If anyone knows what Caitlin Clark is experiencing, it's Diana Taurasi ... to an extent (2024)

PHOENIX — Caitlin Clark was on the bench, for once, clapping as the final seconds ticked here Sunday. The Indiana Fever rookie celebrated an 88-82 win over the Phoenix Mercury with teammates, and then she was surrounded by television cameras and photographers. As she spoke to an ESPN reporter, Diana Taurasi walked past 20 feet away, headed for the home locker room.


This contest was big for the Fever, its first victory over a winning team in 20 tries, but it also presented a before-and-after picture that was impossible to ignore. Clark, 22, is the hotshot rookie, the future of the WNBA. Phoenix’s Taurasi, 42, is the league’s career scoring leader, someone who has a street named after her outside the arena.

In front of a sold-out crowd at Footprint Center, Clark was steady over 39 minutes. Although she shot 4 of 14, she finished just shy of her first professional triple-double with 15 points, 9 rebounds and 12 assists. “My gosh … she’s just an incredible passer,” Indiana coach Christie Sides said. “She just finds the plays that need to happen.”

Taurasi posted 19 points, 3 assists and 3 rebounds in 32 minutes. Two nights earlier, in a home win over the Los Angeles Sparks, Taurasi had buried five 3-pointers. Against the Fever, she shot 2 of 10 from deep, never finding an offensive rhythm.

a near triple-double from Caitlin Clark in today’s win over Phoenix 😈 pic.twitter.com/KSJriLAb3l

— Indiana Fever (@IndianaFever) June 30, 2024

Aside from the courtside interview, during which she praised her team’s resilience, Clark didn’t talk to reporters after the game. Sides said the guard did not feel well and needed to meet with the trainer. It’s also a fair bet Clark didn’t want to be put into position to answer questions about beating Taurasi, the rising star toppling a legend. In some ways, this has been a challenge for the entire Indiana franchise.

This weekend Sides twice was asked to assess Clark’s performance. Twice she focused her answer more on the Fever’s youth and their collective growth. After Indiana’s loss to the Seattle Storm on Thursday, Clark met with reporters alongside teammate Aliyah Boston. After reporters directed a fifth straight question to Clark, Clark waved her hand and said, “Ask Aliyah a question.”

If anyone can relate, it’s probably Taurasi, but this comes with an asterisk. Twenty years ago, she was in a similar situation. Like Clark at Iowa, Taurasi had finished her college career at Connecticut as the best player in the sport. She was the No. 1 pick of the WNBA Draft and was expected to elevate the league. The difference was media attention. Since joining the league, Clark has been the focus of countless debates — some on basketball, others on race. She has learned that anything she says can become a national headline or conversation.

Perhaps that explains her reaction Saturday when asked about the WNBA All-Star Game, which takes place July 20 in Phoenix. Even though Clark ranked second in recent fan voting, she didn’t want any part of the conversation. “I don’t know if I’ll be there,’’ she said after practice at Arizona State University. “I’m not going to talk in hypotheticals. My focus is on playing basketball. All that takes care of itself.”

In the same media session, Clark was asked for her first memory of Taurasi, a difficult task considering she was only 2 when Taurasi first joined the WNBA. But after thinking a second, Clark said Taurasi was always someone she associated with women’s professional basketball. She appreciated the intensity and fire in which Taurasi played, and called Sunday’s game a chance to compete against the best, “a dream come true.”

“That’s somebody I grew up idolizing and looking up to and wanting to be like one day,’’ Clark said. “I don’t know if there’s going to be many people to be able to do it like her.”

As a Phoenix rookie in 2004, Taurasi instantly became the face of the franchise. Her first home game drew 10,493 fans, the most for an opener in three years. Before many road games that season, Taurasi met pregame and talked with a select group of 50 fans. Former Phoenix general manager Seth Sulka told reporters at the time that the attention was unlike anything he had seen in the WNBA.


“I loved it,” Taurasi said when asked about this Sunday. “I just loved to play basketball. I didn’t care too much about outside noise or what people thought of me. I enjoyed every minute. Being a rookie was cool, man. It was fun. You could do whatever you want, you didn’t know any better. Being in Sports Illustrated, Slam … ESPN the Magazine.”

Taurasi glanced at a young reporter in the room.

“You’re too young. You don’t know what I’m talking about,” she said.

Like Clark, Taurasi still had to deal with physical play, with veterans trying to put her in her place. Opponents respected her talent, but they made her earn their respect. On April 5, while providing TV commentary during the women’s Final Four, Taurasi recalled a “Welcome to the WNBA” moment and how an intimidating defender named DeLisha Milton-Jones twice elbowed her in the face. It set up a rivalry of sorts.

During a recent phone conversation, Milton-Jones, the coach of the women’s program at Old Dominion, laughed. She had seen Taurasi’s comments on social media. “I’m like, ‘Invite me on your show so I can tell them the other side,”’ she said.

Milton-Jones was aware of Taurasi’s skill. In the WNBA, she saw it up close. How Taurasi manipulated the game with her vision. How she understood spacing and timing. How she applied a point guard’s touch to multiple positions. But what impressed Milton-Jones most was how Taurasi arrived with tricks that took most rookies a season or two to learn.

Milton-Jones said that when she elevated for a jump shot, Taurasi would poke her in the stomach, just hard enough to make her flinch and throw off her shot. On offense, Taurasi would come off a pindown and try to jam Milton-Jones to try to create space.

“She would literally punch me in the stomach,’’ Milton-Jones said. “Then she would blast off wide open. My coach is yelling at me like, ‘You need to be guarding her!’ And I’m like, ‘She just punched me in the stomach!’ She was feisty and crafty and she had this vet savvy-esque play to her game.”


(Responded Taurasi outside the media room Sunday: “I think it was my upbringing. Italian Argentines, we’re sneaky. We’re always trying to find an advantage somehow. In the game of basketball, there’s games within the game. And when you’re not physically gifted as much as other people, you have to find little ways to get that edge.”)

Carrie Graf, who coached Taurasi her first two pro seasons, said Taurasi’s biggest flaw was with the referees. She was too harsh. Instead of yelling in their faces, she told Taurasi to use her charisma. To remember that officials are people. But there was no questioning her readiness.

“I can picture this shot like it’s a photograph,’’ Graf said on the phone from Australia. “She’d get in the lane and she’d be up against the tall timbers. She’s on the right side and she extended her right arm out like it was an elevated hook shot. And then with her left hand, the shot blocker is coming in, and while she’s in the air, she goes up and grabs the shot blocker’s arm to clear some space so she could put the ball on the rim. Women just weren’t doing that stuff back then.”

If anyone knows what Caitlin Clark is experiencing, it's Diana Taurasi ... to an extent (1)

Diana Taurasi drives against Caitlin Clark in Sunday’s game. (Chris Coduto / Getty Images)

Clark has this quality as well, but instead of hanging in the air, it’s pulling up from the logo, a trademark move that has made her famous within the sport. She did this twice Sunday, igniting the crowd. Even in Phoenix, the “Clark” jerseys outnumbered Phoenix players’ in many sections of the arena.

Caitlin Clark showing off her deep range with another logo three 🎯 pic.twitter.com/IX8wnVb3g4

— Indiana Fever (@IndianaFever) June 30, 2024

Clark is still navigating this transition. Like she has all season, she forced too many passes Sunday, resulting in 6 turnovers. She tried a behind-the-back pass that had little chance. She misfired on a lead pass in transition. She lost the ball and fell to the court.

Before the game (Clark meets with reporters before every contest), she had said her biggest adjustment had simply been the pace of everything. After losing to South Carolina in the NCAA national championship, Clark returned to Iowa City for a day and “then my life kind of changed,” she said.

After the draft, Clark moved to Indianapolis. May 3, she played her first preseason game. She hasn’t slowed since, playing 20 games for the 8-12 Fever. The exciting part is she knows she has room to grow, mastering details that can elevate her game. The frustrating part is she hasn’t had much practice time to do so.


“I had to learn game to game,” Clark said. “That’s kind of been the biggest adjustment.”

Taurasi predicted as much. She didn’t mean it as a shot at Clark and the league’s talented rookies. Only that this transition often takes time. In a Phoenix radio interview, Taurasi compared it to a college quarterback adjusting to the NFL. After Sunday’s loss, she expressed how much she respects how Clark has handled it.

“It’s amazing what Caitlin has been able to do,” Taurasi said. “Her short career so far has been nothing short of remarkable. The one thing that I really love about her is she loves the game. You can tell she’s put the work in. And even throughout her short WNBA career, it’s been a lot of pressure, a lot of things thrown at her, she keeps showing up and keeps getting better every single game. Her future is super bright.”

(Top photo: Kate Frese / NBAE via Getty Images)

If anyone knows what Caitlin Clark is experiencing, it's Diana Taurasi ... to an extent (2)If anyone knows what Caitlin Clark is experiencing, it's Diana Taurasi ... to an extent (3)

Doug Haller is a senior writer based in Arizona. He previously worked 13 years at The Arizona Republic, where he covered three Final Fours and four football national championship games. He is a five-time winner of the Arizona Sportswriter of the Year award. Follow Doug on Twitter @DougHaller

If anyone knows what Caitlin Clark is experiencing, it's Diana Taurasi ... to an extent (2024)


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