Caitlin Clark breaks scoring record, but her legacy was already cemented

Caitlin Clark broke the NCAA Womens basketball scoring record on Thursday, Feb. 15, surpassing Kelsey Plum.
Caitlin Clark broke the NCAA Women’s basketball scoring record on Thursday, Feb. 15, surpassing Kelsey Plum.
Zach Spindler-Krage

Caitlin Clark broke the National Collegiate Athletics Association (NCAA) Women’s basketball scoring record in a game against Michigan on Thursday, Feb. 15. But long before she drew the media’s attention to her pursuit of the scoring record, Clark had already changed the game for so many athletes, particularly women, both in Iowa and nationwide.

“It should be a historic day,” Iowa coach Lisa Bluder said in anticipation of Clark breaking the scoring record.

It is a historic day that came near the end of a historic season — a historic season that comes near the end of a historic college career.

But while the record will be the best-documented evidence of Clark’s legacy, it is far from the most significant. 

When I attended the Iowa Women’s basketball home game against Nebraska on Jan. 27, I arrived nearly 90 minutes early to watch Clark warm up. However, it only took a few minutes for my attention to be drawn away from the court.

Along the edges of the hardwood, hordes of young fans donning Clark’s No. 22 jersey bounced enthusiastically up and down as they waved sparkly signs, chanting, “We love Caitlin.” Until warm ups concluded, the young fans, mostly girls in elementary and middle school, never stopped watching Clark and only paused their chanting to eagerly strategize about how to get Clark’s autograph. 

I approached the fans before they returned to their seats, asking them why they were so excited to see Clark. One girl said she watched every Iowa Women’s basketball game on television and finally convinced her parents to bring her. Another girl told me how amazing it was for a woman athlete to be receiving so much attention. A third girl showed me her notepad and said she was taking notes on how she could be as good at basketball as Clark.

A toddler, dressed in Clark’s No. 22, stands as the edge of the court. (Zach Spindler-Krage)

It wasn’t just kids enamored with Clark, though. As Clark walked off the court after leading Iowa to victory with 38 points, I watched an elderly woman drop to her knees in front of Clark and shout, “Caitlin, I’m your oldest fan!” while holding up a No. 22 jersey and sharpie for an autograph.

I quickly realized at the game that Clark’s positive impact on people is not new, nor is it exclusive to basketball.

Ever since attending Dowling Catholic High School in West Des Moines, Clark has left a positive trace in her wake while also being followed by a crowd of inspired fans. While the crowd of fans has been exponentially increasing lately, it has always been significant. Clark has long been a role model for athletes and women alike, a trait that transcends the dramatic and unparalleled skills she demonstrates on the basketball court.

“To see one player and one person have such a gravitational impact on an entire state’s view of a sport is really cool,” said Erin Lillis `24, a guard for Grinnell College Women’s basketball team, currently averaging 17.5 points per game over her career. Even as a die-hard Indiana University fan herself, Lillis had to admit that Clark is a special player.

Clark led Iowa to the NCAA National Championship game in 2023, losing to LSU. (Zach Spindler-Krage)

“To see the women’s games continually sold out with so many more fans than the men’s games is inspiring to see,” Lillis said. Iowa became the first women’s basketball program in Big Ten history to sell out every home game.

Tickets to Thursday’s game were estimated to be the second most expensive women’s basketball game of all time, with an average purchase price of $521. Some courtside seats were priced at nearly $10,000.

Lisa Bluder, in her 24th year, is the all-time winningest coach in Iowa Women’s basketball program history. (Zach Spindler-Krage)

David Bluder `25, son of Iowa coach Lisa Bluder and member of the Grinnell Men’s basketball team, said that the growth in attention he has witnessed over the past four years has been extraordinary.

“Caitlin has made a lot of people respect women’s sports,” Bluder said. “I’m hearing grown men talking about women’s basketball now, which is really awesome.”

Bluder also laughed about times he has tried to guard Clark during summer scrimmages.

“It was gamepoint and I hit a three in her [Clark’s] face, and then she comes down and pulls up for a deep three and she misses it. But I didn’t box her out, so she gets it back and I foul her as she hits her second shot. That was game.”

Caitlin Clark is averaging 32.2 points per game this season, leading the Iowa Women’s basketball team to a 22-3 record as of Thursday, Feb. 15. (Zach Spindler-Krage)

“I grew up watching Kelsey Plum,” Bluder said, referencing the former scoring record holder prior to Clark’s record-breaking game. “I actually have a picture of her when she played with Team USA. But just coming in, averaging 26 points as a freshman, we knew Caitlin was going to break the record.”

Sara Booher `25, a center for the Grinnell Women’s basketball team, said she thinks Coach Lisa Bluder is largely responsible for the overall success of the Iowa Women’s basketball program. 

“I’ve had the pleasure of getting to know Coach Bluder from talking to her at games — both Grinnell and Iowa,” Booher said, referencing how Bluder occasionally attends Grinnell basketball games. “She is an incredibly caring and humble person. We have even had opposing teams ask to take photos with her when they recognize her.”

Booher also said Clark has been a personal inspiration for her. “I can’t think of any women athletes that had that much of an impact on me as a kid, so it’s very exciting for me to see Clark as an inspiration for the next generation of girls and women in sports,” Booher said.

Clark has not publicly declared whether she will use her fifth year of eligibility to return to the Hawkeyes for a final season. If she chooses to instead move on to the Women’s National Basketball Association, she is projected to be the first overall selection in the draft. (Zach Spindler-Krage)

While Clark has already cemented a legacy on and off the court that may be unreachable for college athletes for decades to come, Lillis said that more of her legacy and impact is yet to come.

“She shows how exceptional you have to be as a female athlete to get the respect of people, especially men — you have to be that good to be seen as worthy of fandom,” Lillis said of Clark. 

“I think that in a way is a little discouraging, because I don’t think her impact will necessarily be felt immediately in Division III athletics. I think her impact is more the younger kids who go to her game and grow up respecting women’s athletics,” Lillis said.

“So I think even more of her impact will be felt in the future.”

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    Charlene TorresFeb 16, 2024 at 5:22 pm

    Its amazing what Caitlin Clark is doing for women’s sports!! Never have I seen a women’s basketball game full to it’s capacity and I’m not talking about one game. It’s every game!! Caitlin has the option of playing for Iowa as a 5th year. But, why should she? The WNBA awaits her as a No. 1 draft pick. Alot collegiate players don’t do well at the next level but I believe Caitlin Clark will. She’s a phenomenal baller, team player, a natural leader and any team will be stoked to make her the face of their organization. Caitlin Clark don’t hold back!! The world is yours and you have many more records break.

    A fan straight out of Bronx, New York…Charlene