Perspective | Angel Reese is too good to be the bad guy

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There’s a good way to tell when Angel Reese is rolling. Then, and pretty much only then, she’ll start snarling.

Reese loves feeding into her “Barbie” branding. She won’t take the floor before applying her feathery eyelashes and rouge blush, for heaven’s sake. Yet she also thrives in playing the part of the “bad guy.” Women’s basketball’s villain. The Anti-Caitlin. So, in an exaggerated, put-on way, she’ll curl up one side of her lip and look like the meanest, baddest so-and-so in the WNBA. That stank face of hers will make highlight shows and drive up television ratings. Audiences can’t get enough of the bad guy.

Problem is, she’s just too good for that role.

Reese, the 6-foot-3 Chicago Sky rookie, set a WNBA record Sunday with her 13th consecutive double-double. Think about that. This league, nearly three decades old, has featured outstanding centers such as Sylvia Fowles and Lisa Leslie, chairwomen of the boards such as Tina Charles and Tamika Catchings, power forwards who could also get buckets such as Lauren Jackson and Candace Parker. And Reese needed just 20 games to accomplish something even those legends of the past could not. Though some might have believed the 2024 rookie of the year award was wrapped up the moment Caitlin Clark went No. 1 to the Indiana Fever, Reese has interrupted that coronation, barging in with her shiny tiara and snarling mean-mug.

Reese’s game proves her worth. She doesn’t have to pretend to be the heel anymore.

Scrubs need that kind of shtick. Not all-stars who are among the top five vote-getters in the WNBA fan balloting. Certainly not a player who earned rookie of the month honors for June, a star who delivered the sound bite of the season in her walk-off interview following a big win over the Fever. When you’re as talented as Reese, you should lean on the substance, not the sideshow.

For a while, this whole villain cosplay might have been necessary — and personally beneficial. Reese probably would not have graced magazine covers or won entertainment show awards without creating that viral moment with Clark at the end of the 2023 national championship game. Sure, Reese has been gobbling up double-doubles since her Baltimore prep days, but she doesn’t reach celebrity status without imitating the “You can’t see me” gesture and pointing to her ring finger to mock Clark in the closing moments of the title game. And ever since she trolled America’s sweetheart, Reese has become a target for one crowd that has dog-whistled its dislike and an icon for another group willing to rush to her defense.

Between the clashing camps, she was simultaneously called “classless” and “authentic.” An enemy but also a cultural hero. Because the viewing public needs easily digestible narratives, during the year or so in which Reese has blossomed into a household name, she has been pitted against Clark as the antihero. For all of its flaws and divisions, this story arc has grown the game.

When the Sky faces the Fever, the league’s television partners enjoy a ratings bonanza. The first meeting June 1 — long sigh — when the Sky’s Chennedy Carter committed a flagrant foul on Clark and Reese popped off the bench to applaud her teammate, created a hysteria of hot takes. A few weeks later, the rematch generated an average of 2.25 million viewers. When the teams met for a third time June 23, that game toppled the previous record and averaged 2.3 million viewers, the most for a WNBA game in 23 years.

This is the playbook to get eyeballs. Good vs. evil — even if the so-called meanie is simply acting out the role. Savvy enough to recognize the audience’s appetite and self-assured enough to handle any negativity, Reese has willingly played to the perception. Last month, Reese allowed the audience a peek at the playbook.

“It all started from the national championship game, and I’ve been dealing with this for two years now,” Reese said. “And understanding, like, yeah, negative things have probably been said about me, but honestly, I’ll take that because look where women’s basketball is. People are talking about women’s basketball that you never would think would be talking about women’s basketball. People are pulling up to games, we’ve got celebrities coming to games, sold-out arenas, just because of one single game. And just looking at that, I’ll take that role. I’ll take the bad guy role, and I’ll continue to take that on and be that.”

Although during that one episode in the national title game, Reese auditioned for and won the villain role, she should now abandon it. Equally important, the audience should let her. As WNBA viewership grows, hopefully attracting more serious fans wanting to watch actual basketball and fewer rubberneckers rooting for a car crash, Reese’s reputation as a player can grow, too.

Possibly into the rookie of the year.

Clark has made history, too, becoming the first WNBA rookie to post a triple-double. And with the Fever recovering from a sluggish start to the season, Clark — along with all-stars Kelsey Mitchell and Aliyah Boston — has helped Indiana leap up the standings. She has done little to remove herself as the front-runner. However, Reese has entered the debate and should be considered Clark’s biggest threat.

And there it is again. Clark vs. Reese. While circumstances have squeezed her into this limiting role — which Reese accepted for the good of the game, as well as to grow her own popularity — she should be something greater than Clark’s foil. Barbies can snarl and wear makeup on the court, but Reese no longer needs to accessorize her persona with the black hat.

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