostalgic for it, too.

That meant, of course, tales of The Great Croatian Booze Cruise.

In summer 2023, as a reward for their Final Four season, the Iowa coaches arranged a boondoggle of an international preseason run through Italy and Croatia, grown-ass women, pockets thick with NIL money to burn. They saw places they’d never seen, spoke strange languages and walked narrow cobblestone streets. “One of the best nights was when we got bottles of wine and just sat on the rooftop of the hotel,” Caitlin said.

On the last free day of the trip, they proposed a vitally important mission to head manager Will McIntire, who now sat at the birthday table next to me.

They needed a yacht.

Like a real one, the kind of boat where Pat Riley and Jay-Z might be drinking mojitos on a summer Sunday. So McIntire found himself with the hotel concierge looking at photographs of boats. He asked Caitlin about the price of one that looked perfect.

“Book it right now,” she said.

They climbed aboard to find a stocked bar and an eager crew. The captain motored them out to nearby caves off the coast of Dubrovnik where the players could snorkel and float on their backs and stare up at the towering sky. They held their breath and swam into caves. They looked out for one another underwater. When stories of the Caitlin Clark Hawkeyes are told years from now, fans will remember logo 3s, blowout wins and the worldwide circus of attention, but players on the team will remember a glorious preseason yacht day on crystal blue waters, a time when they were young, strong and queens of all they beheld. They’ll talk about the color and clarity of the sea. A color that doesn’t exist in Iowa. Or didn’t until Caitlin Clark came along.

The Booze Cruise lived up to its name. After the stress of a Final Four run and the sudden rise of Caitlin’s star, it was a chance to be a team and have nobody care and to care about nobody else. Many of their coaches didn’t even find out about the yacht until the team got home.

“It was just what we needed,” McIntire said at the birthday dinner table. It was the kind of night parents dream of having with their grown children. Often three conversations were going at once. Caitlin’s dad, Brent, was telling McIntire about the wild screams and curses that come from their basement when one of their two sons is playing Fortnite.

“You should hear her play Fortnite,” McIntire said, pointing to Caitlin.

“Is she good?” Brent asked.

“No,” he laughed.

Caitlin told a story about her freshman year roommate almost burning the dorm down trying to make mac and cheese without water. She and Kate Martin told one about both of them oversleeping the bus at an away game — they awoke to both their phones ringing and someone knocking on the door as they made eye contact and shouted “S—!” in unison.

There was one about Caitlin in full conspiracy-theory rage, too, convinced that Ohio State had falsified her COVID-19 test result to keep her out of a game.

“This is rigged!” she told her mom on the phone. “They’re trying to hold me out!”

Anne took over the narration.

“Call the AD!” she said, imitating her daughter.

“I did not say that!” Caitlin said.

There was the time Caitlin needed to pass a COVID-19 test for games in Mexico. She showed up in the practice gym, throwing her mask on the ground while waving her phone and crowing, “I’m negative, bitches!” … until one of her teammates looked at the email and realized Caitlin had read it wrong, so she quickly grabbed her mask and bolted. As the stories flew, Caitlin smiled, loving to hear her teammates, happy to be with them.

We raised glasses again and again, and her dad beamed. Her mom kept thanking her teammates for taking such good care of her. They toasted to Caitlin, to CC, to 22 and to Deuce-Deuce. The waitress brought over a framed collage she had made, along with a note thanking Caitlin for inspiring “girl power.”

Caitlin’s mom made a final toast.

“Happy birthday,” she said.

“Happy birthday, Caitlin,” Kate Martin said, turning to her left and asking her, “What was the best thing that happened in Year 21?”

Caitlin thought about it for a second.

“Final Four,” she said.

Everyone clinked their glasses.

“Not even the booze cruise?” one of them asked.

They all laughed.

“Booze cruise!” everyone shouted.

MY INTRODUCTION TO Caitlin Clark’s world began in September over breakfast with Hawkeyes associate head coach Jan Jensen, who grew up on an Iowa farm before building a basketball legend of her own.

We met at an old-guard Jewish deli while Jensen was on a brief Los Angeles recruiting trip, flying in from Alaska that morning and flying back home that night. We ogled the cake case with the towering meringue pompadours but settled on something healthy, along with about a million refills of coffee. Jensen held a cup in her hands and summed up the challenge now of being Caitlin Clark.

“She’s figuring out how to really live with getting what she’s always wanted,” she said.

Jensen smiled before she continued.

“She wants to be the greatest that ever was.”

She pointed at me as if to underline her meaning.

“I believe that in my heart,” she said.

Jensen averaged 66 points a game in high school in the days when girls played 6-on-6. She is in Iowa’s girls high school basketball Hall of Fame. Her grandmother, Dorcas Andersen Randolph, who went by “Lottie” because she scored a lot of points, is too. Jensen still has her uniform. She sees Caitlin standing on the shoulders of generations of women like Lottie.

She also understands Caitlin is standing on no one’s shoulders.

“She’s uncensored,” Jensen said. “So many times women have to be censored.”

Jensen leaned across the table again.

“There is something in her,” she said. “Unapologetic.”

To Jensen, Caitlin seems immortal; young, talented, dedicated, rich, famous and on the rise.

“She’s 21,” she said.

A magic age, her confidence and talent startling to older people like me and Jensen.

“Don’t ever let anyone steal that from her,” Jensen said. “Protecting that is the coach’s job.”

Jensen spoke with pride of Caitlin’s 15 national awards, but she also said she is so talented, and driven, that she sometimes struggles to trust her teammates. This would be the work of this season and the epic battle of Caitlin’s athletic life. She sees things other people do not see, including her teammates. She imagines what other people even in her close orbit cannot imagine, has achieved what none of them have achieved and has done so because she listens to the singular voice in her head and her heart. She must protect that and nurture it. At the same time, she is learning that her power grows exponentially when it lives in concert with other people. A great team multiplies her. A bad team diminishes her. The trust her coaches ask her to have in her teammates, especially new ones, comes with great personal risk. Believing in her coaches requires faith and courage. For their part, the Iowa coaches know that they are holding a rare diamond and are constantly reminding themselves their job is to polish, not to ask her to cut to their precise specifications. It’s an effort, possession by possession, game by game, practice by practice, to meld two truths, to find the right balance, to elevate.

“It’s a work in progress,” Jensen said.

After last season’s run to the NCAA title game, the Hawkeyes lost their star center, Monika Czinano, who’s now playing pro ball in Hungary. She started every game Caitlin had ever played except one, and her dominance in the post taught Caitlin how successful teammates created space and opportunities at other spots on the floor. She still talks to Monika. Her trust in Monika’s replacements is the Hawkeyes’ most fragile place this year and will say a lot about whether this team can return to the Final Four.

“That’s gonna be the struggle for her,” Jensen said.

This idea would, in the coming five months, create two narratives for me, one public, one private, one about a superstar standing on center stage surrounded by an ever-growing mania, and another about a young woman trying to find herself, trying to decide how and who she wanted to be, in the center of that madness.

The waitress warmed up our coffee.

Jensen said she’d introduce me to Caitlin as soon as there was time in her schedule. Then she slipped out of our booth and headed out for a scouting visit at a nearby high school. I had a meeting with Priscilla Presley for another project later that day across town. We talked about life in the fishbowl with Elvis. She told me about how only a handful of memories remained hers alone even all these years later. I thought about Caitlin somewhere 30,000 feet in the air on a plane home from New York City after she received her final award of the 2023 season.

THIS IS A STORY about being 21. Do you remember turning 21?

At 18 you feel immortal but just three years later, a crack has opened in that immortality. You feel the gap between ambitions held and realized. You’re aware that wanting things badly enough won’t always be enough. You guard against bad energy and thoughts and hold fast to every ounce of confidence. That’s when life really begins.

The size of Caitlin Clark’s stage and the scale of her dreams and the reach of her talent leave little margin for error. She is chasing being the best of all time, which is an isolating thing. She isn’t scared to voice her ambitions even when they separate her from the people she loves. Her teammates dream of merely making a WNBA roster. Kate Martin did the math for me one evening. There are 12 teams. Each team has 12 roster spots. College basketball might be a bigger public stage than the professional league, but it is much easier. The normal dream of a 21-year-old women’s college basketball player, then, is the nearly impossible task of finding just one of 144 spots on a WNBA team, which has nothing to do with normal. A lofty dream might be to win one national award, not 15. When Caitlin gave her Associated Press Player of the Year trophy to her parents, her mom looked inside and gasped — some of the metal on the inside was already peeling and rusting.

“What happened?” she asked Caitlin.

Caitlin shrugged sheepishly.

“The managers got it,” she said.

It turns out the trophy, her mom said with a shake of the head, holds two beers. (Actually, the managers fact-checked — it’s two hard seltzers.) Caitlin is grateful for the awards but got tired of traveling around to get them, not because she didn’t appreciate the attention but because she seemed to sense that her survival and continued success would depend in part on her closing the book on last season. The past is dangerous to an ambitious 21-year-old. It was a struggle to get her on the plane to New York City to accept the AAU’s prestigious Sullivan Award. She asked whether it couldn’t simply be mailed to her instead. In the end, she and her family had 12 hours in the city so she wouldn’t miss any class. Michael Jordan talks about this — the speed at which things come at you, the way, when you look back, it becomes hard to remember what happened where and when. That’s Caitlin Clark’s world right now, and inside she feels both like a superstar and like the little girl begging her father to expand the driveway concrete so she’d have a full 3-point line to shoot from. She references her childhood a lot in public, revealing comments hiding in the plain sight of news conferences and one-on-one interviews.

“I feel like I was just that little girl playing outside with my brother,” she says.

The Clarks landed in New York and went straight to their hotel. Thirty minutes later, Caitlin hit the lobby dressed for the show. She signed autographs, posed for pictures, received the Sullivan Award, took more pictures, gave a speech and took more pictures. The family had just a few hours to sleep before heading to the airport for the flight home. But it was her first trip to New York City, and Caitlin said she wanted to see Times Square and get a slice of pizza. They went out and took a photograph, everyone together, then watched as Caitlin ordered a pepperoni slice, which arrived greasy on a stack of cheap paper plates. She folded it like a veteran. In the morning, they flew home. Caitlin rode with her headphones on. She likes Luke Combs. Turned up. Hearts on fire and crazy dreams. The next day she’d be at morning practice and then take her usual seat in Professor Walsh’s product and pricing class.

IN MID-OCTOBER, I got to Iowa City in time for the second practice of the year. I ran into head coach Lisa Bluder in the elevator down to the Carver-Hawkeye practice gym, and she laughed about how two fans from Indiana just showed up at the first practice and were walking onto the court taking selfies. Bluder had to stop practice and politely ask, you know, what the hell? They explained they had traveled far to see Caitlin Clark in person.

At 8 a.m., practice began, and almost immediately Caitlin was vibrating with anger at the referees, who were actually team managers with whistles. The whole team looked out of sorts — “little sh–s,” one of their assistants called them during a water break — and Caitlin fought her temper as several of her young teammates made mistakes. The main object of her scorn was a sophomore named Addison O’Grady, No. 44, who had become a bit of a punching bag. And all the while she raged at what she thought was the terrible job being done calling fouls and traveling.

“Stop letting him ref!” she barked to Jensen about a manager on the baseline. “He’s not calling anything!”

She jacked up a 3.

“I don’t love that 3,” Bluder told her. “You were in range, no doubt. But you were not in rhythm and were contested.”

Now Caitlin started talking to herself. What is the offense right now? This is a pretty regular thing, Caitlin Clark talking to Caitlin Clark, scolding her, cursing her, complaining to her, because who else could understand?

“Call screens,” she muttered.

“We must call screens,” Bluder yelled. “Somebody’s gonna get hurt. Somebody’s gonna get rocked.”

Then Caitlin touched her leg gingerly, which set off a chain reaction of anxiety and hushed attention. She took herself out of an end-of-game drill to rest it. Then, unable to resist, ended up in the drill anyway.

At the end of practice, Bluder described the long road awaiting them if they wanted a return to the Final Four. The promised land, she called it. Everyone on the team knows that Caitlin has given all of them a challenge, yes, but also a gift. An opportunity to breathe rare air. Caitlin’s best requires their best, and if they give it, they might just be able to beat anyone.

“Caitlin’s got a hell of a lot of pressure,” Bluder told them. “I get it.”

But it was more than that.

“We are her,” she said.

I MET WITH CAITLIN a few minutes later. We found some chairs in the Iowa film room.

“I’m trying to learn about myself as a 21-year-old,” she said. “About how I react to situations, what I want in my life, what’s good for me, what’s bad for me.”

The back wall of the film room featured larger-than-life portraits of the Hawkeyes, with Caitlin dominating the center of the collage. She gets the absurdity. Most every person walking around on the planet is a watcher. A consumer of the lives and adventures of others. Caitlin was like that, standing in line as a little girl to meet a hero like Maya Moore. In her bathroom at home in Des Moines she kept a caricature she got at an amusement park that shows her wearing a UConn uniform. But during last year’s NCAA tournament, when she averaged 31.8 points and 10.0 assists in leading Iowa to the championship game, she became one of the watched.

“… and I’m 21 years old!” she said, shaking her head and shrugging her shoulders with a grin, as if to say: Buy the ticket, take the ride.

“I don’t f—ing know.”

She’s a household name now. Nike puts her on billboards like Tiger Woods or Serena Williams. She is the best women’s college basketball player in the country, and one of the best college basketball players period. She has designs on best ever, a fraught thing to want. She admires Kobe Bryant and Michael Jordan, apex predators, and her ambition and talent live within her in equal measure alongside her youth and inexperience. She is striving for agency and intent in the glare of a white-hot spotlight. Luke Combs commented on her social media a few hours ago. She got free tickets and backstage passes to see him over the summer and also got tickets to Taylor Swift’s “The Eras Tour.” She invited the biggest Swifties on the team, trying to use her new superpowers for good. The Hawkeyes are forever asking her to DM their celebrity crushes and invite them to games. She laughs and tries to explain why she can’t get Drake to Iowa City. A local newspaper reporter recently asked her about LSU’s Angel Reese being in a Sports Illustrated swimsuit spread, a trap question asking her to comment on the marketability of their bodies.

She earns seven figures and has deals with Bose, Nike and State Farm. The Iowa grocery store chain Hy-Vee, another corporate partner, sometimes pays for her private security at public events.

Meanwhile, her mother still does her laundry.

“I’m trying to learn about myself,” Caitlin repeated.

“At the same time I have to be the best version of myself. I have to be the best version of myself for my teammates, and for the fans, and for my family … “

She laughed again.

“Yeah,” she said, pausing to find the right words, feeling the weight of the coming season.

“Yeah,” she said again.

Having been to the Final Four last year doesn’t make another Final Four easier. It makes it harder. Fame is a warm saccharine glow that obscures the terminal velocity of expectation. “That adds to the tension,” she said. “Every failure feels that much more intense. And every success also feels that much more intense. So it’s about finding balance.”

She sounded like an old soul, knowing how precious these days of glory are and how they are already slipping between her fingers. But that might just be because a middle-aged man was the one doing the listening. Most likely she is experiencing time in an altogether different way, so that right now, all at once, she is living with last year’s almost, with this season’s grind and hope, and with the knowledge that if everything goes right there is a future in which every year will be harder than the one before, and every season the watchers will be ready to replace last year’s model with some newer, shinier object.

“When I leave this place, I don’t want people to forget about me,” she said.

THAT SAME MONTH, Brent and Anne Clark, who could only look at each other in wonder, parked in the West 43 lot next to the football stadium, where that afternoon their little girl would be playing an exhibition outdoors at Kinnick Stadium in front of the largest audience to ever watch a women’s college basketball game.

“It’s wild,” they kept saying over and over.

“This is all she ever wanted!” Anne said as we set up the food and drinks. “She’s asked for years: ‘Can we please do a tailgate?'”

Brent stopped and listened to the band practicing inside the stadium. They played “Wagon Wheel.” He found a spot where the sun felt warm on his face.

“So what’s up with these sandwiches?” asked Caitlin’s older brother Blake.

Her younger brother Colin hooked up the portable speaker. He’s a freshman at Creighton, where he has found a community of his own. He and his sister adore each other. When he was a baby, the family called her “Caitie Mommy” because she took such good care of him, and now Brent and Anne love to see him celebrate her success. The first track he played was AC/DC’s “Back in Black,” the Hawks’ football walkout song. Anne reached for a cardboard cutout of Caitlin’s beloved golden retriever, Bella, a leftover from her freshman season when COVID-19 meant no fans in the seats.

Brent threw a football with one of the young family friends. Around him other fathers did the same with their sons and daughters, many of them wearing No. 22 jerseys, girls and boys.

“Look at all these little girls going in,” Anne said.

Some football players walked through the parking lot, and nobody paid them much mind. Former Iowa and NFL star Marv Cook stood talking with Brent about Caitlin and her teammates when the football guys went past.

“They’re not the only show in town anymore,” Cook said.

The Clark car was packed with Hy-Vee fried chicken sandwiches, cookies, a cooler of beer and soda, these strange pickle-ham-cream cheese concoctions, the most Midwestern thing you’ve ever seen in your whole life — “soooo gross!” Caitlin said later.

The lieutenant governor of Iowa stopped by to pay his respects.

“Hawk Walk!” he said.

Everyone went to form a line of cheering fans as the Iowa bus parked and the players went into the stadium. Anne Clark worked herself close holding up the cutout of Bella so Caitlin could see. One of the little girls next to Anne treated her like a Mama Swift sighting at a show.

“She touched me!” she screamed to her friends.

Caitlin went into the football locker room to get ready. Outside, the stadium pulsed with energy. Walter the Hawk swooped down from the press box. Then the dozens of speakers ringing the main bowl started thumping. “Back in Black” again. The whole place shook. Caitlin stepped into the light pouring into the mouth of the tunnel.

“I-O-W-A!” the crowd chanted.

“Let’s hear it for No. 22, Caitlin Clark!” the announcer called.

Someone started an M-V-P chant.

The wind blew across the court. Caitlin even air-balled a free throw. Nobody cared. She got a triple-double. Stayed focused. With a minute left she threw a pass that center Addi O’Grady fumbled. Caitlin twirled around and hung her head but went back to her on the next possession.

The game ended in a blowout, and then Caitlin started working her way down the front row of the sideline, more than 50 yards of little girls and boys. They took selfies and asked her to sign their shirts. One young boy held a sign that said, “Met you at Hy-Vee.”

“Thank you for coming!” Caitlin yelled.

As she finally ran into the tunnel, she jumped up and high-fived a young girl.

“No way!” the girl said.

Caitlin made it to the locker room, where she had stored a gift a very sick child had given her. The kid was a patient at the children’s cancer ward across the street and was serving as an honorary captain. She’d had her own baseball card made, and on the back she’d been asked to name her favorite Hawkeye. Caitlin Clark, she said.

“I’ll keep that forever,” Caitlin said.

She left the stadium through a side door, got on the back of a golf cart with her boyfriend and headed to the basketball arena, where her parents waited with an enormous bag of freshly washed and folded clothes.


ONE MORNING LAST YEAR I drove across Des Moines to see where all this began. Although Caitlin hasn’t been a student at Dowling Catholic for almost four years, her presence — and her family’s presence — remains palpable in the halls. Her older brother won two state titles in football. Her younger brother won a state title in track. Caitlin’s grandfather, her mom’s dad, was the beloved football coach there for years. Once after an emotional game he gathered his team at midfield and burned Des Moines Register articles about his team he didn’t like.

Caitlin comes by her fire honestly.

I parked and met the basketball coach, Kristin Meyer, in the lobby adjacent to the chapel. We walked through the library to her office. She told me a story that stuck with me. In 10th grade, Caitlin got a reading assignment about empathy. She didn’t know what the word meant. Meyer tried and failed to explain. She realized then that she had a team of girls who wanted to enjoy playing sports — “for fun,” Caitlin would tell me later — and one ponytailed Kobe Bryant.

The summer before her freshman season, the team went to a camp at Creighton. Caitlin threw a three-quarter-court bounce pass that hit a teammate in the hands. That same game, she bopped down the court and threw a perfect behind-the-back pass. Also in rhythm and on the money.

“I would go back and watch film and just rewind and watch again and watch again,” Meyer said.

When Caitlin saw a player come open, or more often realized that a player would be coming open momentarily, look out! The ball was in the air and flying at their heads. This made her teammates nervous, and they’d shut down, which Caitlin didn’t understand. Soon she just stopped passing.

“It was hard for her to understand what other people would feel,” Meyer said.

Caitlin was, in real time, learning how to use her gift. This is an old story among basketball greats. Magic Johnson threw passes that even James Worthy couldn’t catch. Caitlin’s task was to see the gulf between her potential and her reality and close that distance. Often she got impatient. With herself and others. When someone made a mistake, or if she thought a referee or a coach was being unfair, she’d have tantrums. Mostly she seemed unaware of how her body language and mood impacted the people around her. She’d throw her arms in the air in disgust, or clap loudly, and waves of nervousness would pass through the team. Of course that cut both ways. When she praised a teammate, the coaches would see that player swell with pride. “If Caitlin gave me a compliment,” one of her teammates said, “I felt like I was the best player in the gym.”

Meyer started showing her film of her body language, something the Iowa coaches still do. They’d sit down and watch in silence as Caitlin stomped and gestured.

“High school basketball was honestly harder for me than college,” Caitlin told me. “I mean that in the most positive, respectful way to my teammates. The basketball IQ wasn’t there. At the end of the day they didn’t care if we won or lost, really. It wasn’t gonna affect their life that much. They just didn’t get it on the same level.”

Meyer watched a Bobby Knight video in which he called the bench the greatest motivator. That resonated. So when Caitlin would fire some wild shot she could see in her mind but not quite execute with her body, Meyer would sit her. Three times in high school Caitlin got technical fouls and she’d immediately come out, once for an entire quarter. As soon as she hit the chair she’d start agitating — “Can I go back in?” “Can I go back in?!” “CAN I GO BACK IN?” — until Meyer relented.

“When I used to get technical fouls in high school,” Caitlin said, “I did not want to come out of the locker room after the game because I know my mom would be mad. But if I got one during an AAU tournament, I don’t think my dad would tell my mom. He knew my mom would not be happy, but he understood it from a competitive standpoint.”

Her dad played basketball and baseball in college. He sees a lot of himself in her.

“To her everything is a competition,” Brent Clark said. “I was that way when I was her age. I was really …”

He thought for a moment.

“Emotional,” he said finally.

He wishes his own parents would have punished him more for his outbursts in youth sports. He remembers with shame crying in a dugout.

“I get her,” he said. “I can relate. I see a lot of that fire. She’s just much better at controlling it than I ever was.”

Brent and Anne want most of all for Caitlin’s spirit to never be squashed. Her grandfather the Dowling Catholic football coach used to say, “It’s a lot easier to tame a tiger than it is to raise the dead.”

Brent and I sat at a little sandwich place near his office, where he is a senior executive at an agricultural industrial parts company. He laughed talking about the Dowling Catholic Powder Puff girls’ football game.

“What did she play?” I asked.

He looked at me like I was an idiot.


He laughed at the memory of taking Caitlin out in the back yard and watching her throw a perfect pass, a dart, 20 yards on the fly.

“You couldn’t have thrown a better spiral.”

Caitlin, like most children, watched her parents much more closely than they realized. “They balance each other really well,” she said. “The biggest thing is he’s always been a constant. I literally cannot say one time my dad has raised his voice at me. My mom is somebody I talk to every single day. My life would be a mess if it weren’t for her. She’s one of my best friends.”

Caitlin led the state in scoring a couple of times, but Dowling never won a state title during her career. Her senior year the team didn’t even make the state tournament. She could shoot the Maroons into games and sometimes out of them. But nobody worked harder in the gym. She wanted to be great. When someone got in the way of that, even if that someone was her, she struggled to manage her emotions. An engine as rare as hers threw out a ton of exhaust.

Caitlin and I talked about high school one morning. Both Jensen and Kate Martin told me they didn’t think she had any true friends outside her tight-knit family before she got to Iowa. They didn’t mean she wasn’t popular, or didn’t have a group to hang with, only that there was no one in her orbit who was wired like her. Legends like Tiger Woods and Joe DiMaggio often seemed alone too, even surrounded by huge crowds, solitary citizens living in a world of their own ambitions and fears.

“Were you lonely?” I asked.

She thought about it.

“I would say I was lonely in the aspect of no one understood how I was thinking,” she said. “I wasn’t surrounded by people who wanted to achieve the same things as me.”

Letters from college coaches stacked up at her house in those days. Her parents kept them from her until late in the process, trying instinctively to protect as much of her childhood as they could. I think they knew even then. Her dream school was, like everyone else, UConn. She was growing up and learning for the first time about being watched, about reputation. A lot of college coaches watched the same body language sequences Meyer did. Most didn’t mind. Dowling’s open gyms filled with the best of the best coaches in the country. One absence was conspicuous, though.

“Geno never came,” Meyer said.

CAITLIN’S FAMILY, IT’S important to note here, is quite Catholic. She went to Catholic school from kindergarten through graduation. Anne comes from a big, loud, fun Italian family, and if you look in Caitlin’s fridge at the apartment she shares with teammate Kylie Feuerbach, you’ll almost certainly find some frozen red sauce meals made by her mom or grandma.

Her brother Blake is always texting her reminders to say her rosary and go to the church near campus, conveniently located across the street from Iowa City’s great dive bar, George’s — which is where Coach Bluder and her staff go to celebrate big wins. My friend Annie Gavin, whose father is the famous wrestling coach Dan Gable, goes to that church and reports that more Sundays than not, she sees Caitlin in the pews. Blake wore his St. Benedict bracelet to the Final Four last year and did four decades of his rosary at the hotel and the last round in the arena just before tipoff.

You see where this is going.

Anne Clark grew up the daughter of a Catholic high school football coach. What do you imagine she thinks is the greatest, most magical university in the world?

“For a while I thought she was gonna end up at Notre Dame,” Meyer said.

Meyer told me that Caitlin remained pretty calm during her recruitment — except when Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw came to town.

Her list of choices winnowed to two. The Hawkeyes and the Fighting Irish. She’d also looked at Iowa State, Texas and both Oregon schools. The lack of interest from UConn stung. “Honestly,” she said, “it was more I wanted them to recruit me to say I got recruited. I loved UConn. I think they’re the coolest place on Earth, and I wanted to say I got recruited by them. They called my AAU coach a few times, but they never talked to my family and never talked to me.”

Bluder and Jensen had been worried about the Irish from the beginning. Jensen got to Brent Clark when Caitlin was in the seventh grade and told him they’d offer her a scholarship right now. Then she promised to stay away until he was ready to talk. She also predicted exactly how the rest of the nation would awake to the magic of his daughter, which gave her credibility as the years went on.

When Caitlin was playing in Bangkok with Team USA in 2019, Jensen and Bluder flew to games around the world so Caitlin could see they made the effort.

“My family wanted me to go to Notre Dame,” Caitlin said. “At the end of the day they were like, you make the decision for yourself. But it’s NOTRE DAME! ‘Rudy’ was one of my favorite movies. How could you not pick Notre Dame?”

Everyone in her high school wanted her to choose Notre Dame. Every year the top two or three students went to South Bend. It was ingrained in the culture. When she went on a campus visit, she wanted to love it. In fact, she got frustrated with herself for not loving it.

Notre Dame it would be. She called McGraw. It was the “smart” choice.

Next she called Bluder to break the bad news.

Bluder was at a field hockey game.

She stepped away from the field and called her staff.

“We’re not gonna get her,” she said.

Then the Iowa coaches waited for the dagger of an official announcement. For some reason it never came. Jensen had seen second-guessing before. She texted Caitlin’s assistant AAU coach to see if it would be appropriate for her to reach out.

“I think I’d call her if I were you,” the coach told Jensen.

So she did.

“What’s up?”


“I haven’t seen anything.”

“Yeah, I’ve changed my mind.”

Caitlin wanted to come to Iowa but thought her mom didn’t want her to turn down Notre Dame. The AAU coach called Bluder and asked if Caitlin were to change her mind, would there be a spot for her. Three or so days later Caitlin again faced two phone calls. The first was terrifying. She needed to tell McGraw she had changed her mind.

“I’m 17 years old,” she said, “and I’m sitting in my room and I’m sweating my ass off. I’m about to call her. She is an intimidating individual. She was really understanding. She kinda knew. She was great. Then I called Coach Bluder.”

Dave and Lisa Bluder sat in the cozy basement of a fancy local restaurant. A fireplace warmed the room. They’d just sat down and ordered a drink.

“I can remember the exact table,” Bluder said.

Her phone rang.

“Do you have a few minutes to talk?” Caitlin asked.

She committed on the spot. Bluder went back inside and ordered a bottle of champagne. Then she and Dave got another bottle and caught a ride to Jensen’s house to celebrate some more. Caitlin remained in her bedroom, still nervous. She had made her two calls, but there was one more person who needed to know the news.

“Caitlin commits to us but didn’t tell her mom,” Jensen said laughing.

Her parents both call the family meeting that followed “emotional” and say they realized, truly in that moment, that their daughter had a vision for herself more ambitious and nuanced than any they could conjure. She seemed vulnerable and brave, and they deferred to her judgment.

Caitlin Clark was going to be a Hawkeye, and she told reporters her goal was to take Iowa to the Final Four. Some people rolled their eyes, but a bar had been set. Caitlin and I talked about this moment, the way that it felt like part of her search was to find other young women who cared about the game as much as she did. I asked her if this moment felt like the first decision she’d made completely herself.

“For sure,” she said.

I asked if this was also the first time she had ever defied her mother, whom she adores — a critical step on the path from childhood to adulthood. She stopped cold. It seemed like she’d never really thought about it before but now saw it clearly, from the high ground of the life she has built from talent and desire.

“Probably,” she said finally.

THESE DAYS CAITLIN and her teammates travel around Iowa City in a pack, a tight-knit crew, as her celebrity pushes them further and further into their insular little world, which revolves around the riverside apartment complex where most of them live. They know everything about each other — such as, say, that Caitlin’s fake name for orders and hotel rooms is Hallie Parker from “The Parent Trap” — and this past Halloween, they dressed in costumes and climbed up balconies to sneak into teammates’ apartments to scare each other. Sydney Affolter nearly had a heart attack when she approached her sliding balcony door to find, staring at her, a full gorilla costume with a giddy Kate Martin inside.

These women are Caitlin’s tribe, and they have been since she arrived on campus in fall 2020. The starting five for the first game of her career was the same as the starting five in the national championship game three years later. Monika Czinano, the center, a dominant force on the court, with a quirky Zen off it. “Well, I live on a floating rock,” she’d say with a shrug after a tough loss. McKenna Warnock holding down the 4 with physicality and smarts, and Gabbie Marshall playing alongside with power and finesse. Caitlin ran point from her very first practice, while Martin began to shape the whole team in her competitive image, the daughter of a high school football coach who brought intensity to every part of the game.

“What she found is people who also put their entire life into basketball,” Martin said.

Caitlin’s teammates meanwhile discovered her talent came with impatience and temper. She blew up at practice. A lot of throwing her hands up in the air, stomping off the court and simply refusing to pass the ball to an open teammate if she didn’t believe they’d deliver. It was the first time in her life she’d had to play with teammates who would not simply be run over. Warnock got in her face. So did Martin. The coaches pulled her aside. She’s open. You have got to pass her the ball. Caitlin’s answer, like a logical toddler, left them stuttering to find a response. Why would I pass her the ball when I’m taking more shots in the practice gym?

“I had expectations of them and they weren’t meeting them,” Caitlin said.

Because of COVID-19, all this occurred in private in the early days. A lot of the freshman year dust-ups happened in empty arenas. Her teammates came to understand that they were dealing with someone like Mozart. She wasn’t rude, nor necessarily nice, just a different species. At one point that year a sports psychologist came in to work with the team. She started going around the room and asking the players when they felt stressed and anxious and how they reacted to those feelings. One by one, the young women described familiar symptoms and scenarios: sweaty hands, a fear of the free throw line, struggling with breathing, anxiety about the last possession.

Finally it was Caitlin’s turn. She seemed a little embarrassed.

“I never am,” she said.

Everyone in the room somehow understood she was being more vulnerable than cocky.

“Stone cold,” one witness told me. “It was so cool.”

I pressed her once on how she must have seemed to her teammates that first year. “People know I’ll have their backs and I’ll ride for them every single day,” she said. “Obviously there is a switch that flips when I step on the court like I want to kill someone. I’m here to cause havoc. Some of the biggest challenges are I have all this emotion, I’m a freshman and I’m starting and how do I channel this? At times they were definitely like, ‘Why is this girl a psycho?'”

The Hawkeyes lost games they should have won that year, still figuring out a way to have both a team and a superstar. The coaches put together video sessions completely devoted to her reactions. They had few notes about her actual play. She simply moved at warp speed, and even her most gifted teammates needed time to adjust. To learn how to breathe her air, to speak her language, to cross dimensions from their old world into the new one she was creating.

“If you see a practice, you might figure that out,” Jensen told me once. “You gotta have whatever that is. You gotta be playing the game at Caitlin’s pace. It’s all processing. She’s a half-second ahead.”

The coaches saw her learning, too, looking to pass out of double- and triple-teams. Bluder kept telling them to give her latitude. Their main job, as she saw it, was to make sure they never put “her light under a bushel.”

One day last year I sat down with Jensen to watch film of Caitlin’s outbursts, which they had put together in reels.

“She does a lot of twirling,” Jensen said with a sigh.

A twirl, a stomp off the court, slamming her hands into a wall. A reaction when the mistake was someone else’s and not often enough a “my bad” when it was hers.

“She’s not touchy-feely,” Jensen said. “You’re gonna meet her where she is.”

The Iowa coaches didn’t baby their prodigy. After one particularly bad performance, Caitlin caught a full barrage of anger and blame in the postgame locker room. She took it in public, but when she got into the car with her mom, she burst into tears. Not because of the yelling but because she wondered if she wanted something different than everyone else around her.

“Our goals are not aligned,” she told her mom.

The Hawkeyes won 20 games and lost 10 her freshman year. They got beat in overtime at home by Ohio State. They beat No. 7 Michigan State in the Big Ten tournament. Caitlin won national co-freshman of the year. That helped with credibility.

“I want her in my foxhole,” Martin said. “That’s the type of player you want at the end of a game in a battle.”

Maybe earlier than anyone, Martin realized that Caitlin’s emotional outbursts were a byproduct of a young woman trying to marshal forces too powerful to fully control. Caitlin could take them to glory if they could help her be her best self. They all needed one another. Her teammates’ understanding grew. They saw her get the blame for all the losses and knew the ball would always be in her hands with the game on the line. At a team meeting that season, when hurt feelings over Caitlin’s lack of trust had come to the surface, it was Martin who rose to speak.

“I got something,” she said.

The team fell silent.

“Everybody thinks they want to be Caitlin,” she said. “I don’t know if you want to be Caitlin.”

The women knew immediately what she meant.

“The crown she wears is heavy.”

The other four starters slowly accepted their role as The Caitlinettes. They won two games in the NCAA tournament before getting beat in the Sweet 16 by UConn. The headlines the next day back in Iowa would ratchet up the pressure — Are the Hawks Ahead of Schedule? — but in the postgame chaos Caitlin saw a familiar face approaching. It was Geno Auriemma. He told her how great she’d played and thanked her for her contribution to their sport. It felt like a victory. He finally saw what Bluder had seen all along. “He could see the greatness in me when I was a freshman,” she said, “before everything unfolded when I was a junior.”

That offseason Caitlin tried out for Team USA. Possession to possession, shot to shot, she played free and bold. Head coach Cori Close, whose day job was coaching the UCLA Bruins, saw the confidence immediately. “Women have been socialized to not want to take all the shine,” she said. “She is an elite competitor who isn’t scared to step into the moment.”

But every team Caitlin had been on during the tryouts had lost its scrimmage, and after tryouts Close pulled her aside and put a question to her simply: “Do you want to be a really talented player who gets a lot of stats, or do you want to win?”

Caitlin made the roster, led the team to gold and was named MVP. “To Caitlin’s credit, she really bought into that,” Close said. “She went from being a really, really talented competitor to a winner.”

WITHIN DAYS OF my arrival inside the Iowa basketball program, I started hearing stories about The Scrimmage. It seemed mythical the way the managers talked about it, but it really happened, on Oct. 20, 2021, just 15 days before the start of Caitlin’s sophomore season.

“I watched it with my own two eyes!” former manager Spencer Touro said.

“The one where I went insane?” Caitlin asked.

“I think she made like five 3s in a row,” Bluder said.

“I remember the scrimmage,” Kate Martin said.

“How’d you hear about that?” Caitlin asked.

“I would get caught just watching her,” Martin said.

“Down 25 with four minutes left,” Jensen said.

“I had 22 points in less than two minutes,” Caitlin said.

“She had seven 3s and a floater to tie at the buzzer,” Jensen said.

“That’s when I think she started to expand her game to the deep logos,” Bluder said.

“There are clips,” Caitlin said.

“It’s a video game when she’s on,” Jensen said as she cued up silent footage from the actual scrimmage.

“I just start launching,” Caitlin said.

“This is … ,” and Jensen starts laughing and can’t stop.

“Trading 3 for 2,” Caitlin said. “They’re missing everything.”

“… it’s crazy,” Jensen said, regaining her composure, watching Caitlin hit a 2, a 3, a 2 with an and-1, then another 3.

“I am making one-legged floaters,” Caitlin said.

“Another off-balance 3,” Jensen said, watching Caitlin grin on the film.

“She would take a couple of dribbles from half court,” manager Isaac Prewitt said at a local campus restaurant over a plate of boneless wings.

“Everyone was freaking out,” manager Will McIntire said, before taking a bite of his buffalo chicken wrap.

“They’re going full tilt on her,” Prewitt said. “They’re not holding back.”

“After I made my fifth 3 in a row, I ran to the bench,” Caitlin said.

“You just have to let your jaw hit the floor,” McIntire said.

“She’s smiling now,” Jensen said. “She knows.”

“What is happening?” Caitlin screamed to her teammates on the bench.

“Look at the bench,” Jensen said as she watched Caitlin scream at them and her teammates screaming back.

“I rarely do that,” Caitlin said a little sheepishly.

“Now we’re down three with 16 seconds left,” Jensen said.

“Coach Abby was dying laughing,” Caitlin said.

“So that tied it,” Jensen said and the film finally ended, evidence that the birth of the legend really happened, was an actual thing, that none of the people in the gym that day will ever forget. Including a team of young girls who’d been invited to see a practice and happened upon the wildest one ever.

“They were going insane,” Caitlin said.

“We’re on the other side,” McIntire said. “We are all like, oh my god.”

“The coaches were just like, what the f—,” Caitlin said.

Those few minutes changed the Iowa program forever. These Hawkeyes had been picked by the basketball gods to take part in something rare, something that would define them, that would be a legacy. That season they trailed by 25 points late in the third quarter against Michigan. Iowa dressed only seven players because of injuries.

Then Caitlin started firing wild, fearless 3-pointers. She made one from the logo, and during a subsequent timeout the team gathered in an excited circle around Bluder. Sharon Goodman leaned in.

“It’s just like that scrimmage!” she said.

In the final six minutes, Caitlin hit four 3-pointers, scored 21 points and pulled the No. 21 Hawkeyes within five with 1:05 to go. The run stalled and the No. 6 Wolverines escaped with a win, but Iowa headed home in a kind of euphoria. The team could see the future. Weather delayed the team’s flight and the players spread out around Signature Flight Service at the Willow Run private airport as highlights from the game played on every screen. Social media exploded. Caitlin Clark had just taken over a game, turning a Big Ten hostile arena into her cul-de-sac back in Des Moines.

The secret was out.

The Hawkeyes sat, just them, in a little pilot’s waiting room with big recliners. Everyone groaned when ESPN aired her lone air ball. Caitlin sank into the cushions. She felt it, too. Friends and family kept sending her clips from the game as those same clips played on the three screens on the wall. She’d watched the “SportsCenter” top 10 her whole life and now she was on it. It felt like a moment. Not a mountaintop but proof to each of them that the ascent was real, that Caitlin really was stretching the canvas, exploding the usual logic about what was possible on a court and what was not. Maybe everything they thought they knew about basketball and the confines of 94 feet by 50 feet was wrong. Maybe the sophomore sitting in the oversized recliner was simultaneously breaking and remaking it.

THAT BRINGS ME to the other, inevitable remaking of her world that happened during her sophomore year. Talent like hers comes with a cost and, in our culture currently, that cost is fame. One night Iowa played a home game. Caitlin’s parents, like always, drove over and cheered from the stands — and nervously said rosaries, and screamed at officials, and paced, and switched seats if some bad energy had somehow infected their previous seating pattern — and when the game ended, they rushed to the car to get home. Caitlin showered and changed and, close to 11 p.m., finally headed from the arena to her car. She was by herself. Two strange men approached through the shadows. Her pulse quickened.

They wanted her to sign some memorabilia.

The encounter freaked her out a little but freaked her parents out a lot, so they got with the university to work out a security plan. Looking back, Brent Clark said, they didn’t understand at all what was about to happen. A legend was being born, one of those folk heroes who can only really exist in college sports: Steve McNair, Marcus Dupree, Tim Tebow, Caitlin Clark.

Fans around the conference loved to heckle her. She secretly loved the hostility because it made her games feel like the ones she’d watched on television as a child with her parents and brothers. Bluder said one Big Ten coach shouted at Caitlin during a game, “You’re not as good as you think you are!”

“Were you nuclear?” I asked.

“I still am.”

The Iowa coaches made progress with the body language in practice, and even if she couldn’t exactly control her fiery side, Caitlin did know enough to recognize it in herself. She was becoming self-aware, learning how to maximize her unique combination of skill and drive. One day Jensen pulled up a body language clip that showed her simmering, clearly frustrated, but managing not to explode. There were victories to celebrate. The Hawkeyes won the 2022 Big Ten title and went into the tournament with high hopes, but in the second round they lost to Creighton. Blake Clark texted a photograph of the scoreboard to his sister. Motivation. All offseason, at random moments, he’d send the picture again.

“She eats that stuff up,” Blake said.


LAST SEASON, CAITLIN’S junior year, arrived with enormous expectations, and she felt them. The starting five had started two full years of games together, two years of practices and team parties and late-night flights and bus rides. This was their last year together. Monika Czinano would head to the WNBA or overseas to continue her career, and McKenna Warnock was about to graduate on her pre-dentistry path and start applying to dental schools. This was Caitlin’s best shot to deliver on her bold claim that they would reach the Final Four.

Before the season began, the Iowa coaches reached out to a performance consultant and author whom Caitlin had studied in high school. Brett Ledbetter first Zoomed with her on a Monday, the last week of July, and they started with the idea that the search for approval can get supercharged by her growing fame and success. Praise is a gateway drug, he told her. She talked about how she’d become addicted without even realizing what was happening.

“It really is a drug,” she told him. “You’re always craving it.”

“How do you process what you just said?” he asked.

“I think it’s scary to think about,” she said.


“I think it’s sad.”

Two weeks later they Zoomed again. The topic was “unconditional peace,” and she talked about her desire to be calm. She wanted to know which external forces made her feel full and which made her feel empty. Later she’d watch that video back with Ledbetter and find herself second-guessing her answers.

“Because?” he asked.

“I don’t want to say the wrong thing,” she told him. “And maybe I don’t even really understand yet.”

“Understand what?”

“What I’m chasing after.”

There was a preseason practice on Oct. 15 when she pouted and raged. That went into the clip file. The coaches still prepared video packages of her body language and reactions. But these moments had softened, and slowed, and when confronted with them, her answers showed her growing ability to harness her gift. Bluder showed her one moment from practice when she just walked off the court into the tunnel and vanished.

“Is that a good thing or a bad thing?” the coaches asked.

“It’s good,” Caitlin told them.

She told her coaches that she’d felt herself about to explode and decided to have a second alone, so that she didn’t negatively impact her teammates.

“I didn’t slam the chair,” she told them.

They liked that. She liked that they liked it.

“I didn’t throw my water bottle,” she told them.

They liked that, too.

“I walked away,” she said, and then smiled and added, “I didn’t even scream in there.”

THE SEASON BEGAN and Iowa got upset on the road at K-State, then lost to UConn at a tournament in Oregon and to NC State at home. The previous year’s NCAA loss to Creighton weighed heavy and all she could think about was the specter of failure hanging over this season, and her career, and over the success of her decision to choose Iowa over Notre Dame, and just a lot of other unfocused, swirling anxiety.

“What if we get upset again?” Caitlin thought.

She needed help with the chaos of living in multiple dimensions of time, juggling past, present and future all at once, with tomorrow offering the circle’s second chance but also arrows from the battlement walls.

“I’m almost playing this game because I have this expectation of all I want to accomplish,” she’d say later, “but I’m missing the moments in between. I’ve got to find peace in my life.”

The Iowa coaches encouraged her to “take off her cape” in front of her teammates. That would deepen their connection, which they’d need to win the close, fierce games that loomed for the Hawkeyes. Once a week, the players met to talk honestly about their hopes and fears. “Those were highly classified conversations,” Ledbetter said, “and nothing was off the table. It was remarkable where they went as a group together. One of the things she embraced is vulnerability. The way she viewed vulnerability changed in the course of the season.”

He asked her to smile at people first and see how that changed the energy in the room. She did and reported back. Everyone seemed happier and friendlier and more secure. These moments weren’t tied to what she could accomplish but to how she showed up in the world with and for others. The rest of the country would discover Caitlin in the coming months, seeing her emerge almost fully formed as a superstar, but her teammates were watching from the front row as she built an interior mental warrior strong enough to support the weight of her talent and the expectations it brought.

Internal motivations to be the best and external motivations to reach records and milestones, to win, to earn praise and approval, overlapped for Caitlin. Each one feeding the other. She’d trapped herself in a perpetual state of chasing, where achievements brought no peace. Her coaches and mentors helped her see the lie in those dreams. The numbers, great as they were, fun as they have been to chase, weren’t speaking to her soul, weren’t why she played. The encouragement and praise, from fans, coaches, teammates, friends and her parents, were a sign she was doing something at a very high level but were never enough for her to feel as if she had arrived.

“You just want more of it,” she said.

“That’s not going to make me feel full at the end of the day,” she said during another session. “In 20 years, banners and rings just collect dust. It’s more the memories.”

Caitlin settled on a mantra: Find peace in the quest.

IN THE FINAL regular-season game of the 2023 season, No. 2-ranked Indiana came to Carver-Hawkeye Arena. This night would let Iowa know if it’d come together in time to make a run, and to let Caitlin know if all the hard mental and emotional work she’d put in — in addition to all the hours in the gym and weight room, where she complained to the strength coaches that they had made her thighs get too big for all her jeans — would result in a player and a team functioning at the same frequency. She’d worked to find peace, and tonight that meant peace inside an arena that experienced Hawk fans insist they’ve never heard louder.

Iowa jumped out to a 10-2 lead with a 3-pointer by Kate Martin that ripped through the net so clean and so hard the television audience could hear the popping strings. Indiana fought back. Caitlin hit a big shot and pounded her chest and she stomped to her own bench and bellowed. Her teammates shouted back. The game was tied late when the Hoosiers went to the line with less than a second left and two foul shots to take the lead. Caitlin started yelling at the officials to review the clock.

“Time! Time! Time!”

She alone realized that the officials had messed up the clock. That’s the basketball IQ coaches are forever talking about. She stayed calm and the officials went to check the replay monitors and sure enough, she was right.

The referees fixed the clock. Indiana made both free throws to take a two-point lead. The Hawkeyes had a full second and a half to get off a buzzer-beater.

The No. 2 team in the country got in their defensive set.

It was time.

Caitlin rushed toward a screen at the top of the key, the clock almost out, and every one of the 15,000 people in this storied old arena knew she was taking the last shot. Her opponents knew it, too. The pass came in. The clock started: 1.5 seconds, 1.4, 1.3. Off balance but with a smooth flick of the wrist, fingers pointed toward the floor, she fired the last shot of the game. The ball dropped and the arena exploded with sound. The noise overwhelmed the television microphones into a slush of feedback. Kate Martin doubled over in awe and jubilation and Caitlin took off sprinting for the baseline just like in practice.

Iowa won three straight games to win the Big Ten tournament, beating Ohio State in the final by 33 points. Caitlin felt invincible. Her brother Blake told me one night, almost in awe, that his sister has the rare thing that powered Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant. “One of her superpowers is taking things personally,” he said. “The fact that you’re on a basketball court with her, that’s a challenge. You should leave this court knowing you have no right to be on it. You need to go home and go work if you want to share the court with me and my team. That’s why you see her smiling as she is absolutely dismantling Ohio State in the Big Ten championship game, just cackling as she’s coming up the floor with the ball. Because it’s so easy and it’s just basketball.”

The next morning, back in Iowa City, Caitlin got up early and decided to attend her 8 a.m. class. She’d missed a few. Once all the students had taken their seats, the professor looked out into the crowd.

“Is Caitlin Clark here?”

She was sitting in the back row. The students turned to look her way. They started clapping, the room soon echoing with cheers.

The NCAA committee gave the Hawkeyes a No. 2 seed.

THREE YEARS OF WORK with her Iowa teammates, and a lifetime of dreaming before arriving on campus, had placed Caitlin Clark on the biggest stage in her sport with the exact right combination of ruthlessness, talent and desire to make that stage her own. Athletes dream of peaking at the perfect moment and soon the entire country would know what the Hawkeyes first learned in that long ago scrimmage. She wanted her moment. She made her intentions for March known when Bluder subbed her out of the first-round blowout win against Southeastern Louisiana. Furious, she stomped past her coach on the way to the bench.

“Forty minutes, six games,” she barked.

That was it: 40 minutes in a game, six games for the championship.

The second round scared them all. The Georgia Bulldogs were coming to Carver-Hawkeye. They played physical SEC basketball. Caitlin told me she hadn’t felt this much pressure all season. They’d lost the year before in the round of 32 to Creighton. Blake had been sending Caitlin the scoreboard picture for a whole year. The Bulldogs played a funky matchup zone that caused problems for opponents. Iowa got off to a slow start but found its rhythm. The game stayed close, as close as four points in the final minute. The Bulldogs kept fouling hard, playing with intensity, trying to stay in the game. During a television timeout, Caitlin stood next to the referee waiting to restart play. The ref held the ball, and a Georgia defender stood next to them.

“You’re not as good as you think,” the Bulldogs player said.

Caitlin smiled and turned to the ref.

“Do you think I’m a good basketball player?”

The referee started laughing. The Iowa coaches knew, in that moment, that she had entered chrysalis stage. She’d become the player she had always had the potential to be. Calm, ruthless. A winner. She simply would not engage with the negativity. She hit two foul shots with a second left and the game was over.

Bluder told her team to pack for two games in Seattle, and then for two games in Dallas at the Final Four. The Hawkeyes were not going home. They flew into Seattle and walked into the hotel where the players saw a DJ booth set up in the lobby. Caitlin pulled her hood up and went up and pretended to be spinning records in a club and everyone laughed.

“Oh my god, this kid,” Iowa staff member Kathryn Reynolds said with a wistful laugh. “We were on the ride of our lives.”

She grinned on the bus to and from practice and scrolled through pictures of her dog, Bella. In the Sweet 16, she scored 31 in an easy win against Colorado. The managers still talk about that game, which is often overlooked in the run of clutch performances that would follow.

“She just took it over,” manager Prewitt said. “It was nuts. She has that ability to flip that switch.”

“Can you tell when its coming?” I asked.

McIntire just nodded.

“Honestly as someone who guards her,” he said, “it’s the look she gets and the way she starts dribbling the ball. Her mojo. Her body language.”

“If someone gets up on her and talks s—,” Prewitt said.

“You just get a tingle,” McIntire said. “OK. Some s— is about to go down.”

He laughed.

“Usually it’s against us during practice,” he said.

The morning of the Elite Eight, facing fifth-seeded Louisville, Reynolds, who was basically Caitlin’s chief of staff to help her navigate stardom, ran into her after the morning shootaround.

“How do you feel?” Reynolds asked.

Caitlin just shrugged her shoulders.

“I feel good,” she said.

Reynolds said she knew then that Iowa would win.

“You can read her eyes really well,” she said. “She has it all in her face. She was just in this different space. I remember the peace during shootaround, goofy then focused. It was almost bizarre to watch how comfortable she seemed.”

Caitlin believed it was the biggest game of her life.

She walked onto the court and felt no nerves or anxiety.

I must’ve raised an eyebrow or something when she told me that because she smiled and said, “I swear to God I would tell you.”

She walked up to Reynolds.

“This is gonna be a great game,” she told her. “This is gonna be awesome.”

Caitlin stepped into the spotlight, famous for the first time from coast to coast, drawing record audiences to the broadcasts. In the first quarter of the Elite Eight game against Louisville, she went on fire. Hit a 3. Iowa got a stop. Hit another 3. After a turnover Caitlin pushed a 2-on-1 fast break across the center line. Once there would have been no scenario in which she didn’t try to score. But she’d been trying to listen to her coaches telling her that real life cannot be lived in a total isolation. She needed to share. The defender closed, perfectly lured to get left flat-footed by a patented Caitlin juke, but instead she threw a long bounce pass that hit McKenna Warnock perfectly in stride but bounced off her hands and out of bounds. The roof would have lifted off the building had the pass led to an easy bucket. It looked, honest to goodness, like a pass Magic Johnson might have thrown in the early summer of 1988, but it earned the Hawkeyes no points. The cameras focused on Caitlin, who did not react at all. Her coaches all noticed.

During a run in the next quarter she attracted a double-team and dished to a wide-open Warnock for 3 on two consecutive game-busting possessions. Iowa never trailed again. Warnock pointed at Caitlin as they turned and ran back on defense. During the timeout that followed, Louisville coach Jeff Walz ranted and raved and screamed in the face of one of his guards like a toddler, and that’s what a confident Caitlin Clark can do to a grown man: turn him into a joke of a child, red-faced, all screams and no plan to make the bleeding stop. The Hawkeyes took the lead and then went on a 9-0 run in the second quarter. Caitlin scored or assisted on every one of the points. When Iowa won she ran to Bluder and wrapped her up in a hug.

“We did it,” Caitlin said.

She finished with 41 points. She had 12 assists and 10 rebounds, a triple-double, just owning the game and the vibrating electrons that created the spaces in it. The Hawkeyes were going to the Final Four.

ON THE DAY of the national semifinal against South Carolina, Caitlin watched some video of her pouting through a practice back on Oct.15. She didn’t recognize that old version of herself and felt like she’d braved the storms of the season and postseason and had emerged stronger. She walked onto the court and heard the 19,288 fans screaming, faced into that noise like a physical thing. Something almost metaphysical happened to her. Even six months later she still struggled to believe it happened. But when she first stepped onto the court before that South Carolina game, she felt like she left one dimension behind and moved into another. She told herself that she’d worked so hard for this moment and it was now hers to own. Most of all she felt peace in the quest. Only a few rhythm masters ever reach that state of elevated consciousness. Everyone who tastes it wants more, their eyes opened to new worlds of color.

Iowa upset the undefeated, top-seeded and defending champion Gamecocks 77-73. Caitlin scored 41 points including five 3-pointers. She showed heart in the tense moments. Afterward, in a room waiting on the press to come ask her questions, she shared a private moment with Bailey Turner, the sports information director. He described her later as completely calm, empty and peaceful.

The Hawkeyes lost in the title game to LSU.

The LSU coaches had given the Tigers a devastatingly accurate scouting report on the Hawkeyes. Associate head coach Bob Starkey wrote that Caitlin would score her points and there was nothing they could do to stop her. The key was to manage how she scored those points. She averaged 27 in the Iowa wins and 30 in the losses. The key to beating the Hawkeyes, Starkey argued, was stopping Monika Czinano, who scored 19 when her team won but only 11 when they lost.

Against LSU she scored 13 and fouled out. McKenna Warnock fouled out, too. Caitlin scored 30 in the defeat.

She went to a little room beneath the arena for a news conference.

Someone asked her, “What’s next for this team?”

She tried not to laugh. This question landed in her deepest anxieties. She’d been trying to face down the fear that nothing she ever did would be good enough and now here was proof that someone else thought that, too. She wanted to make time stop. Tomorrow, with its hope and danger, loomed always. Peace felt more and more like the ability to keep tomorrow out of today.

“I don’t want to think about what’s next,” she said once. “I don’t want to feel like I always have to do more and be more.”

Months later, as we talked about the Final Four, I asked her if she felt like she knew herself.

“That’s a journey I’m still on,” she said.

She smiled.

“I’m only 21,” she said.

This is a story about being 21.

“You’re trying to know yourself,” she said, “while you’re trying to become this great person.”

MODERN FAME IS a radioactive thing that corrodes everything it touches and consumes some people completely. Human beings are designed to live in small tribes, where the most important part of everyday life revolves around direct interactions. That vital way of being is undercut again and again by fame. It really messes some people up. Caitlin has been fighting to feel and be and be seen as human since high school, even as she has strived for things that can only be described as superhuman.

After Georgia and Colorado got chippy, especially when Caitlin would go on a run of logo 3s, her confidant Kathryn Reynolds told her that only she had control of her mind and that nobody could break through that barrier without her permission. She had the power to keep them at bay.

Against Louisville in the Elite Eight, Caitlin hit her sixth 3-pointer and then waved her hand in front of her face, an imitation of wrestler John Cena’s can’t-see-me move. It was a spontaneous nod to Reynolds’ advice. Cena almost immediately tweeted at her. So did LeBron James, who called Caitlin “so COLD!” More people tuned in to ESPN to see Iowa play Louisville than had watched any regular-season NBA game on the network all season.

When LSU beat Iowa in the title game, star center Angel Reese, an intense, talented player who had 15 points and 10 rebounds in the win, made the can’t-see-me gesture back at Caitlin as the clock wound down. Postgame social media lit up, some criticizing Reese for showing up an opponent, others saying that kind of criticism showed a racial double standard.

Earlier on Final Four weekend, Lisa Bluder had spoken of the competitiveness she anticipated in the semifinal against South Carolina by saying the game would be a bar fight. After the loss, Gamecocks coach Dawn Staley objected to ways she said her team had been characterized all season.

“We’re not bar fighters. We’re not thugs. We’re not monkeys. We’re not street fighters. This team exemplifies how you need to approach basketball.”

The moments all intersected in the days after the tournament ended. The semiotics of race and the fires of fighting to win fueled each other. Tough talk between two elite head coaches opened onto difficult public conversations about the consequences of language. And on-court gestures from one superstar to another were interpreted by some as clashes between identities that extended beyond the game.

In her postgame news conference, Reese said: “All year I was critiqued about who I was. I don’t fit the narrative. I don’t fit in the box that you all want me to be in. I’m too hood. I’m too ghetto. You all told me that all year. But when other people do it, you all don’t say nothing.”

When Iowa got home from the Final Four, Turner, the sports information director, arranged an interview for Caitlin with ESPN. Caitlin thought the questions would focus on the Wooden Award, which she had just won, but they were mostly about the end of the championship game.

“Angel is a tremendous, tremendous player,” she said. “I have nothing but respect for her. I love her game.

“I think everybody knew there was going to be a little trash talk the entire tournament. It’s not just me and Angel. I don’t think she should be criticized.”

The stakes of playing on the stage Caitlin and Angel play on are high, and they know it. “Facts,” Caitlin told me later.

When the TV interview ended, she started shaking uncontrollably.

“I’m doing this in my apartment bedroom,” she said.

She texted her mom and Bluder and asked how she’d done. Both told her she’d done great.

“If you do one wrong thing your life can really end,” she said.

AFTER LOSING TO LSU the Hawkeyes cried in the locker room. “Bawled,” Caitlin said. She and Kate Martin hugged McKenna Warnock and Monika Czinano. They’d become sisters. Two weeks of adrenaline ran out, and they awakened to lives that had changed in ways they never could have imagined on the flight out to Seattle. Now they just wanted to go home.

Everyone headed back to the team hotel to meet their families and friends. Caitlin hadn’t even taken off her uniform.

She kept it together until she saw her father.

He waited for her in the lobby.

She burst into tears and buried her head in his shoulder.

“You have so much to be proud of,” he told her.

“I know but still it’s sad, Dad,” she said.

She went upstairs and stood in the shower for a long time and let the adrenaline and stress run out with the draining water. Is this real life? She tried to understand what was different. Then she led her teammates three blocks away from the hotel to toast their season. The name of the bar was called Happiest Hour, and the staff didn’t seem prepared for two dozen very tired, very nostalgic, very thirsty women.

“I don’t think you should write about any of this,” Caitlin said with a smile, “but I’m gonna tell you anyway.”

An Iowa fan asked Caitlin if he could buy the team a drink.

“Twenty-two shots!” she said.

Soon a tray showed up. Twenty-two. That night might end up being Caitlin’s favorite memory from college. This group of women truly loved one another and for the rest of their lives when they looked at their Final Four rings, or came to some anniversary and saw the banner hanging in the rafters, it is that love they would remember. And evenings like the one in Dallas after they lost the biggest game of their lives but still had one another. She changed her mind about wanting people to know about that night.

“You can write about that,” she said. “I don’t really care.”

They stayed out all night, sad, yes, but sad together, which was its own kind of joy. They told stories, about being stuck in traffic at Maryland or the shot Caitlin hit against Indiana. They all dragged themselves out of bed in time to catch an afternoon flight back to Iowa, and the team leaders kept doing head counts and asking if everyone was present and accounted for and if everyone was OK. They wore hoodies and sunglasses. Kate Martin cradled a Jimmy John’s submarine sandwich in the lobby. No. 5, the Vito — salami, capocollo and provolone. Caitlin gloated because she’d had the foresight to pack before the game. The players shared pictures and retold the stories. They limped to the plane and flew back home.

THEY WENT THEIR separate ways, and Caitlin sank into her summer. She signed millions of dollars of contracts and flew to Los Angeles to shoot big-budget commercials where a grip held an umbrella over her head to block the sun.

She tried to hold it for herself.

She couldn’t believe how much free stuff she got.

“This is why the rich are so rich,” she said. “They get things for free. It’s so weird.”

McKenna Warnock started dental school. Monika Czinano tried and failed to land one of those 144 WNBA roster spots. Kathryn Reynolds got a job offer she couldn’t refuse, running a new women’s softball league.

Caitlin got gifts for her teammates from her sponsors. Huge loads of free Nike gear including these rare Dunks. Bose headphones. She went to big corporate meetings with her parents following along stunned, proud, bewildered. The PGA Tour swung through Iowa, and she played with Masters champion (and native Iowan) Zach Johnson in front of packed galleries. She practiced for days before her first tee shot, not wanting to embarrass herself. The next morning, she came to an Iowa workout and, as the managers said, “torched everyone.”

“It was unbelievable,” Prewitt told me.

McIntire just shook his head.

“Hadn’t shot a basketball in four days,” he said.

“I think she does as good a job of balancing it as she can,” Prewitt said.

The Iowa women’s season tickets sold out for the first time ever on Aug. 2. Lisa Bluder and Jan Jensen were sitting together when they got the call from the ticket office and both women cried. They’d never ridden a wave like this one, after a lifetime dedicated to furthering their sport. They also worried about the toll all this exponentially growing attention was having on their young phenom.

I asked Jensen once how she could tell when Caitlin felt overwhelmed.

Easy, she told me.

She always hits the practice gym with a bounce, with a smile and an inner ferocity, and when she is drained, it’s immediately obvious.

“When was last time you saw her like that?” I asked.

There was a long pause.

“This summer she was really busy,” Jensen said finally.

The Iowa coaches found themselves organizing the entire team practice calendar around Caitlin’s travel schedule. They wanted her to be able to go receive awards and soak up the glory. But it all got to be a lot.

“She wants to be a kid, too,” Jensen said. “It’s summer, you know? This summer was taxing on her.”


I ARRIVED A MONTH later to find Caitlin Clark trying to be all things to all people, feeling the expectations of what’s next while raging at the inexperience of her new forwards and centers. She always seemed to know when I was at practice and would thank me for coming. I sense she does that with every visitor. I have written about athletes for two decades but I’ve never, until now, watched someone change from a solid into a liquid and a liquid into a gas. That knowledge made the whole industry of profiling great athletes seem almost silly, because whatever “makes her tick” is deeply internal and unknown, even to her. She was leaving an old life behind and learning how to fit comfortably in a new one. I found myself texting with her father all the time, and he found comfort in his own mantra. Stay hungry and humble. I began to watch her play like the Iowa coaches did, focusing on the moments during practice and games when she faced frustration, to see how she would react.

The coaches and players saw everything. Caitlin getting furious about no-calls in practice. With success has come a raised metabolism. There haven’t been any fist fights inside the team but there has been a lot of preamble. Screaming and cursing. This is a championship-caliber team trying to reclaim the form that earned it that status, so that the reality inside the basement of Carver-Hawkeye often differs dramatically from the exterior reputation. The rankings all season called Iowa a top five team, but Caitlin Clark knew better. Therefore everyone else knew, too. At one scrimmage, Caitlin’s anger at the no-calls translated into bad shots — she often fires up wilder and wilder attempts when she’s mad, even now — and she missed two-thirds of them. Nobody is harder on Caitlin Clark than Caitlin Clark.

“I suck!” she’ll bark at herself on the bench.

During the scrimmage she threw a pass that bounced off Gabbie Marshall’s hands. She looked over at the coaches in disgust, and they could see the fit coming. Everyone worried that they’d gone back in time to her freshman year. This again? became a refrain.

The season went on, with the positive public accolades growing, and I kept calling people inside the program and showing up when I could.

“What is the Caitlin patience meter currently?” I’d often ask.

“Decent,” I was told once.

At that day’s practice, assistant Abby Stamp told Caitlin there would be no March magic without her teammates.

“You’re gonna need her,” Stamp said.

“Yeah but she missed me on the cut,” she replied.

A few days before, Jensen had stood up for one of her bigs. Caitlin had been barking orders, and the coach told her to settle down.

“But …” Caitlin started.

“Stop butting me,” Jensen said. “Throw her the ball.”

“But …”

“Throw it to her.”

Caitlin wanted more than anything to go back to the Final Four, because she’d tasted the glory but also the calm and focus of stepping onto the court against South Carolina.

I asked her about the drama at practice.

“I have these new players and I’m not comfortable and they’re not comfortable,” she told me. “How do I navigate having patience? Giving them confidence? They don’t have the confidence of minutes.”

She and her crew — Kate, McKenna, Mon, Gabbie — had been to war together.

“The amount of huge games we were in last year,” she said, starting to visibly percolate at the memory of such beautiful intensity. “WAKE UP! We’re here. We’re playing Louisville in the Elite Eight. We’re playing Georgia in the round of 32 and it’s a four-point game with 30 seconds to go!”

Her great flaw in the context of the team, she has learned, is her complete lack of a poker face. If she feels it, she wears it.

“Your one compliment to somebody can give them so much confidence,” she said. “It’s scary almost how much power … Because it goes both ways. You get upset with them, they’re crumbling.”

She switched to third person to mock herself and rolled her eyes as she talked.

“Caitlin Clark believes in them, what more do they need?”

She snapped her fingers.

“I can never have a bad reaction,” she said.

She worked hard to get better, to relearn the lessons of the past, which seemed like new problems because of her new and growing fame and the expectations that came with it, both the external ones put on her by the world and the internal ones put on her by herself. There’s a John Updike quote I love about the mask eating the face that seemed to apply to what Caitlin was experiencing. The Iowa coaches were hyper aware of that possibility, that the famous Caitlin Clark would swallow the goofy girl they’d known, and they believed at the end that they had all mostly succeeded. Caitlin had managed to protect herself. Her real self.

There were positive moments that reflected all her hard work. Great moments that allowed everyone to dream of March. Once at practice Caitlin came flying down the court in transition. Addi O’Grady was wide open around the free throw line. Caitlin got to the logo and jacked up a 3-pointer, which went in. O’Grady never once yelled for the ball.

Jensen threw up her hands in disgust and yelled, “Ugh!”

Caitlin came right to her.

“The reason I didn’t throw it …” she began to explain.

Jensen cut her off and said that it was Addi’s fault for not screaming for the ball and that the coaches were annoyed about that. Bluder and Jensen wanted all the centers to act like Monika Czinano and expect the ball every single trip down the court, to call for it, to deliver once she received the pass. To them Caitlin didn’t do anything wrong. The center needs to demand respect. “She can detect weakness,” Bluder told me. “I think she likes strong people. People that are good leaders. People who will use their voice.”

The coaches also believed Caitlin taking it on herself to explain what she was seeing meant that all their messages were getting through and she was paying attention. During a later practice she threw an errant entry pass to O’Grady. The ball fell uselessly away. All the coaches turned to see what would happen next. They held their breath.

Caitlin made eye contact with Addi.

“My bad,” Caitlin said.

THE HAWKEYES EXPERIENCED incredible highs and lows together.

They beat Virginia Tech.

Caitlin appeared on the ManningCast for “Monday Night Football.”

They lost to K-State.

Jason Sudeikis and Sue Bird came to sit courtside. During a television timeout, Sudeikis did his Ted Lasso dance on the jumbotron and Carver-Hawkeye rocked in the reflected celebrity. Afterward Caitlin and her family took Jason out to dinner. They sat in the window at Basta on Iowa Avenue.

“He talks just like he does in the show!” Caitlin gushed to her mom after.

One night in February, forward Hannah Stuelke scored 47 points against Penn State on a night Caitlin had 15 assists. “I think our connection is amazing. I love playing with her,” Stuelke said.

Three days later, Caitlin went scoreless in the fourth quarter and the Hawkeyes blew a 14-point lead in a loss to Nebraska.

Her coaches worried and hoped.

“I want her to learn how to manage all this,” Jensen told me. “The NIL stuff. The popularity. The stardom. I want her to manage that and still love the game, you know?”

Everyone looked to make sure Caitlin didn’t lose her sense of wonder.

“She seems like a child when we bring dogs into the facility and she gets on the floor and is rolling around with them and being a kid and screaming,” Jensen said. “She goes from one extreme to the other so quickly: ‘I’m this unbelievable athlete’ to ‘I’m this little kid.'”

They experienced success, celebrity, frustration and failure. I met the team in Columbus, Ohio, in late January. Nothing went right for the Hawkeyes. Kate Martin raged at the officials and her opponents and Caitlin ended up in the rare position of being the voice of reason, urging calm and moderation. None of their shots fell. If Iowa gets beat in March, it will be because of an afternoon like the one they had in Columbus. With a minute left I went down into the narrow hallway outside the visitor’s locker room. I heard a commotion but didn’t see what happened. Suddenly the campus police officer who travels with the team helped a slumping Caitlin past me, her head thrown back in pain. An Ohio State student storming the court had collided with her. Caitlin’s mom was on a rampage in the bowels of the arena, furious about the lack of security. We all went to the airport and flew back to Cedar Rapids, where university charter buses picked us up to drive back to campus. We parked outside the garage where the players keep their cars for away games. Everyone climbed off the bus — except Caitlin. She was in the little bathroom in the way back throwing her guts up.

I left her and went to the garage. The first person I saw was Kate Martin. I asked what was wrong.

“Migraines,” Martin said. “She gets ’em really bad.”

THE NEXT DAY Caitlin and a group of teammates got ready at their off-campus apartments. They changed into fancy clothes and called an Uber and were pulling out of the complex when they saw a whole bunch of flashing lights. As they got closer they realized it was their teammate Ava Jones who’d been in the wreck. Ava hasn’t played a minute for the Hawkeyes; two days after she committed, she and her family were at a basketball tournament in Louisville when a drug-addled driver ran them down on the sidewalk. Ava suffered a traumatic brain injury and devastating knee and shoulder injuries. Her father died. The Iowa coaches honored their commitment and she is an emotional member of the team even if she can’t play. Her teammates worry over her all the time. Now she’d been in a fender bender.

“Stop the car right now!” Martin said.

“Just cancel the ride,” Caitlin said.

“Stop the car,” Martin said.

“That’s our teammate, can you just stop?” Caitlin said.

The cops working the accident tried to keep the young women away but stood little chance of stopping them.

“We’re her teammates!” Caitlin said.

Molly Davis pulled up, on her way back to the apartments from a massage. Soon coach Raina Harmon showed up, too, joining Caitlin, Kate and others. Before too long half the team was standing in the middle of the street. They all stayed with Ava until it was clear she was OK. Some of the Hawkeyes talked to her, while others talked to the police and paramedics. Caitlin kept texting her mother, who was waiting with Brent and me for her 22nd birthday dinner.

Finally they made it. Caitlin’s migraine, which she always suffers through without complaint, had blessedly vanished. We sat down and they recounted what had happened with Ava. For the next few hours everyone laughed and told stories. We finished our meals, and the restaurant brought over a riff on a chocolate chip cookie. Caitlin loves chocolate chip cookies. The teammates told Anne what they saw of the incident after the game in Columbus. Kate Martin, they said gleefully, threatened to fight the Ohio State student section. She’d be Charles Oakley to Caitlin’s Michael Jordan. Everyone laughed. Caitlin the loudest.

“I see Caitlin on the ground and I just start seeing red,” Martin explained.

When the game ended Caitlin looked to find the Buckeyes to shake their hands when all the fans rushed the court. The Iowa coaches started urgently telling the Iowa players to get to the locker room. Caitlin took off at a dead sprint — “which was problem number one,” she said — and never saw the Ohio State student until they collided. When she picked up her phone, she saw a text from her former football player brother: “Next time explode through their sternum.”

Everyone at the dinner table laughed about that.

Martin ran up right after the collision to see her best friend on the ground.

“What happened?”

“I got drilled,” Caitlin said.

“A fan ran into her,” said Jada Gyamfi, a forward who wears No. 23.

Around 4 a.m., once they got home from the game, Caitlin got a text from Monika Czinano asking if she needed to hire a hitman. Martin sounded embarrassed as she described to all of us at dinner how she stalked around cursing at people and trying to find someone to fight. She was repeating the wilder things she said and then Caitlin started doing her impression of Martin.

“Whatever,” Kate said. “I’m ride or die for my ladies.”

Caitlin’s parents paid. This was their treat. Then Kate sheepishly revealed she’d had a bit of parking trouble when she’d pulled up outside earlier. Her car was, she admitted, parked on top of a curb and a snowdrift. She needed help pushing it out. Jada, Will McIntire and I got low and started to push. Martin sat behind the wheel. We all made sure not to let Caitlin anywhere near the operation. None of us wanted to be responsible for a tire rolling over her foot and ending the greatest college basketball season anyone has ever had.

“Twenty-two is not touching this car!” I said.

Gyamfi laughed.

“This is a job for two-three,” she said.

“I gotta get this on video!” Caitlin said.

We all pushed, then leaned in and pushed harder, as Kate spun her tires then caught a little traction and lurched to safety. Everyone cheered, me included, and Caitlin was part of the action, but also separate from it, her life pulling her in one direction and her teammates in another. Finally, she stopped recording and I watched them all go out into the night, still celebrating.

THIS IS A STORY about being 22. Do you remember when you first started on the road to your dreams? That’s where Caitlin Clark finds herself in March 2024. She has announced her intention to enter the WNBA draft. Her future has begun, the world she built during four life-changing years in Iowa City. All the things she wants to be are there to be grasped. Her games draw bigger audiences than many NBA games. She is at the epicenter of sports — a superstar without caveats or adjectives. She isn’t important because of symbolic broken barriers but because she steps onto a 94-foot-long rectangle and dominates it. In the month after her birthday, Caitlin Clark kept rising to the occasion. She broke the NCAA women’s career scoring record — the record-breaking shot came from 30 feet, three of her career-high 49 — then the actual women’s scoring record held by Lynette Woodard, who got invited to Iowa for the event and revelled in the standing ovation she received from Carver-Hawkeye. Then on senior night she broke Pete Maravich’s men’s career scoring record. No human being playing Division I basketball has ever scored more. The rapper Travis Scott came to see her break Pistol Pete’s record and posed for pictures with the whole team. Jake from State Farm came. He wore a designer jacket made from Caitlin’s jersey. Nolan Ryan snuck in beneath a baseball cap with his granddaughters. It was important to him that they witness Caitlin. The television ratings shattered records. Patrick Mahomes praised her. So did LeBron James. These moments, and so many others, happened in public. Her brother and I texted back and forth during these incredible few weeks when it seemed like the entire country had turned its attention to her greatness.

Everyone around her seemed happy. Not because of records. Not because of what excited the rest of the basketball world but because of something that happened offstage just eight days before she broke the NCAA’s women’s record. Opponents, beware. On Feb. 7, the Hawkeyes held a practice before Penn State came to Iowa City. The season’s metabolism had started to peak. Kate Martin stopped practice to preach about the importance of knowing the scouting report, and the whole team hung on her every word, and Jensen looked over to catch Bluder staring with admiration and joy at Martin’s command of the room.

A bit later, during a scrimmage, Addi O’Grady, who had at one point retreated into an introverted shell in response to the barrage of pressure from Caitlin, got down on the post and just knocked one of the team managers on his ass.

This was everything Caitlin Clark loved about basketball. The competition, the aggression, the way that every moment produced a winner and a loser, the willingness to go hard, to risk. O’Grady had won the moment. She’d know what that felt like now. She could do it again. Caitlin ran to her. She jumped up and down and screamed and praised and threw around joyous curses and exaltations. The coaches beamed. This was a team. Jan Jensen cried about it later, she said. They’d traveled the road. They’d put last season in its place and made this one its own. It was February. The doors were closed and there were no cameras. Nobody sat courtside or wanted autographs. Caitlin was at the center of it but not hitting 3s or firing passes behind her back. She was all out in praise of a teammate. She believed.

“YES!” she screamed. “ADDI!!”

These are the moments the team will remember decades from now, when they gather as middle-aged women. Renting yachts and pushing cars out of the snow. Posting up on the block. This is a story about being 21, yes, and 22, but also about being 41, and 52, and older than that. The Iowa Hawkeyes of the Caitlin Clark years will stand one day at center court beneath their banners, with husbands and wives and partners, with kids and grandkids. They know this. And they know they will find themselves unable to describe how it felt all those years ago, when they were young and magic and ready for March.

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