Perspective | Caitlin Clark and Angel Reese are keeping calm amid the chaos

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The whirlwind ended here in Washington. With it came the barrel-chested bodyguards, the proliferation of girls with box braids one night, then the battalion of girls with brunette ponytails the next. Some Washington Wizards players showed up, and so did the second gentleman of the United States, who received the second-biggest ovation Friday. That’s expected because, when Caitlin Clark is in the arena — any arena — the wattage of her star power dims everything else. The same is true of Angel Reese, who is known more for her “Barbie Meets Bad Guy” persona than she is for her ability to box out.

Several days earlier, these powerhouse rookies met for the first time as professionals: Clark’s Indiana Fever against Reese’s Chicago Sky. But just like old times, a singular moment overshadowed the basketball. Clark and Sky guard Chennedy Carter engaged in some trash talk, and Carter elevated things by leveling Clark as she waited to receive an inbound pass. Reese popped up from her seat on the bench, rejoicing.

Carter’s flagrant foul, Reese’s reaction and Clark’s well-being were the topics that dominated sports conversation over the next few days until the Sky came to town to play the Washington Mystics on Thursday and the Fever followed the next night. After a long week filled with countless hot takes, vitriol over social media, complaints aimed at the WNBA league office, finger-pointing at Fever teammates, harassment at a team hotel — thankfully, at Capital One Arena, there was just basketball.

It was such a pleasant change of pace when considering everything that swirls around Clark and Reese, Reese and Clark. The players will be forever linked because their 2023 NCAA tournament championship game showdown changed the way we view women’s basketball. The quality of play exceeded expectations, but the taunt near the end of the game created a cultural firestorm that rages on more than a year later. On separate nights in the District, however, the women sounded and performed like players, not avatars for someone else’s agenda.

Here’s Reese responding to a question about life as a rookie playing pro hoops:

“I tell myself every single day: ‘This is supposed to be hard. This is supposed to be hard. But this is what you’ve worked for.’ So just being able to be here is great.”

And here’s Clark, also saying stuff about basketball:

“I feel like I’ve played some good games, and I feel that I’ve played some games where it’s ehhh. And I just think that’s the learning curve. That’s just the adjustment period. I probably haven’t shot the ball as well as I would’ve liked, but I feel like I’ve gotten some good shots, some good looks. And you know, as a shooter, that’s sometimes just what happens.”

I suspect only the purists who love and appreciate women’s hoops will care about those quotes. These are words and insight only for the faithful who have been around for the 27 years of the W’s existence and even the earlier generations who respect the impact of teams such as the 1996 U.S. Olympic squad, Pat Summitt’s Tennessee machine and Delta State of the 1970s. But those longtime fans aren’t the ones generating massive ratings and sellouts for Clark, nor are the hoop heads demanding more fashion magazine photo spreads for Reese.

It’s a newer, broader audience that has been making the most noise. So as Reese and Clark, Clark and Reese came to town, I wondered if they could just be basketball players — and if that would be enough to sustain their sport’s momentum.

At Capital One Arena on Thursday night, Reese warmed up in a black WNBA logo tank top and custom shoes that read “Baltimore Barbie.” And because every Marylander loves the state’s flag, of course the red and white crosses and black and gold checkered pattern adorned the front. After her pregame routine, Reese hurried behind a Sky public relations staffer and only paused when Mystics Coach Eric Thibault extended his hand. Thibault did the talking in an interaction that appeared to have more compassion than just a rival coach saying hello to a rookie.

When Thibault finished, Reese carried on as a bodyguard tracked her. The personal security stayed close to Reese even when no paying customers were near. The previous night, a cameraman targeted Carter once the team arrived at its hotel in Washington. Team security defused the situation, but Reese and other teammates — justifiably alarmed because they were not expecting a gotcha moment — took to social media to complain about feeling harassed.

“This really is outta control and needs to STOP,” Reese wrote on X.

She preferred all caps to express herself then. After sitting down in front of reporters hours before tip-off, the bodyguard standing off to the right, she spoke softly but made her point clear.

“I think we’re going to leave yesterday [as] yesterday, and it was handled accordingly by our security team,” Reese said, answering a reporter’s question about the incident. Later in the session, Reese gave a shout out to her “PR team,” and the diplomacy she displays in fielding controversial topics reflects their hard work.

The next night, when a reporter asked Clark whether she thought Carter owed her a public apology, her response seemed just as ready-made from her communications professionals.

“Basketball’s competitive. I get it. Sometimes your emotions get the best of you. It’s happened to me multiple times throughout my career. People are competitive. It is what it is,” Clark said before complimenting Carter’s play this season. “That’s just not what my focus is. That’s not what I think about on a day-to-day basis. I think about my team. I think about ways that I can get better. It’s just basketball at the end of the day. There’s no grudges. There’s nothing like that. It’s a sport. It’s competitive. It’s not going to be nice all the time. That’s not what basketball is, and I think people that play at the highest level understand that.”

Clark’s bodyguard — a man who resembles “Stone Cold” Steve Austin — also stood nearby everywhere she went around the arena. After her 11 minutes with reporters, Clark rushed back to the court.

As a team, Fever players speed through a pregame drill that feels more like a game. There’s constant movement around their half of the court as guards hit their bigs cutting to the rim, then immediately look for another pass for catch-and-shoot jumpers. Clark took part in this action before lying on her back to get stretched out. Once the court cleared, teammates such as NaLyssa Smith and Kelsey Mitchell returned to their individual routines.

After Smith finished in a sweat and Mitchell worked out with player development coach Jhared Simpson, I asked both individually how they felt about criticism from outsiders. The Carter foul gave some people the perception that Clark is getting roughed up night after night and that Fever teammates are not sticking up for her.

“I don’t know if they want us to go out there and have a Royal Rumble,” said Smith, who was on the sideline when the foul happened.

And Mitchell, who has been in the league for seven seasons and has little time for newbies and their strong opinions: “Me, personally, I don’t care. I can’t say I care personally about what this world believes. I know for damn sure that we do a good job of protecting our own, and that’s not something that needs to be constantly explained. To the world, if that’s what you believe, that’s on you.”

On both nights, the rookies played well and left with smiles on their faces while walking back to the visiting locker room, mostly because their teams had won. Reese produced 16 points and 11 rebounds, while Clark drilled a career-best seven three-pointers on the way to a game-high 30 points. Basketball ruled both nights, and that should be enough.

“It’s not all good because I think there’s been some things that literally possibly put players in danger,” Thibault said, answering my question about whether the circus around Clark and Reese is good for basketball. “I don’t like that. … I think people, not so much in the league but around the league, have to be conscious of what power their words carry in situations like this. It’s largely good. I hope at some point, whether it’s around Caitlin or Angel or anybody else, we can start to view them not as these proxies for whatever other views people have and they get to be basketball players and pro basketball players, because that’s what they’ve wanted to do.”

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