Iowa's Caitlin Clark stormed the sports world: What's next?

Caitlin Clark swept national player of the year awards last season and led Iowa to its first Final Four in 30 years and first NCAA title game. ESPN

A THUNDERSTORM HELD off as Caitlin Clark finished her celebrity round of golf in the John Deere Classic Pro-Am, the sun alternating between withering hot and slipping behind rumbling clouds on a steamy July afternoon.

Clark signed autographs and posed for countless photos as she navigated the crowd in Silvis, Illinois -- about an hour east of the University of Iowa -- like a longtime pro golfer.

Near the end of the round, the Iowa Hawkeyes point guard, clad in a white shirt, black shorts and yellow and white Nikes, crouched at the front of the tee box and leaned on her club. Awake since before sunrise, Clark made the briefest concession to what had become another long day in the spotlight: She yawned.

Being Caitlin Clark has become a full-time job.

Since leading Iowa on a postseason thrill ride to its first women's Final Four in 30 years, she has barely stopped moving. Clark traveled to both coasts for national awards; threw a ceremonial first-pitch strike at a Triple-A baseball game; served as grand marshal for an IndyCar race; went on a European tour with teammates; had her likeness sculpted in butter at the Iowa State Fair; saw the Iowa band march into a formation of her taking a shot; ate cake with Jake from State Farm; and played in a basketball game in a football stadium.

That's the list of highlights so far, anyway. There are still two months left in 2023.

"I think if anybody can handle it, she can handle it," Iowa coach Lisa Bluder told ESPN. "The stars lined up right for her. She came around at the right time in the right place. With NIL, with becoming one of the faces of college basketball."

Clark is part of the first generation of college athletes able to take advantage of the change in name, image and likeness rules. She's not just a basketball player but a brand, one based on her friendly Midwestern personality -- but also on her laser light show of a game, contagious confidence and unrelenting competitiveness.

A born-and-raised Iowan from West Des Moines, she was a top recruit who could have hit sensationally long 3-pointers and slung creative passes anywhere. But she stayed in Iowa, believed in Iowa, and led Iowa to where it had never been before: playing for the national championship.

In the same year she turned 21, Clark became a sports superhero in the Midwest and is one of the most recognizable athletes in the country.

With the 2023-24 season about to tip off and the women's NCAA Division I scoring record within reach, Clark still has plenty of basketball to play at Iowa and beyond -- and events to attend.

"This has been my dream," Clark told ESPN. "Maybe I didn't understand I would get such a big spotlight, but this is the level I wanted to play on."

THE DAY AFTER the Hawkeyes lost to LSU in the national championship game, the flight to Iowa from Dallas was delayed about three hours, but it didn't deter fans in Iowa City.

"It was still a packed crowd," said Clark, whose popular No. 22 jersey reflects her Jan. 22 birthday. "I guess everybody got the memo. There were even people with signs right when we got off the interstate."

In those moments, Clark often thinks of something she learned from her parents, Brent Clark and Anne Nizzi-Clark: Each interaction with people could be the only time they ever meet you, and that's the impression they might always have of you.

"People are taking days off of work to come and welcome us home," Clark said.

So even though she said she felt at that point like she could "go to sleep for two weeks," she worked her way through the well-wishers.

"I was that young girl once, who just wanted a minute with someone I idolized," Clark said.

With the season over, Bluder and the Iowa staff told Clark to not set foot on a basketball court for at least a couple of weeks. During that time, she said the kaleidoscope of images from the season became clearer in her mind.

"Memories just came in waves," Clark said. "There were times where I was laying in bed, or sitting at my desk or eating lunch or dinner, and I would remember."

The buzzer-beating 3-pointer to defeat Indiana in the regular-season finale. The repeat Big Ten tournament title. Getting past Georgia in a nerve-racking NCAA tournament second-round game, where the Hawkeyes were tripped up the previous season.

The Sweet 16 victory over Colorado. Getting a 41-point triple-double to beat Louisville in the Elite Eight, grabbing the game ball and making sure it got to her dad. The upset of the tournament: knocking off No. 1-ranked and undefeated South Carolina in the national semifinals with another 41-point game. The heartbreak of falling to LSU, so close to the ultimate triumph.

"But it was also about reminiscing on the little moments in between games that the public or media wouldn't have known about," Clark said. "The NCAA put on this whole event where we all got to make cowboy hats and custom jean jackets. Things that I got to share with my teammates that were almost more memorable than any of the wins are on the court."

Teams get a lot of gifts and keepsakes on the way to the Final Four. The Hawkeyes had so many mementos they had to have them transported by truck to Iowa City. Clark was surprised some teammates didn't want to keep their Final Four chairs.

"So now I have, like, five chairs in storage," she said.

Clark has so much stuff she needed to rent a second storage space. That's where her national player of the year awards -- Associated Press, Naismith, Wooden, Wade Trophy and Honda Cup -- are, as well as awards for Big Ten Player of the Year and league tournament MVP, Big Ten Female Athlete of the Year and the Sullivan Award for top collegiate/amateur athlete. That's not even all of them, just the ones in 2023. The only hardware to see light outside of the storage units are her Final Four and Big Ten tournament rings, which she keeps on her desk.

"My parents don't decorate the house with trophies from my brothers and me. That would be weird," Clark said, laughing. "One day, my plan is to make a little area in the home I have to be able to remember the special season that we had."

The highlights from Caitlin Clark's historic 2022-23 campaign

Relive some of the top highlights from Caitlin Clark's 2022-23 season with the Iowa Hawkeyes.

"CAITLIN CLARK" SPIKED over 5,000% as a breakout search during the women's NCAA tournament, according to Google Trends data. She was the story of March Madness.

Her Elite Eight performance was the first 40-point triple-double in NCAA tournament history, men's or women's. She set NCAA tournament records for most 3-pointers made (24) and most points scored (191).

Clark's attempt to run it all back starts Monday, when Iowa opens its season and she begins her fourth -- though not necessarily final -- year with the Hawkeyes. But there's a reason so many great movies have underwhelming sequels or none at all. A magical time is hard to replicate.

Can she repeat as the national player of the year? Win another Big Ten tournament championship? And do in back-to-back seasons what Iowa had done only once before, in 1993: reach the Final Four?

Iowa is ranked third in the Associated Press Top 25 preseason poll, but the Hawkeyes will be without two key starters from last season. Monika Czinano, a unanimous All-Big Ten first-team selection, converted more of Clark's passes into assists than anyone else, and combined with McKenna Warnock to average 28.0 points and 12.4 rebounds. Czinano played nearly 28 minutes per game and Warnock 29.

"We need to be different. We're going to be different," Clark said. "We can still be a really, really successful basketball team."

There is more than ever on her shoulders this season, and the odds that Iowa reaches the NCAA title game are steep. The Hawkeyes' post play will depend mostly on juniors Addison O'Grady, AJ Ediger and Sharon Goodman, and sophomore Hannah Stuelke, the only one of the four to average double-digit minutes in 2022-23.

"The biggest thing for me, that I'm trying to live by, is just instilling confidence in them," Clark said. "They bring a lot of really good things to this team. As a point guard, you just have to continue to give them the ball."

By next spring, Clark could be closing in on at least two NCAA career records. She has 2,717 points, 347 3-pointers and 798 assists at Iowa. The Division I scoring record of 3,527 set by Washington's Kelsey Plum and the 3-point mark of 497 by Ohio State's Kelsey Mitchell, both current WNBA players, are reachable for Clark, who scored 1,055 points and hit 140 treys as a junior.

The assist mark of 1,307, set by Penn State's Suzie McConnell in 1985-88, realistically isn't attainable -- unless Clark opts to stay a fifth season at Iowa in 2024-25 because of the COVID-19 waiver.

Clark said in early October that she will "trust her gut" when it's time to make that decision, after the Hawkeyes finish this season. By then, she will know which WNBA team has the No. 1 pick, where she is projected to be selected.

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BRENT CLARK PONDERED the question. Does any of this success from his middle child -- Caitlin has an older and a younger brother -- surprise him?

"She's kind of just built for it," he said. "Watching her progression from a young child, I wondered, 'What is this going to lead to?' Going to Iowa and then having a dream of getting a team to a Final Four. That's a pretty bold statement, and I'm not sure how many people really believed it."

For good reason. Since Iowa fell to Ohio State in the 1993 national semifinals, Big Ten teams had made it to the Final Four just seven times, with only one -- Purdue in 1999 -- winning the championship, until Iowa's return last season.

As much as the upset over South Carolina will live on in women's NCAA tournament lore, a moment near the end of the Elite Eight victory crystallized everything for Brent. Subbed out of the game in victory, Clark walked over to a hug from Bluder who said, "We did it, kid."

"She achieved what she had set out to achieve," Brent said.

Along the way, there have been some surprises, too.

"I was aware of the butter statue as long as I can remember; I grew up going to the Iowa State Fair every single summer," Clark said of the annual event in Des Moines. "My cousins would come into town and we would do everything: roller coasters, stomping on grapes, seeing all the animals, eating food on a stick. The main staple of it all was the butter cow."

The fair then began to add other butter statues, which this year included Clark.

"When my mom asked me, do you want them to do this? I'm like, 'Duh, is this even a question? Obviously, I want to be sculpted out of butter,'" Clark said, laughing. "Everybody was going there and sending me pictures, even my parents did. People not from Iowa were like, 'What?'"

That includes her friends and teammates Kate Martin (who is from Illinois) and Gabbie Marshall (Ohio). They will be in their fifth season with the Hawkeyes, so they consider themselves honorary Iowans and have their own enthusiastic fans. But both also know the extra burdens on Clark, and they look out for her.

Clark rarely goes anywhere alone these days; teammates, friends or family accompany her as a buffer. At the autograph signing at the baseball game in June, her dad, her older brother and a security guard kept watch.

Clark has an endorsement deal with Hy-Vee, a Midwestern grocery chain. There were Caitlin Clark life-sized cutouts at various Hy-Vees this summer, at least in the locations where they weren't stolen -- that happened at an Iowa City store. There was one at a store near her grandparents' home in Omaha, Nebraska, and it was later given to them.

"So, yeah, there's a cardboard me in their house now," Clark said.

Elsewhere in Nebraska, and all around the Big Ten, Clark is sort of a combination of rock star/villain. Kids adore her, bringing signs to games saying how far they traveled just to see her. Some hard-core fans, sick of her torching their favorite team the past three years, aren't so fond.

The situation at the end of the championship game with LSU's Angel Reese following Clark, giving John Cena's "You can't see me" gesture and pointing to her ring finger? It's all good, said both Clark and Reese this offseason, individually praising each other. Clark, who did the same gesture earlier in the tournament in the victory over Louisville, said it's much more interesting when players don't hide their competitive personalities. If it got people talking about women's basketball and the passion they play with, that's the goal.

Clark thinks of the choice to stay home in Iowa, the place she loves and that loves her best. She and the Hawkeyes got to feel that when 55,646 fans came to Kinnick Stadium Oct. 15 to watch Iowa in an exhibition game against DePaul. Clark rewarded them with a triple-double. Every Iowa women's basketball home game this season is already sold out at Carver-Hawkeye Arena.

"It's probably not something I'll ever experience the same way again after I leave here," Clark said. "Because I grew up in this state. I stayed here, and we were able to do this for the people in this state.

"So many people came up to me saying, 'Watching you guys made our winter so much better.' I don't think you can top the level of pride that I feel when I put on an Iowa jersey."

Clark can't help but add with a grin, "Unless they bring a WNBA team to Des Moines, Iowa. I don't think that's happening, but that might match it."