The Angel Reese-Caitlin Clark rivalry: From a moment to momentous

Winning a debate has layers.

It starts with a theory. It helps if that theory can be substantiated with unwavering facts, and it’s even better if there’s a historical reference to draw on.

A worthy win, however, only comes when there is notable opposition.

In the case of one Angel Reese vs. Caitlin Clark, rivalry or not, competitors or real-life foes, we have all of the above.

Let the fireworks commence.

On the one side, we have the masses, who argue that this is a bitter rivalry with the potential to propel the WNBA to places it has not yet reached. The opposition is comprised of professionals, the players themselves.

“No,” Reese said. “Why should it be a rivalry?”

Well, for starters, it’s not necessarily about what it should be. Rather, it’s about what it is because of numerous factors and one glaring comparison that is too similar to ignore.

Exhibit A: The “taunt”

We all know the moment.

It has been beaten into the minds of anyone with a sports pulse or access to the internet. When LSU defeated Iowa handily in the national championship on April 2, 2023, Reese executed the kind of braggadocious behavior most competitors only dream of when she mimicked Clark’s “You Can’t See Me” celebration before following her around the court, pointing to her ring finger.

Who cares that Clark was the best player in college basketball? Reese and LSU had won. If you know anything about Reese, it’s that personal accolades don’t mean anything if her team isn’t the last one standing.

So she reveled in her moment to let her competitor know who was leaving as the champion.

What came next was much uglier.

Reese was subsequently villainized, admonished and targeted by fans as well as professionals in media, politics and beyond. What seemed apparent was the obvious difference that contributed to the response Reese received.

The root of the criticism Reese received wasn’t because she took Clark’s gesture to a new level, but rather because it was a young Black woman who was exuding that level of confidence or competitiveness.

It’s hard to argue otherwise when no one objected when Clark, who is white, made the same gesture. Naysayers who believe Clark’s version was simpler and less demonstrative, should ask themselves why they believe it needs to be watered down to be acceptable? Or why they feel the need to monitor the way a Black woman competes?

There’s a popular principle in psychology that has been condensed into a common mantra: What you water will grow.

The mainstream media gave credence to ignorant hot takes by recycling them into packaged storylines and debates. Reese
being “a villain” went from a narrative to a reality.

Thus, Chapter 1 of this rivalry was written.

Exhibit B: The Rematch

As the 2023-24 college season got underway, Clark and the Hawkeyes began breaking records immediately. Individually, Clark was chasing a scoring title. Collectively, the Iowa women’s team was selling out arenas and setting unparalleled viewership numbers.

One question lingered in the minds of basketball fans: Could LSU and Iowa meet again in the tournament?

When the bracket was revealed, showing these two teams in the same region, fans and pundits had mixed reactions. On the one hand, there was excitement over the potential of a rematch. On the other, there was speculation about top-seeded Iowa’s difficult path to the Final Four.

The NCAA selection committee surely wasn’t foolish. When the basketball gods smiled down, granting the rematch everyone had been clamoring for, gratitude was hurled at the committee for their decisions that put Iowa and LSU on a collision course.

Leading up to the game, neither player could evade questions about the rivalry, nor could their coaches and teammates. At one point, Reese was prompted to clarify where her and Clark’s relationship stood.

“Me and Caitlin Clark don’t hate each other,” Reese said during one of her media sessions. “I want everybody to understand that. It’s just a super competitive game.”

That may be their truth. However, two things can be true at the same time. The other truth is their fan bases have made it personal, further stoking the rivalry flames.

On April 1, when Iowa beat LSU 94-87, the NCAA’s headline was: “Caitlin Clark scores 41, Iowa exacts revenge on LSU to advance to Women’s Final Four.”

Revenge is not a word used in a low-stakes situation.

A day later, a video was posted to Clark’s official TikTok with one of her logo threes playing to the sound of ‘‘Call Me Revenge’’ by 21 Savage. Did the internet break with claims of classlessness?

You already know the answer.

Now, let’s bring to the forefront one historical reference so similar it’s as if the WNBA pulled it directly from the NBA’s playbook.

Reese and Clark are Larry Bird and Magic Johnson 2.0. Think about it:

— Bird led previously beneath-the-radar Indiana State all the way to the NCAA title game. Clark led Iowa to its first NCAA title game in 2023 and back again in 2024.

— Two of the top four most-watched women’s college games featured Clark and Reese. The 1979 NCAA championship between Michigan State and Indiana State is still the most-watched college basketball game ever, with 35.11 million viewers.

— Both Bird and Clark represented an everyman archetype, in part due to their whiteness.

— Like Bird and Johnson, Clark and Reese didn’t play the same position and rarely, if ever, matched up one-on-one.

The difference here, however, is the portrayal of Reese as the classless villain, all because of one gesture made in the heat of competition. Johnson wasn’t loved by everyone, sure, but the vitriol Reese has been inundated with is vastly different.

The last piece of supporting evidence is the existing “Best in the Midwest” rivalry between the Sky and the Fever.

It might not have the same history that accompanies the Celtics and Lakers. However, both franchises find themselves on a similar arc with the potential to rival some of the WNBA’s most contentious matchups.

Both teams have one title each. The Fever won in 2012 and the Sky in 2021.

Now, both teams have a pair of young stars — Reese and Kamilla Cardoso for the Sky, Clark and Aliyah Boston for the Fever — that they hope will lead them back into title contention. Nothing would be better for the WNBA than if competitive battles between the Sky and Fever are waged for years to come.

“Rivalry is great,” Sky coach Teresa Weatherspoon said. “Do you know how many people are like ‘Wow. They’re playing against each other, and I have to be there!’ ”

Reese and Clark have both catapulted the WNBA into a new stratosphere, bringing it unprecedented relevance.

Ahead of the WNBA Draft, Clark became the first women’s college player to appear on ‘‘Saturday Night Live.’’ A few weeks later,
Reese became the first WNBA rookie to attend the Met Gala.

In the first two weeks of the season, both players have played in front of record attendances with stars like rapper Latto showing up to see Reese, and Ashton Kutcher and Mila Kunis to see Clark.

Reese and Clark might not view the competition between themselves as a rivalry. It’s their prerogative to attempt to write their own story.

However, this one will be hard to escape because the world has already decided.

“Yeah, you can use the word rivalry,” Sky general manager Jeff Pagliocca said. “I don’t really think we see it that way, but the world does.”

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