' ' Cinema Romantico: Caitlin's Comet

Friday, March 31, 2023

Caitlin's Comet

Youth is wasted on the young. As a native Iowan, my first year watching college basketball was the 1986-87 season, when I was 9 years old, and when the University of Iowa men’s team, comprised of hallowed names like Marble, Armstrong, and Horton, earned their stripes as legends by beginning the season 18-0, briefly ascending to #1 in the rankings, and in the NCAA Tournament advancing to within one game of the sport’s promised land, the Final Four. They came achingly close, a 19-point lead against UNLV melting into a 3-point defeat. We had just moved into our new house on the other side of our small (then) 2,000-person town, the basement unfinished, and so our TV was in the dining room alcove, and I remember looking out the sliding glass door across the backyard and toward the Casey’s and 4th Street, running through the middle of town. Not one car passed by the two hours of that game. Everyone was inside, watching the Hawks, having their hearts broken together. I was devastated, but I assumed such basket-balling success was the norm. It wasn’t. They have returned to the tournament many times in the 36 years since but have never gone as far again. You might say that glorious season was wasted on me.


Ah, it must be March in Iowa.

When you’re from Iowa, a state with no professional sports teams, you naturally gravitate toward the college teams instead (subconsciously blurring the lines between so-called student-athletes and the paid ranks before you are even old enough to understand it), whether you went to school there or not, with people choosing between the U of I in Iowa City or land-grant Iowa State up in Ames the way I imagine Missourians pitched between St. Louis and Kansas City might choose to root for the Cardinals or the Royals. In football matters, I contrarily staked my claim elsewhere to emotionally stand out from all the people I did not like, but when it came to basketball, I mostly just rooted for everyone, Iowa and Iowa State, and the University of Northern Iowa in Cedar Falls and Drake University in Des Moines too, but especially come March. Turns out, that 1987 meltdown against UNLV foreshadowed decades of NCAA Tournament heartbreak concerning all four schools. I won’t bore you with a bullet-pointed litany of hardwood tragedy but suffice to say that even though there has been plenty of joy in that timespan, such joy is customarily nullified by greater agony. The Northern Iowa men beat Texas in 2016 by banking in a halfcourt shot at the buzzer inducing incomprehensible joy; they lost their next game to Texas A&M by coughing up a 12-point lead in the final 35 seconds, deemed by the statisticians as a virtually impossible (non)-feat of literally historic agony. In other words, come Tournament time, the state of Iowa always regresses to its calamitous mean. Well, almost always.


In this year’s men’s NCAA tournament, the Florida Atlantic University Owls reached their first-ever Final Four. Their basketball program was christened in 1988 and only became a Division I basketball program in 1993, a relative infant. But time is distorted, and if through one lens, 30 years looks like a blip, through another, it’s an eternity. Indeed, 1993 was also the last time a Final Four was graced by a team from Iowa, the Iowa women, helmed by coaching icon C. Vivian Stringer, the only Iowa-involved Final Four of my sports fandom lifetime. (The Iowa men made it in 1980, but I was 2.) And now, after nearly hanging a hundred last Sunday in vanquishing the Louisville Cardinals, the Iowa women have reached the land of milk and honey again, squaring off tonight against Dawn Staley’s burgeoning South Carolina empire. It’s an appropriate team to pull it off, coached by Lisa Bluder, who went to high school at Linn-Marr, graduated from Northern Iowa, coached at St. Ambrose in Davenport, and then Drake, and, finally, Iowa. She has been assisted her whole run in Iowa City by Jan Jensen, former Drake star. A million people this week attested to the Kimballton, Iowa native’s kindness and I can confirm. Twice I attended a basketball camp run by Jensen in the early 90s. I was not what you might deem A Good Basketball Player, but that one week two times over in the environment that Jensen created was the most fun I ever had playing.

No one has ever appeared to have more fun playing basketball than the team’s star, nay, supernova Caitlin Clark, West Des Moines’ own, who shoots like Dame, passes like Sloot, comports herself like Jordan, stirs the whole drink like Candace Parker. In a sport too typically defined by the cult of the coach, Bluder and Jensen have talked of the freedom provided to Clark and her teammates, not routinely looking to the sideline for instruction but reading and reacting to what the defense gives them. This freedom, though, is more than mere strategy, manifesting itself in Clark’s game, in the outrageous three-pointers she kites into Carver-Hawkeye Arena from the north bank of the nearby Iowa River and in the seemingly invisible angles she unearths for assists, effusing a swaggering fearlessness, the kind that you feel in your youth and that gradually erodes as you age, when each new year makes you more cognizant of how many you have left. Thirty years ago, when (a team from) Iowa last made the Final Four, I was 15 years old and a freshman in high school. I’m 45 now and married. If the trend persists, the next time it happens, I’ll be 75. The average male life expectancy in the US as of 2021, per the CDC, is 73.2 years. I mean, shit, man, I might not make it. This might be my last chance to see the Iowa Final Four comet pass by. All these years later, I finally know what that means. Go Hawks. 

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