‘A true professional’: Caitlin Clark’s poise under WNBA spotlight shines in near triple-double win vs. Phoenix Mercury

Caitlin Clark, battling a migraine, stops to sign autographs for fans after nearly achieving a triple-double with 15 points, 12 assists and 9 rebounds in the Indiana Fever’s 88-82 win Sunday. (Photo by Stella Subasic/Cronkite News)

Indiana Fever rookie Caitlin Clark signs autographs for young fans holding ‘We love you #22’ signs and Iowa Hawkeyes jerseys before taking on the Phoenix Mercury. (Photo by Stella Subasic/Cronkite News)

Indiana Fever guard Caitlin Clark attempts her signature logo 3-pointer over Phoenix Mercury guard Kahleah Copper’s tight defense in Sunday’s game. (Photo by Stella Subasic/Cronkite News)

A sea of fans hold up signs and jerseys for Indiana Fever guard Caitlin Clark, demonstrating the rookie’s immense popularity in her first visit to Phoenix. (Photo by Stella Subasic/Cronkite News)

WNBA rookie sensation Caitlin Clark, left, watches Phoenix Mercury veteran Brittney Griner shoot during their first on-court meeting Sunday. (Photo by Stella Subasic/Cronkite News)

PHOENIX – A father skipped celebrating his son’s birthday Sunday in Dallas. Instead, he sat courtside to witness the anticipated matchup between the Phoenix Mercury and Indiana Fever at Footprint Center with his brother’s two children.

As he sat and watched players warm up before tip-off, his mind wasn’t on the perks that came with his luxury seats; rather, he expressed anger through his raw, expletive speech that they missed one person walking out of the tunnel en route to the court for pregame warmups: Fever phenom Caitlin Clark.

Nearby, a middle-aged woman held up a “We love you #22” poster near women’s basketball fans of all ages showing Clark support by wearing or holding her Fever and Iowa Hawkeyes gear in hopes of getting her autograph above the same arena tunnel where the uncle missed the star rookie come out.

“The same eyes were on her in Iowa, so I think she’s mastered on how it’s supposed to go and hats off to her for dealing with it,” said Fever guard Kelsey Mitchell on Clark’s handling of the attention. “I think for us it’s obviously an adjustment as we are new to Caitlin and Caitlin is new to us, so it’s an adjustment as far as those eyes.”

Diana Taurasi, right, and Caitlin Clark compete in Sunday's matchup between the Phoenix Mercury and Indiana Fever – a contest marketed as 'The GOAT' vs. 'The Rook.' (Photo by Stella Subasic/Cronkite News)

Diana Taurasi, right, and Caitlin Clark compete in Sunday’s matchup between the Phoenix Mercury and Indiana Fever – a contest marketed as ‘The GOAT’ vs. ‘The Rook.’ (Photo by Stella Subasic/Cronkite News)

An energetic 17,071 fans watched Clark score 15 points and dish out 12 assists. She finished one rebound shy of a triple-double as the Fever snatched an 88-82 victory over the Mercury thanks to three other Fever starters scoring in double digits. The game proved worthy enough to stop Phoenix Suns superstar Devin Booker, Suns coach Mike Budenholzer and owner Matt Ishbia took a break from the preparation for Sunday’s impending NBA free agency period to sit courtside at the contest.

The matchup, marketed as “The GOAT” versus “The Rook,” presented the first of three matchups this season between Clark and Mercury guard Diana Taurasi.

Taurasi inadvertently added to the intrigue with her misinterpreted comments during an April interview with ESPN that “reality was coming” for the rookie in her first WNBA season. But any perceived animosity between the veteran and newcomer was quickly put to rest when Taurasi hugged Clark before tip-off.

From the opening minutes, the Mercury’s third-largest crowd since the franchise’s inaugural season cheered no matter which team scored – a testament to fans simply enjoying the competition and appreciating the state of the WNBA.

The Valley fans gave Clark a standing ovation when she walked off the court at the end of the game – a nod to the transformative impact she and other rookies like Angel Reese have had on women’s basketball over the past two years.

“Heavy is the head that wears the crown,” Mercury guard Natasha Cloud reminded reporters earlier in the season.

As one of the crown-bearers in the league, Clark’s maturity has impressed veteran teammate Temi Fagbenle.

“You just see her responses to everything, to media, to social media; she’s very calm and collected,” Fagbenle told Cronkite News. “She knows what to say and isn’t too incensed. She doesn’t say the wrong thing and that takes a very steady mind.”

With the media brewing a tale of division among Clark and Reese – and even Taurasi – the discourse has been more than just basketball. But Clark’s focus remains intact.

“She’s really good about not letting it get to her. It’s amazing how much pressure she has from the outside, how she’s handled it. She’s still all about the team,” Fever guard Grace Berger told Cronkite News. “She goes about her business every day like a true professional even though she’s only a rookie. (She’s) just here for the team, whatever her teammates need, that’s truly all she cares about.”

For Berger, drafted a year before Clark, her teammate’s intentionality in recovery after high-usage games and improvement despite her superstardom “is a lot of fun to watch.”

Many see Clark’s logo 3-pointers, trash talk, extraterrestrial passes and poised media responses, but moments like giving the thumbs up and smiling as she swims in the pool Saturday at the Arizona State University basketball facility or her parents and boyfriend waiting for her outside the visiting locker room after the Sunday victory humanize Clark.

Fever forward Victaria Saxton, who squared off against Clark in the 2023 Women’s Final Four as a member of the South Carolina Gamecocks, admitted that she didn’t know what to expect from Clark as a former foe turned teammate.

More than a year after the Hawkeyes beat the Gamecocks in the semifinals, Saxton loves being Clark’s teammate “on the court, off the court, (and) in the locker room,” she told Cronkite News.

Clark exited Footprint Center victorious over Taurasi, one of the first people in the WNBA who “she really knew about and supported and idolized and wanted to be like.”

But before entering the tunnel to enter the locker room, she stopped to sign autographs despite not feeling well with a migraine.

A new generation of young fans now revere Clark the same way she admired Taurasi. She certainly wears a heavy crown, but Fagbenle and the Fever aren’t expecting perfection.

“Day to day, we are all growing. She’s not perfect, I’m not perfect, nobody is perfect,” Fagbenle said. “So I think she’s also finding out ways to be a leader on this team, to be an effective leader not just by example but vocally as well. As we learn and grow with each other, I think she’ll learn more about how to do that.”

Sports Digital Reporter, Phoenix

Joshua Heron expects to graduate in August 2024 with a master’s degree in sports journalism. Heron served as a sports reporter for The Hilltop, Howard University News Service, and social-impact brand FISLL as an undergrad at Howard University. He also worked as a freelance reporter for Capital News. His interview series, “Wagwan In Life,” hosts people across multiple professions. Heron produced “Championship Culture,” a documentary highlighting the Howard women’s basketball team. He was a 2023 National Geographic HBCU Media Scholar and former My Brother’s Keeper Fellow.

News Visual Journalist, Phoenix

Stella Subasic expects to graduate in December 2024 with a bachelor’s degree in journalism and mass communication. Subasic is a transfer student from Kansas City who has interned as a photojournalist for Phoenix Magazine and hopes to pursue a career in photojournalism focusing on visual storytelling.