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Gristmill: The Beautiful Game

Wed, 04/10/2024 - 12:55
You’ve come a long way, baby: A 1961 St. John’s University basketball game.
Wm. C. Greene / New York World-Telegram & The Sun Collection, Library of Congress

Now that women’s college basketball is all the rage, I seem to have jumped on the bandwagon at just the right time. It’s certainly an easy leap to make, judging from Friday’s Iowa-UConn game in the Final Four, mercifully streamed over ESPN+ for us cable-cutters.

Behold fluidity. Fundamentals. Teamwork, movement, passing. It was almost old-fashioned, in the best possible sense, harking back not to the two-handed set shot but rather the 1980s Celtics, with Caitlin Clark as Larry Bird, draining step-back 3s from ridiculous distances and smoothly hitting teammates with bounce passes in full stride to the hoop. (And on an off night, no less.)

It was a great run for Clark, now America’s sweetheart — record-setting, attention-grabbing, sport-transforming. While she didn’t end her college career with a win in the subsequent title game, there were those 30 points in the trying.

Sadly, however, I’m not sure I’ll be following her advancement to the W.N.B.A. It’s simply a bridge too far. In a quarter century I haven’t watched even a single game of the once-epic N.B.A., not since Michael Jordan and the Bulls’ last title, their 1998 denial of the crafty John Stockton and the Jazz.

Which in a way is to the point, as not only has the N.B.A. become crass and depressing, the wild surge in interest in the N.C.A.A. women’s game seems like a search for purity. And not only in the style of play.

While men’s college sports are afflicted with the endless use of the new transfer portal, and equally new and equally endless “name, image, likeness” money, and early departures for the pros, female athletes, no matter how talented, tend to stay at one institution for four years and actually get their degrees. Thus building priceless loyalty in the fan base. (A tip of the cap to Claire Watkins of the Just Women’s Sports news website for pointing that out on “PBS NewsHour” the other night.)

Of course, when this much buzz, bang, and heat coalesce around something good, its days of goodness are surely numbered. But maybe that’s okay. For untainted fields of collegiate play, there’s always Division III.

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