Gene Lyons: Keep your head in the game

Published 12:00 am Sunday, June 23, 2024

By Gene Lyons

As a serious basketball fan, I regret to report that all this Mean Girl stuff following Caitlin Clark’s professional debut has persuaded me to return to my longstanding policy of total indifference to the WNBA.

Maybe I’ll be back, maybe not. It depends.

I’d like it to be about basketball, not gender politics, not race and certainly not electoral politics. I get enough of those things everywhere else, thank you. Like most relatively normal sports fans, I tune in to ballgames partly to get away from all of it.

As a major follower of the NBA playoffs, it’s occurred to me that one of the best things about the emergence of European stars like Nikola Jokic and Luka Doncic in the league is that people don’t talk about race the way they used to. Nobody can blame a Slovenian player like Doncic for America’s racial divide, nor a Serb like Jokic — although his own country has known its share of ethnic hatred.

I hear Doncic giving interviews in confident, idiomatic English — his fourth language — and I wonder if maybe the 25-year-old hardcourt magician isn’t an intellectual genius, too. He certainly plays like one.

But even Doncic couldn’t have led the Dallas Mavericks to the NBA Finals without his teammate Kyrie Irving, a Jersey Black guy with a history of espousing truly mad opinions. (He’s flirted with flat Earth theory, to choose a merely silly one.)

But who cares? The dude’s a wizard with a basketball and plays the role of elder statesman on the Mavericks. He’s not running for office. Play ball!

Which is pretty much my opinion of Caitlin Clark, the most remarkable female shooter and passer I’ve ever seen — although there are a lot of players I’ve never seen. After witnessing her moving with the strength and assurance of Steph Curry early last season, I watched every Iowa women’s game I could find on TV.

One aspect of Clark’s game that’s been overlooked is what a terrific teammate she is. It’s not every high-scoring point guard — Clark broke the all-time NCAA scoring record during her four years at Iowa — who’s beloved by everybody on her team. Or so it appeared. The Hawkeyes played like a team of friends. Partly that’s because with Clark doing the handle, the ball went where it needed to go pretty much every time.

Credit, too, Coach Lisa Bluder.

So why diminish Clark’s accomplishments by referring to her, as one New Yorker profile did, as “a white woman from a red state”? Or as Washington Post columnist Candace Buckner did as a “white knight galloping in to save the Dark Continent known as the WNBA”? (She was being sarcastic.)

Red state/blue state, let’s call the whole thing off. Media-enhanced political tribalism is bad enough without having it invade every corner of American life. It’s undeniably true that Clark’s surprising celebrity is partly due to what I call “Taylor Swift syndrome”: the newly awakened zeal of young American women for female role models.

So far, I’d have to say that Clark is handling it awfully well, her newfound fame. She didn’t run to reporters for a good cry when she was left off the U.S. Olympic team; she said she could use the rest and looks forward to the 2028 games.

Laid low by a nasty cheap shot delivered by comparatively unknown Chicago guard Chennedy Carter — a veteran of dirty plays — Clark simply got back up, dusted herself off and got back in the game. If she noticed her self-appointed rival Angel Reese jumping up to cheer the hit (nobody else on the Chicago bench did), she hasn’t mentioned it.

In a men’s game, such a foul might have triggered a bench-clearing brawl. (We had a couple of those in high school.) In the NBA, veteran Washington Post columnist Sally Jenkins pointed out, players get ejected, fined and suspended for that stuff. Clark limited herself to anodyne comments about basketball being a highly competitive and emotional sport.

Seeing the big picture, tennis great Martina Navratilova tweeted, “The players in the WNBA need to realize that Caitlyn Clark is helping all of them. Now and in the long run, Caitlyn is the tide that will raise all boats!” NBA motor-mouth Charles Barkley said pretty much the same thing — 100% correct, both of them.

Arkansas Times columnist Gene Lyons is a National Magazine Award winner and co-author of “The Hunting of the President” (St. Martin’s Press, 2000). You can email Lyons at