Leistikow: How lifelong Iowan Caitlin Clark grew into a must-watch basketball star
When she was in sixth or seventh grade, Caitlin Clark remembers coming home from school one afternoon and getting into a spat with her two brothers. She doesn’t recall what they were arguing about — probably video games or basement basketball — but she’ll never forget the doled-out consequence when her parents got home from work.
Go to your room? No TV for a week?
Nah, the punishment was much harsher: None of the kids would be allowed to go to that night’s Dowling Catholic girls basketball game … at rival Valley, no less.
Caitlin took it the hardest.
“Oh, I remember that so vividly,” she said. “I was so mad.”
Quite the visual followed that evening: 12-year-old Caitlin feverishly trying to capture a radio signal for updates on the family’s living room stereo.
That little story, in a nutshell, offers a window into what makes Caitlin Clark tick and why she has become one of the most dynamic basketball players today … at any level.
She possesses a deep love for basketball. She has an intense desire to be constantly surrounded by the game. From a young age, she always brought the fire. And good luck telling her no.
“People know not to make me mad. A lot of people have learned that the hard way,” the University of Iowa sophomore said with a blend of humor and bravado. “I think my teammates know. ‘Don’t mess with her. Because it’s not going to end well.’
“I’m definitely someone who wears my emotions on my sleeve. Some people frown upon that. But I think that’s what makes me so good.”
So good … seemingly so fast.
Every few days, it seems, Clark is making a new national headline even more impressive than the last.
After scoring 43 points Monday against Ohio State, she completed the month of January having averaged 30.4 points, 7.7 rebounds and 9.1 assists per game — a feat last accomplished in the NBA (which plays 48-minute games instead of college's 40) in 1989, by none other than Michael Jordan.
She recently became the first player in Division I history — man or woman — to record back-to-back stat lines of 30-plus points, 10-plus rebounds and 10-plus assists. In a subsequent trip to Penn State, Clark set the Big Ten Conference regular-season record for assists in a game (18).
Earlier this season, she became the fastest player in Big Ten history to reach the 1,000-point milestone. It took her just 40 college games.
How has this lifelong Iowan, who just two weeks ago turned 20 years old, arrived at this point? And where do things go from here?
There’s a lot behind the story of Caitlin Clark.
And it’s easy to sense that her story is just beginning.
'Annoying little sister' proved she belonged
When their only daughter was just 2 or 3 years old, Anne and Brent Clark had a sense that Caitlin had unique gifts. Daycare feedback reported exceptional motor skills and coordination. She also showed feistiness and competitiveness at a very young age.
In first grade, that side emerged upon being given a classroom quiz called “rocket math.” Caitlin raced to complete all the problems as fast as she could. Never mind if she got them correct.
“She’s looking around to see who she beat, rather than whether she was getting the material,” Anne said. “We’ve been having these conversations about Caitlin and her competitiveness her whole life.”
Sports became a natural outlet for Caitlin’s competitive side. Even though it was on a 6-foot-high basketball hoop, her father was amazed how effortlessly she could make shots from 15 feet out. She was soon playing for boys teams at a recreational level.
Brent, a four-sport athlete at Indianola High School and a Simpson College standout in basketball and baseball, chuckled as he shared a story from a second-grade team he coached at the AAU state tournament. Caitlin was such a game-changer that a losing opponent’s parent complained that girls shouldn’t be allowed to play on the boys teams.
Caitlin Clark has seemingly always been surrounded by the boys. She's the middle child of three, between older brother Blake and younger brother Colin. One of 20 grandchildren on her mom’s side, almost every cousin in her age range is a boy. The neighborhood of her family’s West Des Moines home, where they have lived since her 2002 birth, was filled with boys her older brother’s age. She wanted to be just like Blake. So, of course, she tried to tag along wherever he went.
“I was always that annoying little sister,” Clark said. “They didn’t really want me around much, so I had to kind of hold my own if I wanted to be with them.”
Seeing their daughter's insatiable energy, Clark’s parents enlisted her in endless activities — volleyball, basketball, soccer, softball, tennis lessons, piano lessons. A diehard Kansas City Chiefs fan, she would often ask her dad to throw the football in their backyard.
Some frustrating experiences in softball, though, would begin to pave the way for basketball to become her premier sport. Already playing up two age levels, Clark would get upset that her throws from shortstop had to be perfect or they would go whizzing past the first baseman.
“She was just so much further advanced in that sport that it just became frustrating for her,” Brent said. “It’s slow. You have to wait your turn to hit.”
So, she left softball behind with an eye on playing basketball in the summers instead. In sixth grade, she joined the powerhouse All-Iowa Attack program in central Iowa. The program director, Dickson Jensen, saw immediately that Clark’s talent was off the charts and that she had a work ethic to match. She rose the club ranks quickly. Her competitive thirst was finally getting quenched on the basketball court. There were always older, talented girls to compete with — and, more importantly, against.
"She always initiated it all,” Jensen said. “Then when she was (at the gym), she always wanted to play against somebody better than her."
By eighth grade, she was playing with and against high school seniors. Division I coaches took notice. By her sophomore year at Dowling, she was ranked the No. 1 high school girls' basketball prospect in America.
Built and surrounded by family
Major college programs from coast to coast pursued Clark. Her dad wanted to shield her from too much pressure and handled a lot of the recruiting inquiries. Caitlin ultimately winnowed her final three college choices to Iowa, Iowa State and Notre Dame — all quality programs with longstanding coaches (at the time) within driving distance of her loved ones.
Family is extremely important to Clark. Ignoring the family piece of Clark’s story would be to ignore her story. Family built her. Family toughened her. Family is what she’s about.
College teammate Monika Czinano jokes that Clark “loves to flex her Italian-ness” — a nod to her mom’s Italian heritage. Anne Clark, whose father is former Dowling football coach Bob Nizzi, is the fifth of seven children. Caitlin and her mom love to spend time in the kitchen, often baking up sweets. Mom is known to whip up a batch of cannoli for the whole team. Back at home, Caitlin is known for her Saturday-morning chocolate-chip pancakes. (Or anything with chocolate, really.)
The more family in the stands, the better Caitlin plays. At least that's her mom's theory, which has been proven true at times.
One night, Dowling was playing at Ames High School and Caitlin was having a rough outing. Her older brother — now a walk-on football player at Iowa State — was late arriving to the game after finishing up his athletic commitments. Blake has a distinct voice and will often remind his only sister succinctly, “They can’t guard you!”
After Blake arrived that night, Caitlin’s demeanor and performance changed.
“He shows up and goes right at her: ‘Right now! Let’s go!’” Anne recalled with a laugh.
Added Brent: “She had 30-plus points in the second half.” Dowling won the game.
Clark has two other go-to girl cousins on her mom’s side, too. Haley and Audrey Faber are the daughters of Anne’s oldest sister, Kathy. The Faber girls starred for Dowling and served as an inspiration for their young cousin. Caitlin idolized them. On Tuesdays and Fridays in the winter, she would go to school giddy because she knew she'd be watching her cousins play later that night. She would often tag along for Dowling team dinners; anything to be close to her cousins and basketball.
(Now you have further context to that Dowling-Valley punishment as a 12-year-old.)
Haley now is part of Bill Fennelly's basketball staff at Iowa State. Audrey, who played at Creighton, is an assistant coach at Dowling. Caitlin fondly recalls 2½-hour car trips with her dad to watch Audrey’s college games in Omaha.
As Clark’s national prominence has grown, so have the outside pressures. Haley and Audrey remain an important guiding light for their cousin. They know that often means steering the conversation away from basketball.
“Sometimes it’s just letting her vent,” Audrey Faber said. “Sometimes it’s giving her your opinion. Sometimes it’s just trying to be a positive reinforcement.
“Being in athletics, sometimes other people that haven’t been a part of it don’t understand what you’re going through in the thick of it in January — how hard it can be to have a bad loss or how good it is when you beat a top team. Just being able to be a level sounding board for her, as much as we can … it’s just cool to be part of the process. That just goes back to how close our family is.”
So, when on Nov. 12, 2019, Clark made the seismic announcement that she would become a Hawkeye, it all added up. She could not only play her free-wheeling style (Iowa under Lisa Bluder is annually is among the national leaders in scoring), her support system — the people that she loves the most — would be just a few hours away. Places like UConn or Oregon or Texas were helpless to offer something like that.
'Her teammates love her'
Clark’s game showcases her on-court personality. She zooms up and down the floor and frequently uncorks deep 3-pointers ("logo shots," her teammates call them) with an element of flair. She loves playing to — or against — big crowds and will voice her displeasure with perceived officiating slights … as she did vehemently on a non-foul call in the closing seconds of Monday’s 92-88 loss to Ohio State.
Channeling her emotions in a positive way was a challenge growing up. Clark's parents genuinely didn't know if she would be able to handle the scrutiny and high stakes they saw coming. When Caitlin was young, it was common for her to plop on the bench after losses and start sobbing.
“I feel bad for my parents looking back now,” she said with a laugh. “They were probably mortified.”
It was that competitive streak and outward showing of emotions — including trash-talking with opponents, too — that caused others to wonder if she was selfish or a bad teammate. Clark knows that reputation existed in high school.
“Some people would say she’s cocky. Some people would say she’s arrogant,” said Jensen, who directly coached Clark for four seasons with the All-Iowa Attack team that won a national championship and also included Iowa State star Ashley Joens. “But the reality is if you’re going to be in the limelight and you don’t have some of that? You can’t do it.”
Czinano heard murmurs about Clark's acclaim long before she arrived. She didn’t know quite what to expect. But it didn’t take her long to realize that any negative reputation heaped onto Clark was inaccurate.
"Those people saying it never played with Caitlin," Czinano said. "They’ve never been in the locker room."
Put simply, in four words from fifth-year Hawkeye assistant Raina Harmon: “Her teammates love her.”
Clark has an off-court personality that Harmon, who coaches Iowa's perimeter players, described as goofy (a word also used to characterize former Hawkeye star and national player of the year Megan Gustafson). A recent video from the Iowa women’s basketball Twitter account showed Clark and Czinano hilariously improvising a karaoke version of “Life is a Highway” in the team locker room.
“She’s always laughing, always looking to have a good time. She’s the first to crack a joke,” Harmon said. “And she can take some ribbings from her teammates, when they joke on her.”
Credit Bluder — one of six active Division I coaches with 800-plus career wins, including 454 at Iowa — and her staff for developing a team camaraderie that results in genuine joy for each other's successes.
To paint the picture of her message, Bluder relayed a story that renowned ESPN broadcaster Holly Rowe told during a visit to Iowa City. Rowe was walking through an airport with women’s basketball legend Rebecca Lobo, a towering figure easily noticed by fans. They asked Rowe to take their picture with Lobo.
As Bluder pointed out: That priceless snapshot to those fans doesn’t get recorded in history without Rowe taking the photo.
“When Caitlin’s light shines, it shines on all of us, even if we have a supporting role. Even if we’re holding the camera,” Bluder said. “It’s shining on everybody. That’s good for our program. That’s good for the university. It’s certainly good for all of us involved.”
Coaches applaud Clark's realization that she's still "just" a sophomore and is willing to defer to senior teammates like Czinano (a two-time first-team all-Big Ten pick) and Kate Martin, who have both been to an NCAA Tournament Elite Eight.
If Martin senses Clark getting too upset, she’ll encourage her to take a deep breath.
“Her ability to listen and to be coachable by her teammates can get overlooked,” Harmon said.
Clark deserves credit, too, for knowing that the best path to team success is by getting everyone involved and taking personal accountability. She had 11 turnovers in a recent win at Northwestern. She's not perfect.
“That’s something coach Bluder preaches on: ‘If they don’t catch the pass, just take the blame. It’ll make them feel better. They’ll catch the next one and score for you,’” Clark said. “That’s been a big area for growth for me.”
It’s equally impressive to see how Clark handles life off the court. She is excellent with media. She stays late after games for kids who want to meet her. She states that she wants to help increase excitement for women’s basketball. With those qualities, it’s no wonder that Hy-Vee — which sponsors world-famous superstars like Patrick Mahomes — in October made Clark the first college athlete it partnered with in the new era of name, image and likeness, where college athletes can profit off their fame.
“I do enjoy (the attention), because one of my goals is to inspire the next generation," Clark said. "I’ll always take time to sign kids’ autographs after games. … I feel like I was just in those kids’ shoes.”
Asked what makes them most proud about their daughter, Brent and Anne Clark point to Caitlin’s personal growth, not her personal accomplishments.
“I am just amazed," her mom said, "at how she handles it all. She’s driven. She’s humble. And caring."
High-stakes moments coming soon
Clark’s notoriety is growing by the day. The sleek and slender 6-foot guard leads Division I women in points per game (26.5), assists per game (8.2) and triple-doubles (five). Her 8.5 rebounds per game also lead the team and rank seventh in the Big Ten. Clark's 43-point outburst Monday, in which she canned seven 3-pointers, was the most-watched regular-season women's game in Big Ten Network history, with 164,000 viewers.
Jensen, well-versed on the national scene, thinks she’s already among the top five players in the United States — college or pro. What makes her great, he said, is combining elite skill with a high-level understanding of the game.
“Caitlin, if she ever wants to be a coach … I mean, she can sit on the sideline and orchestrate the game,” Jensen said. “She understands it. She knows it. That just puts her at another level.”
But getting back to what drives Clark: team success. When she committed to Iowa and many times since, she has boldly stated her intent to lead the Hawkeyes to the program’s second Final Four and first since 1993.
That remains her No. 1 goal. She and her teammates have three more chances to do it. (Yes, she plans on staying through her senior year before pursuing a pro career.) March Madness is just a month away.
“People still probably roll their eyes even if I said that now. I don’t really care,” Clark said. “It takes a lot to go to the Final Four. We’re not oblivious to that, at all. The stars are going to have to align. You’re going to have to have a little luck with it. That’s just how the NCAA Tournament works. You have to get a good draw. But if you’re playing your best basketball in March, anything can happen.”
Clark and the Hawkeyes experienced a choppy start to the season, with a long pause due to a team outbreak of COVID-19 and some subsequent losses as they were slow to get their legs back. But now they’re humming at 15-5 overall and 9-2 in Big Ten play. On Sunday, Iowa arguably will play its highest-stakes game of the season: at fifth-ranked Michigan, a 5:30 p.m. CT showdown that’ll air on BTN.
If you haven’t been tuning in, there’s no better time to start.
You won’t be disappointed. Win or lose, there’s no more exciting and passionate college basketball player to watch than Iowa’s own, Iowa-grown Caitlin Clark.
“I want to win so bad. I am going to show how I’m feeling,” Clark said. “I think if I tried to play stoic and not show emotion — I know for some people, that works. That’s how (former Hawkeye) Joe Wieskamp was, that’s how (current Hawkeye men’s star) Keegan Murray is, and they’re tremendous players.
“I’m just the complete opposite. If I’m at my best, I’m having fun, showing my emotion, getting into it with the crowd. That’s who I am. That’s who I’ve always been."
Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 27 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.