Dreams came true

Make no mistake about it: Iowa changed women's basketball for the better

Iowa head coach Lisa Bluder waves to fans after the championship game against South Carolina on Sunday, in Cleveland. South Carolina won, 87-75. (AP Photo/Morry Gash)

“Dad, I’m really nervous.”

I watched my 12-year-old daughter — donning her Hawkeye colors — anxiously pace in the living room, hours before the Iowa women’s basketball team would play in the national championship game for a second consecutive season.

Think about the heights Caitlin Clark and her teammates took the program these last two years. Not just Big Ten or midwest relevant. They turned Hawkeye basketball into a popular, mainstream, world-wide brand.

Sunday was going to be the finale for Clark and this iconic group, win or lose. Casual talk among ESPN “pundits” (I use that term loosely) this week centered around Clark’s legacy, and what it would be if Iowa didn’t win a title despite being a heavy underdog to unbeaten South Carolina.

I wrote most of this column before the game even tipped off. Not because winning was any less important, mind you. Trust me: no one wanted to go out on top more than Clark and her four senior classmates, who ultimately didn’t have enough depth, size or talent to take down the mighty Gamecocks — one of the best women’s teams I’ve ever seen.

I asked my daughter a very important question to try and put her mind at ease, though: as a fan, did the outcome really matter in the grand scheme of things? A national championship would have certainly been the icing on the cake, but would it have changed the way you felt about these Hawkeyes at the end of the day?

Casuals will critique and move on. They’ll lob comments at a team they’ve only randomly paid attention to and draw conclusions — or perpetuate stereotypes — without any concerns over accuracy. Words, ironically, don’t really matter in the world of talking heads.

Hawkeyes who have been enjoying the ride from day one, on the other hand, should be more sad that it’s coming to an end than about the end result of this game. The “victories” have already been counted, and matter much more than any trophy would ever represent. There are moments, memories and relationships that will always be the true story of this unprecedented era.

The Iowa women’s basketball team started a movement. People are interested and invested in ways they had never considered before. Families bonded over the games. I watched my wife and daughters take time out of their busy lives and share two-plus hours of basketball together, game after game, night after night.

It took one of the better women’s hoop squads I’ve seen in over 30 years of consistently watching to bring this Hawkeye train to a halt. There is no reason to feel shame for or disappointment in a program that went from one Final Four appearance in its history to consecutive national runner-up performances.

It was a great run and a thrilling ride. We’ve seen this happen locally and regionally with special groups before. Some won titles. Some came up just short. That’s the way it goes in sports. If success is defined by championships alone, that road tends to be a sad, lonely and ironically unfulfilled existence.

Wright Thompson’s quintessential article on Clark’s journey was more about that: the journey. Clark seemed to be finding both peace and closure in the idea that her basketball existence — as transcendent as it had become based on her special gifts and skills — needed to be defined by much more than what happened on the court. This perspective allows an athlete to simultaneously be a relentless competitor and a big-picture thinker. As such, I’m sure Clark took plenty of time to soak all of this concluding experience in as it happened on Sunday, rather than having her emotions dictated solely by the final score.

That was the blueprint to follow during the program’s glory years. And it should give fans peace of mind today. This was never about a single outcome, season or even player. Iowa helped redefine how our society collectively thought — and felt — about women’s basketball. And the Hawkeyes had a lot of fun along the way.

Hopefully you did, too.

Eric Pratt is Sports Editor at The Messenger. Contact him via email at sports@messengernews.net, or on Twitter @ByEricPratt


Today's breaking news and more in your inbox

I'm interested in (please check all that apply)
Are you a paying subscriber to the newspaper? *

Starting at $2.99/week.

Subscribe Today