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Pick a side in the Caitlin Clark-Angel Reese rivalry, but don’t look away

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Sometimes there are evolutionary leaps in sports, and you’re watching one right now with Caitlin Clark and Angel Reese. Or Angel Reese and Caitlin Clark, whichever order you prefer, or maybe just call them “Crease” or “Caingel,” a nickname appropriate for a super couple, which is what they’re becoming. Look at the arc of their performances — especially against each other — and it’s evident that the WNBA has entered a protean new state. It’s growing wings.

As Clark said, “You can just feel it pulling up in the bus.”

All the tropes and taunts around Reese and Clark tend to obscure the fact that they share a couple of essential qualities: pure basketball magnetism and joint ambition. They differ merely in style. Clark is kestrel-like, all equipoise and sudden predatory darting, while Reese is the more voluble, physical, claw hammer of a player.

I’m a dog. You can’t teach that,” Reese said Sunday after she led the Chicago Sky’s 88-87 victory over Clark’s Indiana Fever.

They both are. And she’s right: You can’t teach it. It’s born from living up to pressure.

Large viewerships have flirted with women’s sports before, only to switch them off between Olympics or World Cups. The question for the WNBA always has been, could it attract viewers to a routine midseason game between a couple of middling teams on a work night in the Midwest? Well, it has happened. There you were on a waning summer Sunday, casually scrolling the clicker and thinking you would check the score between the Sky and the Fever, when Reese and Clark made you sit bolt upright and spit out your lemonade.

That was a hell of a one-point finish Sunday, and though it didn’t mean very much, somehow it felt as if it did.

“I think that the women’s basketball game as a whole took a big jump today,” the Fever’s Kelsey Mitchell said afterward.

By the time Reese and Clark finished swapping career highs — Reese with her skyjacking 25 points and 16 rebounds and Clark with her sleights of hand for a franchise-record 13 assists to go with 17 points — here was the takeaway: They had made the midseason mesmerizing, and that was new and significant for the WNBA.

Mind you, the Fever is just 7-11, and the Sky is 6-9. Which is precisely the point. Despite those middling records, their meetings are drawing more than 2 million television viewers. Sunday’s game in Chicago was the most expensive ticket on record for the WNBA, with an average price of $358. In the stands were Lil Durk, Chance the Rapper, Jason Sudeikis, and Jalen Brunson, while Ja Morant was calling it straight fire on X.

People are talking about women’s basketball who you’d never think would be talking about women’s basketball,” Reese pointed out recently.

What’s drawing such numbers? More than merely the personal rivalry. Viewers are smart enough to know the catfighting heroine-villainess narrative is false, and so is the race-baiting one; both players are equally good teammates, mighty talents and teasing trash-talkers. What’s really gripping the audience is the fact that these women somehow keep meeting the moment.

Time after time, they just keep playing bigger despite the weight of public expectations — some of which are imposed by the performances of the other. They’ve been vying for preeminence since the 2023 NCAA championship game, when Reese wagged a ring finger at Clark after LSU’s victory over Iowa. Think about it. When is the last time either Clark or Reese failed to show out when she knew eyes were on her?

Every head in the arena swivels back and forth between them — because everyone knows that they are liable to do something explosive when it matters most, even when they’re at the very periphery of the play.

“I think it’s the lack of fear of failure that people are attracted to,” Clark’s former coach at Iowa, Lisa Bluder, said recently.

That’s it exactly. The fearlessness is what’s so compelling. It suggests that under the physicality is something even more substantial: emotional strength.
That’s it exactly. The fearlessness is what’s so compelling. It suggests that under the physicality is something even more substantial: emotional strength.

It startles to think how young they are: Clark has played just 18 professional games, Reese just 15.

“Reality is coming,” Diana Taurasi notoriously predicted in the preseason, suggesting that Clark would have some struggles as a rookie — and by extension Reese, too. “There’s levels to this thing, and that’s just life. … You look superhuman playing against 18-year-olds, but you’re going to come with some grown women that have been playing professional basketball for a long time.”

You better add a level. Not even halfway through the 40-game season, Reese and Clark aren’t just rookie of the year favorites; they’re already indisputably league leaders. Clark ranks third in the WNBA in three-pointers made and third in total assists. Reese is second in total rebounds and has logged eight consecutive double-doubles. Both rank in the top 15 of the league’s 144 players in efficiency, Reese 11th and Clark 15th. That’s despite the fact that they’re barely unwrapped and out of the box as pros and that they’re playing on two of the more inexperienced teams in the league.

They’re getting better nightly — and it’s the rest of the league that is figuring out how to grow to meet their vast, expanding aspirations. The pity is that they won’t play each other again until August. By then, a potential playoff spot may well be on the line. In the meantime, they may just succeed at their mutual enterprise and lock a once-fickle WNBA audience into a forever embrace.

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