Guest columnist Karen List: A legend made in Iowa

Iowa guard Kate Martin, second from left, greets Iowa guard Caitlin Clark (22) after they were introduced during Senior Day ceremonies following their victory over Ohio State on March 3 in Iowa City, Iowa.

Iowa guard Kate Martin, second from left, greets Iowa guard Caitlin Clark (22) after they were introduced during Senior Day ceremonies following their victory over Ohio State on March 3 in Iowa City, Iowa. AP PHOTO/CLIFF JETTE

By KAREN LIST

Published: 04-01-2024 11:38 AM

The thousands of women who played high school basketball in Iowa over the years look at the adulation surrounding University of Iowa star Caitlin Clark and think: “That’s about right.”

Clark, as you probably know, is the NCAA Division 1 all-time leading scorer, regarded by many as the greatest player in college basketball history. 

Her fans are legion. They filled the university’s football stadium last fall just to watch an exhibition game, just like Iowa girls’ fans fill gymnasiums across the state every Friday night and just like they fill Veterans Auditorium in Des Moines every March to watch the 16 best teams compete in the state tournament.

You might think Caitlin-mania is something new, but it’s not. Girls basketball has been the national sport in Iowa since at least the mid-20th century — and probably before that. (The first girls state tournament was played in 1920.)

And I’m talking about GIRLS basketball: six-on-six, half-court play, which most schools retained until 1993. The forwards scored points, and the guards kept the other teams from scoring, blocking shots and intercepting passes. The boys were playing a faster five-on-five full-court game, but it was not unusual for many people in the stands to leave before the boys played. Because the girls game was everything.

This had been the way since at least the 1940s when my mom was a guard on the Huron High School team. Huron was one of the smallest schools in the state, but the sportswriters from the Des Moines Register, the state’s biggest newspaper, had taken notice.

Some 20 years later, when as a guard for the Mediapolis Bullettes, I was named to the first all-state team, the Register reported that I was following in my mom’s footsteps. That kind of attention would have been unheard of in relation to any other sport.

In Iowa, we had come to expect it. We were all Caitlin Clarks in our towns and sometimes beyond. Mediapolis, population 1,800, was a powerhouse in girls basketball, even though we played against much bigger city schools. Our coach, Vernon “Bud” McLaren. was known as the winningest coach in the state, with a record of 706-80.

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During his 27 years at Mediapolis, the Bullettes lost only eight times on their home floor, went to the state tournament 21 times and won it twice.

We worked hard to get to the state tournament, practicing for hours every school day, soaked in sweat with thick calluses on our feet. We had curfews, and we were terrified enough of our legendary coach to respect them. We also had dietary restrictions, like not drinking soda or eating sweets. Someone once sent us a tray of icy cold Cokes in the locker room at halftime of a tournament game. Even at that late stage of the season, with us parched and exhausted, we were not allowed to touch those Cokes.

The fact is we’d pass up the sodas, leave the dance early to be home by midnight, do almost anything to avoid Coach’s wrath — including winning virtually every game we played.

We barely knew how to lose.

But our regularly defeated opponents didn’t dislike us, and we didn’t dislike them either. We had rollicking rivalries, but also mutual respect. We were lucky enough to have a new gym, but when we traveled to Morning Sun, we played on a raised auditorium stage, and at Winfield-Mt. Union, we played on hard green tiles. Falls hurt a lot more, but the odd venues didn’t decrease the heart we brought to the games.

We were supported by our families, our school and our town. Our moms picked us up after practice every day and somehow fed the whole family and got them to every game. The school buzzed with excitement on game days. And the stats of those games and of every player were endlessly dissected at the town’s pool hall and gas stations until another Friday night rolled around, and a new game provided fodder for this continuing conversation.

We WERE the continuing conversation. We were feted at dinners and treated like celebrities wherever we went. When we came home from tournaments, fleets of cars would meet us outside of town and escort us back to school, horns honking.

We were proud of being Bullettes, but despite all the attention, we never let it go to our heads. Our moms and Coach made sure of that. We still took PE along with our classmates. And our school and town shared in the glory.

We were all Caitlins then. And now that the passion for the girls game has migrated to women at the collegiate level, Clark knows that her fandom is built on that only-in-Iowa foundation that thousands of us experienced.

Playing highly competitive basketball was stressful and often painful, but we learned teamwork, discipline, loyalty and empathy. We learned to win with humility and to be prepared to lose with grace.

To this day, we’re all still Caitlins when we go home to Mediapolis. Our pictures hang in the high school near the trophy case.

But, unlike Clark, I was happy to leave the glory days and pressure behind when I went off to college — and especially happy never again to have to pass up an icy Coke or leave a dance early.

Karen List is a journalism professor emeritus at UMass Amherst.