Inside Caitlin Clark’s First Game in New York, Where Even a Blowout Felt Like a Party


Once in a very great while, watching sports feels like a true moment—when the stars align to create a play, game, or season that’s not just appointment viewing, but would be truly devastating to miss. As fans filtered into the Barclays Center on Saturday afternoon, Caitlin Clark’s first game in New York took on that aura. And it truly was her first game in New York, ever. Before the game, Clark spoke about her NYC inexperience: “No AAU, no high school, no nothing. This is fun! This arena is amazing.”

We’re roughly six months into the era of Caitlin Clark being a transcendent figure. This period has been notable not only for her hooping but for the bigger, bolder place women’s basketball has taken in the culture. Accordingly, if you cared about basketball and were in the five boroughs on Saturday, you simply had to be there. The sporting world came out in full force—Sue Bird and Megan Rapinoe were courtside, as was groundbreaking tennis player Billie Jean King. The entertainment world was well represented, too: Jason Sudeikis, Hoda Kotb, and actor Amy Ryan all decided they had to see this with their own eyes, as well.

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ESPN's Holly Rowe talks to Clark.

Ultimately, Clark and her Indiana Fever teammates were far outmatched by the championship contenders wearing black and seafoam. The New York Liberty took it to them all day, winning 91-80, but that didn’t stop Clark and the Saturday afternoon crowd from turning the energy inside the arena all the way up. From Clark’s first warmup shot to her barrage of three-pointers—released seemingly from Manhattan before splashing into the Barclays Center nets on her way to 22 points—Caitlin Mania was in full effect. It takes a special kind of juice for a visiting player to be the main attraction in any building, especially in New York. Clark, though, has been that main attraction in every gym she’s played in since her sophomore year at Iowa. While she acknowledged that the WNBA is a massive step up in terms of difficulty, being the center of attention is nothing new for 22.

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All smiles…

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…and then all business.

A world away from her Midwestern base, Clark is still a rock star. Barclays Center was teeming with Clark jerseys—both Iowa Hawkeye and Indiana Fever editions—and a strikingly large group of fans huddled on the pregame sideline just to watch the 22-year-old stretch. When she was done, Clark was engulfed by a sea of people, old and young, who wanted autographs and selfies. And Saturday’s matinee was just her third game in the WNBA. While she’s still learning the ropes—and doing so on a team that went 13-27 last year—Clark isn’t the type to back away from the spotlight. You don’t become a household name as a college student by running from the grind, after all. “It’s been fun, honestly,” Clark told the sizable group of reporters, 99% of whom were there specifically for her. “This is what you sign up for. This is the best of the best.” While the scoreboard wasn’t pretty, at the end of her first New York romp, Clark had 22 points, eight assists, and several Did you see that? highlights. This came, mind you, after she struggled mightily in her first two games, turning the ball over ten times in her debut and notching just nine points her second time out.

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Everyone wants a piece of #22.

As is the case for basically every No. 1 pick in the history of sports—they not only are adapting to the pro game but typically doing so for a bottom-dweller—the first year can be tough. The Fever were only able to draft Clark, of course, because they were the worst team in the league last year. “We’re a young group, there needs to be a little grace given to all of us,” Clark said of her squad. But there will come a day when things aren’t a constant struggle for this team, and they’ll be able to hang with teams of the Liberty’s caliber. (The Liberty, by the way, found all their starters in double figures less than three minutes into the second half. This team is a problem.)

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The sellout crowd of more than 17,000 fans set a WNBA record by purchasing more than $2 million in tickets.

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Clark racked up a career-high (only three games, but still) 22 points.

Clark, whose sheer presence made a wire-to-wire blowout about as exciting as it can be, is already receiving a sort of respect from her opponents. “I think the way teams are guarding me—if you go back and watch the film, I’m way away from the play and I’m still getting face guarded,” she lightly flexed. “That’s going to open stuff up for my team.” That respect carried over into Saturday’s tangle with the Liberty. From the very opening tip, Clark was guarded by Betnijah Laney-Hamilton, the Libs’ best defender who’s twice earned a spot on a WNBA All-Defensive Team. The Brooklyn crowd held a level of reverence for Clark, too. Pleas for her to shoot it could be heard every time she crossed halfcourt, and there were audible “awws” of disappointment when the ball didn’t go in. There will be several other mountains for Clark to summit during her first tour of the WNBA—the Fever go to the desert at the end of the month for Clark’s initial bout with the two-time defending champion Las Vegas Aces—but the rook is in a good headspace despite her early struggles.

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Lakers great Pau Gasol was in attendance.

“The biggest challenge for myself coming from college to the professional level is, first of all, the physicality,” Clark offered. “Second of all, being competitive but also understanding that this is a young team. I’m young. It’s going to be a learning process. Not everything is going to be perfect. I was talking to my dad on the phone. He said, ‘Go out there, have fun, compete, play hard, and every day you’re going to learn something new. Take that and continue to build on it. Things will really start clicking when they should.’” Christie Sides, in her second year as Indiana’s head coach, doesn’t seem the slightest bit worried about the sports car that ended up in her garage. “She’s a student of the game,” Sides said of Clark. “She wants to get better. She wants to learn. Caitlin is going to be fine. She’s going to be fine. She’s a great player. But it’s a process.”

The Liberty, meanwhile, is a perfect demonstration of a team that’s clicking. Playing in New York obviously affords them a certain level of clout. It’s hard to imagine Bird, Rapinoe, and Sudeikis taking in a Sun game in Uncasville, Connecticut, for instance. But, along with celebs wanting to get a glimpse of the Clark show, they also understand that the Liberty is really freaking good. So good, in fact, that the energy at their home games very quickly turns party-adjacent, as the score is rarely close enough to create any real tension.

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On to Connecticut, where the Fever will face the Sun on Monday.

Saturday was the home opener for this juggernaut, which also meant the first performance of the year for Ellie the Elephant, their mascot-slash-diva. Her halftime performance was billed as Missy Ellie-ott, and it did not disappoint. She danced to “The Rain (Supa Dupa Fly)” and “Get Ur Freak On” while sporting her take on the Virginia rapper’s iconic inflatable trash bag fit, keeping lots of people in their seats rather than running for the beer line. Shooting guard Sabrina Ionescu was also debuting her new signature shoes, the Nike Sabrina 2s, and the team’s starting lineup intros were set to Future and Metro Boomin’s bombastic hit “Like That.” They’re a team that’s really leaning into the fact that they, to quote the song, are kicking in people’s doors. Lest you think that women’s basketball got all of its razzmatazz from Clark, the Liberty have been at the forefront of the movement since assembling this roster.

“I thought the atmosphere was incredible,” Clark said after the game. “There were definitely a lot of young girls here today, which is fun to see. The Liberty definitely deserves this crowd. They’re going to be incredible this year. I’m happy for New York to have this type of environment.” The new Indiana resident, who revealed that she’s about to move out of a hotel and into her own apartment, knows where her bread is buttered, though. “Shout out to the Pacers. Hopefully, they beat the Knicks. Sorry if any of you are Knicks fans.”

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