Kaitlyn Clarke's career wouldn't end with a championship, but her legacy was already secure

CLEVELAND — Kaitlyn Clark first told Lisa Bluder she wanted to go to the Final Four while she was recruiting. She kept saying that once she got to campus even though the Hawkeyes had only gone once, two decades ago. They didn't even make the NCAA Tournament field during part of Clark's high school career.

“A lot of people laughed at her and probably laughed at her because she came to Iowa State, quite frankly,” Iowa State coach Lisa Bluder said. “But she believed, we believed, and she made everyone in the locker room believe. That's not an easy thing to do.”

Maybe that's why actor Jason Sudeikis, the man behind the movie “Ted Lasso,” became so interested in Iowa in particular. He's one of millions who have watched and believed in Iowa & Clark over the past two years. Or at least enjoy and impress them.

With every Clark 3 logo came three times as many eyeballs. With every stunning pass came shocking viewing numbers. A segment of the world that was now heavily invested in women's basketball wanted to win a national championship and be called the greatest of all time. Another segment that couldn't see beyond the record numbers, growing interest and a competitor interested in the ring.

The day before her final collegiate game, she said she found it unfair that her legacy would be tied to one 40-minute basketball game. She knew that she would be sad, that she would win or lose, and that this chapter of her life had come to an end. The final page was an 87-75 loss to South Carolina, the best program and team top to bottom in the country, but it also included more records for Clark and another 30-point showing.

Iowa State's Caitlin Clark and Kate Martin look on during the National Hockey League's championship game against South Carolina on Sunday.  (Gregory Shamos/Getty Images)

Iowa State's Caitlin Clark and Kate Martin look on during the National Hockey League's championship game against South Carolina on Sunday. (Gregory Shamos/Getty Images)

That means her goat legacy will forever be up for debate. South Carolina coach Dawn Staley said Saturday she couldn't be the GOAT without a nickname, but after the game she told the world she was “one of the GOATs in our game and we appreciate you.” Millions who couldn't bring themselves to be named in this debate are now arguing vehemently about it and will continue to do so for a long time, which further lends itself to the position it has created for itself and the game.

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“When you have the opportunity, women's sports kind of thrive,” Clark said. “I think that's been the coolest thing for me on this journey. We started our season playing in front of 55,000 people at Kinnick Stadium. And now we're finishing up playing in front of 15 million people or more on TV. It just keeps getting better and better and better. And it's never going to stop.” “

Clark, the No. 4 overall recruit in the class of 2020, did not go to a powerhouse. She committed to Bluder and they brought Iowa to back-to-back Final Fours for the first time in program history. Their 2023 title loss marked the first time the Hawkeyes played in a title game. They will repeat this in 2024.

That's not something Kate Martin, a fifth-year senior guard who grew up with an Iowa State poster hanging on her ceiling, ever dreamed would become a reality. The Hawkeyes' roster worked well with Clark, but without him it's no longer one of the best in the country. Hard work, preparation and commitment is what helped in their success, Martin said. These two- and five-year-old guards, Gabe Marshall, are the winningest two-year starters in Iowa State program history.

“We really support each other,” Clark said. “Maybe we weren't always the most skilled. Maybe we weren't always the tallest. Maybe we weren't always the fastest, but we just believed. We knew we could be in those moments. We trusted each other. It took us two years to get to this point.”

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Clark has said repeatedly over the past few months as she breaks records that she doesn't want her legacy to be about how many wins or how many points she scores. On the day she broke Kelsey Bloom's NCAA Division I women's all-time scoring record, her mother, Anne, reminded her of it in a pre-recorded video to commemorate the moment. Her family spoke of their joy over the roar of Carver Hook Arena, which was sold out for the season.

Kaitlyn Clark of Iowa State signs autographs for fans after a regular season game.  (Keith Gillett/Sportswire Icon via Getty Images)Kaitlyn Clark of Iowa State signs autographs for fans after a regular season game.  (Keith Gillett/Sportswire Icon via Getty Images)

Kaitlyn Clark of Iowa State signs autographs for fans after a regular season game. (Keith Gillett/Sportswire Icon via Getty Images)

That's the legacy Clark said Saturday she wants to leave behind. Joy, influence and inspiration.

“People aren't going to remember every win or loss,” Clark said after losing the title game. “I think they'll remember the moments they shared at one of our games or watching it on TV or how excited their little daughter or son was to watch women's basketball. I think that's pretty cool.”

One sat far from her as she scored 18 points in the first quarter. Kaitlyn Varela, 13, and her father, Jesus, traveled from Orange County, Calif., to the Final Four after watching Iowa's game in Dallas last year. The sign they planned and created together says, “This is a father + daughter kind of dance.”

Varela said she enjoyed watching Clark's teamwork and the way she changed the game, brought awareness to it and young girls became more interested in it just as she was invested. Her father sees creating a better future.

“As a club player, she will have more opportunities to play in different arenas,” Jesus said. “It's not just a men's sport or a boys' sport, but there will actually be different tournaments and opportunities and training that they never had in the past.”

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They stood with tens of thousands waiting outside the arena to welcome the teams on a long red carpet down Ontario Street between Rocket Mortgage Fieldhouse and Progressive Field. Every time a police siren comes her way, the crowd pulses.

Kaitlyn Varela and her father, Jesus, traveled from Orange County, Calif., to watch Kaitlyn Clark's last college game.  (Photo: Cassandra Negley/Yahoo Sports)Kaitlyn Varela and her father, Jesus, traveled from Orange County, Calif., to watch Kaitlyn Clark's last college game.  (Photo: Cassandra Negley/Yahoo Sports)

Kaitlyn Varela and her father, Jesus, traveled from Orange County, Calif., to watch Kaitlyn Clark's last college game. (Photo: Cassandra Negley/Yahoo Sports)

When the Final Four-branded bus pulled up and the team was announced, the black-and-gold fans screamed as loudly as if they were at home in Carver Hook. The coaches went first, with Bluder leading the way, waving to the fans. The players came next, with Clarke at the back.

Her legacy lives on in a group of more than 18,300 eyes in the arena. Many of them were wearing black and gold No. 22 jerseys, the same jersey they wore all weekend to fill cafes, restaurants and Final Four events. A rematch in the title game, her collegiate career and her future in the WNBA, led sports shows when women's basketball has historically rarely seen airtime.

“I'm not really offended when people say I've never watched women's basketball,” Clark said. “One, I think you're a little late to the party, yeah. But, two, this is great. We're changing the game. We're bringing more people into it.”

In the first hour of her post-college career, Clark answered question after question as she always did. The media packed the room, as they have since she began setting the record books on fire in February. There was more to come at the break, where she confirmed that she would love to play basketball at the University of Iowa, which represents her home state. Her mother always taught her to hold her head high, be proud of what she accomplished and focus on what she achieved instead of complaining about what she didn't do.

“There's no regret in my mind about how things turned out,” Clark said. “I'll be able to sleep every night even though I've never won a national championship.”

She reached the Final Fours with her only goal with Iowa State cross her chest.

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