Dreams Coming True for Caitlin Clark and the Indiana Fever

By Wheat Hotchkiss | FeverBasketball.com

When the Indiana Fever won the 2024 WNBA Draft Lottery back in December, it was a monumental moment for the franchise. At a watch party at Gainbridge Fieldhouse, a large crowd headlined by general manager Lin Dunn and Fever players Lexie Hull and Grace Berger erupted in celebration when it was announced that the Fever would have the number-one pick in the 2024 WNBA Draft, the second straight season the franchise picked first overall.

A few hundred miles away in Madison, Wisconsin, someone else was keeping close tabs on the lottery results.

Caitlin Clark was actually playing a game when the lottery aired, scoring 28 points while leading the University of Iowa to an 87-65 road win at Wisconsin. But Clark, who was already contemplating declaring for the WNBA Draft, had significant interest in who won the lottery. She checked the result after her game and was pleasantly surprised.

“I was hoping that Indiana got the first pick,” Clark said. “It would have made my life a lot better. So when I saw that, I was pretty excited.”

The rest of the story is well-documented. Clark completed her collegiate career under an unprecedented spotlight. She broke the women’s and men’s all-time scoring records, added a plethora of awards to her already crowded trophy case, and helped lead Iowa to a second straight national championship game appearance. 18.7 million people tuned in to watch the national title game between Iowa and South Carolina on April 7, a larger audience than the 14 million fans that tuned in to the men’s title game.

Clark announced her intentions to declare for the WNBA Draft in a social media post on Feb. 29. On Monday night, the Fever made perhaps the most obvious decision in WNBA draft history, taking Clark with the first overall pick.

On Wednesday morning, Clark arrived at Gainbridge Fieldhouse to an expected level of fanfare. She was greeted by the entire Pacers Sports & Entertainment staff as she made a red-carpet entrance across Salesforce Court. She met with Pacers All-Star guard Tyrese Haliburton, head coach Rick Carlisle, and Fever legend and Hall-of-Famer Tamika Catchings, then headed to the Ascension St. Vincent Entry Pavilion with Dunn and Fever head coach Christie Sides for her introductory press conference.

“These are the moments you dream of,” Clark told the crowd. “…I can’t think of a better place to start my career. A place that loves basketball, that supports women’s basketball, and an organization that really does things the right way, has championship pedigree. I’m just very thankful that they have belief in me.”

No player has ever entered the WNBA with the amount of hype and attention that surrounds Clark everywhere she goes. Two nights before the draft, she was in New York City for a surprise cameo on “Saturday Night Live.” She has a number of high-profile endorsements and commercials. In addition to her family and her former coach and teammates at Iowa, Clark also had Jake from State Farm in her cheering section at Monday night’s draft.

Back in Indianapolis, over 6,000 fans showed up at Gainbridge Fieldhouse for a draft night watch party. Moms and dads brought their daughters and sons – many Indianapolis residents, but some making the five-plus hour drive from Iowa to be a part of the moment. Balloons descended from the ceiling when the Fever drafted Clark and Clark-branded merchandise flew off the shelves at the Team Store.

“I think it just speaks to the excitement of what this summer’s going to bring,” Clark said. “Women’s basketball in this state is pretty incredible…6,000 people just to stare at a screen and see who gets picked in a draft is pretty incredible.

“So I expect big numbers this summer. I think that people couldn’t be more excited about where this organization is going, the people that are on this roster, and the potential.”

They won’t take the court for the first time until training camp begins next week, but Clark already is building a rapport with her new teammates.

She played alongside Aliyah Boston – the number-one pick in 2023 and the reigning Rookie of the Year – in the past with USA Basketball and has interacted with her a ton in recent weeks, as Boston was part of the television coverage of the Final Four as well as the WNBA Draft.

Clark playfully chided former Indiana University star Berger on Wednesday about how the fans would get on her when Iowa played in Bloomington (“Hopefully a lot of them turn into Indiana Fever fans,” she added).

And no player has embraced Clark more than veteran guard Erica Wheeler. That is an especially important distinction, as Clark seems likely to take Wheeler’s spot in the starting five.

The 32-year-old veteran started all 40 games for the Fever at point guard last season, averaging 9.9 points and 5.0 assists, but Wheeler has embraced Clark, reaching out to her on social media and letting her know she wants to help mentor her during her rookie season. Wheeler was at the draft party on Monday night along with Hull and Maya Caldwell and was downright euphoric when the Fever officially drafted Clark, charging out to center court and quickly donning Clark’s number 22 Fever jersey in celebration. Clark called out Wheeler by name early in her press conference as “somebody that’s been having my back and we’re not even really teammates yet.”

“She has such an amazing personality about her, but also she wants the best for every single person on that team,” Clark said of Wheeler. “I think that’s just so obvious the way she goes about her business, the way she talks about people, the way she carries herself, the way she was jumping up and down after I got picked and put on the jersey immediately. I don’t think she could be more excited.

“And how lucky am I to come into an organization with somebody that’s been in the league and understands it and also wants me to do so well? You couldn’t ask for anything better.”

Clark officially met Sides for the first time on Wednesday, but is eager to learn from the Fever’s head coach. Sides is also full of energy and helped lead the Fever to 13 wins last season in her first year in Indiana, an eight-win improvement over 2022.

Clark said playing for Sides was another factor in her decision to enter the draft and that she expects her new coach to push her, before dropping in a little self-deprecation.

“I think she probably sees there’s a lot more she can get out of me,” Clark said. “She’ll probably yell at me for my defense at some point. I’ll probably learn to love it, I’m sure. Or make up for it with my offense, I don’t know.”

The anticipation for Clark’s rookie season is truly unprecedented. Virtually every post of her takes off on social media, fan interest in tickets and merchandise is at an all-time high. The league clearly expects fans everywhere to tune in to watch Clark hoist 3-pointers from the logo, scheduling 36 of the Fever’s 40 regular season games to be nationally televised.

A lot of expectations have been hoisted upon Clark’s shoulders, not just for her on-court performance, but for what her presence could do for the WNBA. Even at 22 years old and still a few weeks shy of her college graduation, Clark is acutely aware of how she can help grow the WNBA over the coming years.

During Wednesday’s press conference, she showed a deep knowledge over the history of women’s basketball, from Title IX to the players she idolized in the WNBA as a kid growing up in Des Moines. She also expressed hope that as interest in the women’s game continues to increase it will significantly impact the league in a variety of ways, including in upcoming media rights negotiations.

“I think that’s the biggest thing we’ve seen in college is when people gave it an opportunity and actually watched it, they continued to come back for more,” Clark said. “And it’s the same thing with the WNBA. When you go and buy a ticket or turn on the TV, you see how good it is. Continue to attract fans in and they’re going to see how amazing it is and how skilled these players are and how fun it is to support and watch…That will take (the league) to a place that I think a lot of people can’t even imagine.”

The external expectations around Clark are already high. She’s drawn so much attention and eyeballs to women’s basketball without even playing a single professional game. She’s conscious of all that attention — how could she not be?

“I certainly know there’s pressure there,” Clark said. “That’s been my entire career. But for me, I just have fun playing basketball. I know this is a team sport. It’s not all about me. It’s not everything I have to do. When I’ve been able to understand that, that’s allowed me to play my best I think…I’m definitely a perfectionist, but I’m at my best when I allow myself to have a little grace and not expect everything to go exactly how it should.”

When she committed to Iowa, Clark declared that she was going to lead the Hawkeyes to the Final Four. She eventually did just that, but admitted that those self-imposed expectations weighed on her early in her career.

Entering her rookie season, Clark is less focused on specific goals, save for one. She would love to be a part of the United States Olympic roster in Paris this summer (and should receive strong consideration), but also knows that that is out of her control.

When it comes to playing for the Fever, though, Clark does have one clear goal in mind.

“I think the biggest thing is we want to get back to the playoffs,” Clark said. “Win a lot of basketball games. I think for myself, continue to be me, have a lot of fun, give myself grace. I think everything else takes care of itself when you just go about your business like that.

“But I really hope to help this organization win a lot. That’s something I’ve been able to do at every single level I’ve played at. I think that’s the biggest goal for every single person in this room.”

The wins on the court will come (and perhaps come quickly) for Clark and the Fever. In fact, they’ve already won – back in December on that night when the ping pong balls bounced the right way.