Forty-four years ago unsolicited letters started arriving at our house written by my sister’s friend who at the time attended Indiana State University. Her letters gushed about a guy she witnessed play basketball like nothing she had ever seen.
The letters kept coming. I remember being skeptical and disinterested at first. How good could a guy from Indiana State be? If he was that good, why wasn’t he playing for Indiana?
My curiosity grew a little. So one Saturday I watched this blond-haired lanky guy from Indiana State on TV pour in 49 points against Wichita State.
Pretty impressive, indeed.
Later that season, he schooled DePaul in the Final Four for 33 points leading his much less talented team to the final game—an achievement ISU has not duplicated at any other time.
Larry Bird was that transcendent guy. To say he had a great basketball career is like saying Root Beer tastes good. Duh.
He became one of the top 5 best basketball players who ever lived. If it was ever not an exaggeration to describe a person as a basketball genius, it was with Larry Bird (and now Nikola Jokic, by the way).
Now, all these years later, a similar situation has transpired conjuring up memories of my first encounters with Larry, the Hick From French Lick, Indiana. For the past few months, I had been hearing about some women’s college basketball phenom from out there in the heartland somewhere, whatever, was it Illinois or Idaho or Nebraska? Turns out to be the University of Iowa, the epicenter of America’s flyover zone.
All the buzz didn’t quite pull me in until last night when I watched Caitlin Clark, from relatively obscure West Des Moines, Iowa, in the Final Four against undefeated and number one ranked the University of South Carolina. I wanted to check out what all the noise was about.
Like Larry, she exceeded the hype, pumping in 41 points including the last 4 free throws to nail down the major upset. In the previous Elite Eight round, she was the first college basketball player ever to record a 40-point triple-double.
It all reminded me of when Larry Bird’s team upset DePaul in the Final Four. One guy from Out Yonder, America put his team on his back and led them to victory. Last night, one woman lifted her team to victory with her impressive long-range shooting, quick drives to the basket for layups, and slick passes to her teammates.
She does it all on the basketball court – just like Larry. She’s freaky great – just like Larry. She’s not from New York or Los Angeles or D.C. where many of the best basketball players come from – just like Larry.
She’s from the middle of the country – just like Larry. Growing up, she lived with her basketball – just like Larry. Out there in sort of nowhere refining her skills – just like Larry.
This is an American story with soul and wholesomeness devoid of big-city excessiveness, arrogance, cynicism, and clutter.
Way out there in Iowa Caitlin Clark practiced basketball for who knows how many thousands of hours – just like Larry did growing up in French Lick. Way out there in Iowa, she got the attention early on for being an absolute hoops prodigy. Way out there in Iowa, she received her first college basketball scholarship in seventh grade.
Some kids are just born with natural abilities that, inexplicably, their peers and siblings don’t possess. They’re blessed with special genes. Better than everyone else including elite players, they can make more shots, see open teammates and execute passes with precision and drive to the basket with more coordination.
Some kids are just born better than others at something. And there’s nothing anyone can do to change that and the super-talented are usually not able to explain why they’re superb. They just are. Like Picasso wielding his paintbrush and Beethoven tapping his piano keys, I guess.
This mysterious, rarified talent is as true of Caitlin Clark as it was of Larry Bird.
There’s something about the center of the United States that I like more than the East and West Coasts. It seems less tainted, more real, less pretentious, more open, more honest, and nicer.
I want to do one more trip in my life travel-wise: go out to Iowa and Indiana and drive around, take in the sky and air and freedom, ask people about Caitlin and Larry growing up, how much they practiced, whether they could tell early on how great they would become.
When a young woman comes from that part of the country and rises to become – virtually overnight – the person everyone who follows sports is talking about this morning, it’s romantic. Doesn’t seem real. Feels like a fairytale, somehow too cool and appealing to be true. It’s a plot to a sports fiction novel. But it’s non-fiction.
Pinch yourself. It’s really happening – right now. Americans now know about this young woman who spent, no doubt, an enormous amount of time practicing her basketball skills in relative obscurity, just a local star, sweating alone in a gym working on her long-range shot and dribbling. You would be surprised at how lonely that can be especially because you’re not sure all the hard work will translate to superstardom and championships. While her friends played, she practiced basketball. When they watched TV, she practiced basketball. When they did whatever they did, she played hoops. It’s the sacrifice you have to make as a kid to become the best – one of the five best to ever play women’s college basketball and maybe the best.
All that time alone fantasizing about leading her college team to the Final Four, scoring 41 points, becoming famous, landing endorsement deals, making money, planning for a career in the WNBA, and enjoying playing in the state before the fans who grew up watching her become who she is now: a phenom.
Last night in America a new star entered our world.
Now the question: Can she outshine Larry Bird and win the final game and cut down the nets tomorrow against LSU? (Larry’s ISU team fell to Michigan State in the title game).
If she does, we will be treated to one of the greatest sports stories we’ve ever seen: Iowa, national champs, women’s basketball, unprecedented. Not a blue-blood basketball school. Not UConn. Not Tennessee. Not South Carolina.
Iowa. America’s pulse.
If she leads her team to this mind-soothing height, Caitlin will be able to add more awards to her trophy shelf already piled to the ceiling – notably this year’s National Player of the Year.
She’ll be the ESPY Women’s Athlete of the Year and Sports Illustrated Athlete of the year.
Famous beyond our imaginations.
Just a few years ago she was just a talented basketball player from out there somewhere in the middle of our country, from Iowa, from the open plains and farms and cows and railroad tracks – a world away from big D “Dallas” where the Final Four is now unfolding.
Just a young girl growing up, playing hoops at stratospheric levels.
Now she’s an American superstar we’ll never forget.
Is she from Heaven?
Yes, she’s from Iowa.
Sammy Sportface, a sports blogger, galvanizes, inspires, and amuses The Baby Boomer Brotherhood. And you can learn about his vision and join this group's Facebook page here:
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