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Caitlin Clark's WNBA welcome is a reality check

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Caitlin Clark's WNBA welcome is a reality check

UNCASVILLE, Conn. — As the seconds ticked down before her first WNBA game began, Caitlin Clark couldn’t stop moving. Waiting for the opening jump, she paced along the free throw line. She tugged at her shorts and fixed her ponytail. She swung her arms in an attempt to stay loose.

Then the ref tossed the orange and white WNBA basketball, but officials deemed it needed to be thrown a second time. Unlike the official’s toss, Clark might not want a complete redo of her debut. Still, there were definitely moments she will want back from a mixed individual performance and, ultimately, a disappointing loss.

She led the Indiana Fever with 20 points, yet she also notched 10 turnovers — the most ever in a player’s first WNBA game.

“I didn’t have the greatest start, so I think (there’s) just a lot to learn from,” Clark said. “There’s gonna be good ones. There’s gonna be bad ones.”

She rewrote the record book over four years at Iowa, often making the hardest matchups and most difficult shots look like a breeze. Tuesday’s inglorious record was not expected. Just over a month has passed since Clark’s college career concluded, but life in the WNBA is here. If a reminder was needed, she showed in the Fever’s 92-71 defeat to the Connecticut Sun that she’ll, at times, have growing pains as she transitions into the professional ranks.

“She’s a rookie in this league,” Fever coach Christie Sides said. “This is the best league in the world. We’ve got to teach her what these games are gonna look like for her every single night and we’ve got to eliminate some of that pressure for her. That’s on me, that’s on my staff to have to figure out.”

All eyes are on Clark as she attempts to jump to the pros with high expectations to not just perform like she did in college but invigorate the league in a way no player has before. Tuesday’s season tipoff was in front of the Sun’s first home-opener sellout since 2003, and she’ll make her home debut in front of another raucous crowd Thursday. At Connecticut, hundreds, perhaps thousands, of fans wore No. 22 T-shirts with Iowa and Fever logos on them to celebrate Clark. (At one point, a “bandwagon fan” graphic appeared on the Sun video board while showing many of them on the screen.) Fans with “Clark Fever” shirts started wandering the Mohegan Sun casino floor hours before the evening tipoff. The game’s television rating is sure to be far higher than last season’s openers.

It’s a scene Clark witnessed at nearly every game during her senior season at Iowa.

“I played in sold-out crowds literally every single game, so these environments don’t scare me or impact me at all,” she said Tuesday morning. “I’m sure there will be just like a lot of basketball fans here that really appreciate the game.”

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Yet even with that familiarity, on the morning of the most highly anticipated rookie debut in WNBA history, she attempted to temper expectations.

“I know the outside world thinks I’m gonna do some amazing things, but that might take some time,” Clark said. “And if things aren’t perfect right away or one game’s not as amazing as I want it to be, give yourself grace, continue to learn, continue to get better from it.”

Almost immediately, Clark was welcomed to the WNBA by one of the world’s best players. Less than two minutes in, Sun star forward Alyssa Thomas attacked Clark in transition, forcing the 6-foot guard into a foul. After picking up two fouls, Clark ended the first quarter scoreless. She admitted regaining her flow was tough after sitting some early.

Clark had said “it would be nice” for her first career basket to come on a layup, but she couldn’t have envisioned waiting until the 5:24 mark of the second quarter to score. As she walked to the locker room at halftime, trailing by 10 points, reigning Rookie of the Year Aliyah Boston grabbed Clark’s attention.

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“(Boston) said just be calm, be aggressive and be you,” Clark said.

Clark made some uncharacteristic errors, picking up the basketball and traveling, dribbling it off her foot and throwing an errant inbounds pass. She has room to improve defensively, as well. Playing an experienced opponent, Connecticut’s physicality made a difference. Sides said Indiana was “punched in the mouth.”

Clark eventually settled in, taking advantage of switches. She hit a late fourth-quarter 3-pointer over Sun center Olivia Nelson-Ododa on a shot reminiscent of her time with the Hawkeyes. Still, the Fever played the entire night in catch-up mode, trailing for the game’s final 34 minutes. A stretch in the fourth quarter in which Thomas guarded Clark provided another data point that Clark’s competition level had increased.

GO DEEPER

What we learned in Caitlin Clark’s WNBA debut

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There’s plenty of tape for Clark to devour now, and not much time to do it. Sides stressed that Indiana’s spacing was poor, and that it needs to find ways to get Boston easier looks (she attempted only six shots and scored just 4 points). Clark’s teammates have to do a better job of coming back to the ball on her passes. Cutting down on turnovers — the Fever had 25 — will also be imperative.

Opportunities to show immediate growth will come soon and often. Indiana opens the season with seven games in 12 days. The New York Liberty await Thursday night, another stiff challenge in a run of them.

Some performances will inevitably pale in comparison to others. A Clark masterclass will surely come sooner than later. But Tuesday emphasized what her new competition is like. How she responds will be her biggest challenge.

“Disappointed and nobody likes to lose, that’s how it is,” Clark said. “Can’t beat yourself up too much about one game.”

(Photo: Elsa / Getty Images)

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One year after Jeff Van Gundy's dismissal, ESPN's NBA broadcasts are worse off

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One year after Jeff Van Gundy's dismissal, ESPN's NBA broadcasts are worse off

It was perplexing last summer when ESPN fired NBA Finals game analysts Jeff Van Gundy and Mark Jackson. It was part of the network’s layoffs that Disney seemingly goes through every couple of years, sort of like an NFL team pruning the books to provide room for future million-dollar spends.

The Van Gundy salary dump particularly did not make sense, as he was maybe the best game analyst in sports with his gym-rat mentality and “Inside the NBA” quirkiness.

In the wake of those moves, ESPN is not nearly as good as it was. With the venerable play-by-player Mike Breen, the Hall of Famer Doris Burke and an on-the-rise JJ Redick, in theory, ESPN should provide an excellent listen, but it takes time to develop NBA Finals-level chemistry.

Breen, Burke and Redick don’t have it. With just four months under their belt together, they don’t come across like a team that should be advancing past the second round. But they will.

Tuesday night, Breen, Burke and Redick will be in Boston to call the Eastern Conference finals before the main event next month, the NBA Finals. Suddenly, the future of what was a stalwart, steady booth for ESPN is again in doubt, as the current group lacks humor and flow. Hopefully, they will acknowledge the Indiana Pacers in this series.

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On Sunday, from start to finish, ESPN turned its production of Game 7 of the Pacers-New York Knicks series into a Knicks home broadcast by showing “First Take” host Stephen A. Smith walking into the arena as if he were a player and then having him deliver a Knicks pregame pep talk. During the game, Breen and company focused too much on the Knicks and not enough on the all-time shooting performance by the Pacers. After ESPN showed the best of itself Friday with its Scottie Scheffler arrest coverage, the contrast of Sunday’s NBA performance was embarrassing.

How ESPN got here and where it is going next is an intriguing broadcasting question. Especially with a framework agreement on a new TV deal with the NBA that is expected to keep the league’s biggest event on ESPN’s stage for the next dozen years.

Breen, who turns 63 on Wednesday, remains the anchor. However, in the playoffs, he is too often left trying to do it all on his own, not fully trusting in his new teammates.

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With his familiar voice, Breen might be able to carry the trio late in close games, but he is not raising his partners’ levels. Evaluating what he has, he comes across as more of a shoot-first point guard, not only providing the play-by-play but often the analysis, too.

Post-Van Gundy and Jackson, ESPN had a seemingly workable plan. Breen’s good buddy Doc Rivers was available after being fired as the Philadelphia 76ers head coach. With Breen and Rivers, there would have figured to be some strong built-in chemistry.

With the history-making Burke, who will become the first female TV analyst on one of the traditional big-four league’s championships (NFL, NBA, MLB and NHL), top ESPN executives Jimmy Pitaro, Burke Magnus and David Roberts had a succession figured out. Roberts even named heirs apparent, as Ryan Ruocco, Richard Jefferson and Redick were anointed the No. 2 team with an eye on calling the finals one day.

Though the NBA did not like Van Gundy’s criticism of its officiating — and complained about it to ESPN — there is no proof that the league ordered his banishment. One concern ESPN had, according to executives briefed on their decision-making, was that Van Gundy would jump back into coaching, which he had flirted with for years.

Mark Jackson, Jeff Van Gundy and Mike Breen

Mark Jackson, Jeff Van Gundy and Mike Breen talk before Game 2 of the 2022 Eastern Conference finals. The three called 15 NBA Finals together. (Michael Reaves / Getty Images)

Van Gundy, though, never left during his 16 seasons with the network, while Rivers’ stay at ESPN was almost as short as Bill Belichick’s run as “HC of the NYJ.”

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While on the broadcasting job for ESPN, Rivers first started consulting with the Milwaukee Bucks in December, then left to become the team’s head coach in January, embarrassing ESPN after giving it a three-year commitment.

By the All-Star break, Redick, who turns 40 in June, was moved in. He has had an incredible broadcasting run, making many millions as a podcaster and gambling spokesperson and through his ESPN game and studio work.

But as evidenced by his latest venture, an inside-the-game podcast with LeBron James, Redick’s post-playing passion might mirror that of Rivers. His game analysis is more coach-like than conversational.

After a brief flirtation with the Charlotte Hornets’ coaching job, he is a top candidate to join James’ Los Angeles Lakers. Following Van Gundy’s departure, ESPN has a second analyst who could go through with the broadcasting crime that Van Gundy was charged with but never committed. Until if and when Redick leaves, he is on the call with Breen and Burke.

It doesn’t sound as if Breen, Burke and Redick dislike one another; they just don’t finish each other’s sentences. Heck, half the time it feels as if Burke and Redick barely start many of their own. It’s a lot of Breen.

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Breen, Van Gundy and Jackson called 15 NBA Finals, which allowed them to develop a comfort level with one another and the audience. Breen’s “Bang!” receives the shine — and it is a strong signature call — but it is his rhythm for the action and his inflection at the right time over 48 minutes, denoting whenever something special happens, that stand out.

If you close your eyes and just listen to Breen’s emotion in his calls, you can tell where a play stands in excitement on a 1-to-10 scale. That is why, in crunchtime, ESPN should still be fine.

It’s when the booth needs to shine in light moments or blowouts that Van Gundy and Jackson are missed.

Jackson was far from perfect — last year, he inexplicably left Nikola Jokić off his All-Star ballot — but he had his schtick, most notably the phrase “Mama, there goes that man!” He could hit some 3s off the ball from Breen and Van Gundy.

Van Gundy’s dismissal, though, was a head-scratcher. With a headset on, he was always in triple-threat position: keen analysis, a looseness to say anything and humor.

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Van Gundy has moved on and is now a senior consultant with the Boston Celtics. ESPN is still paying him. Maybe it could ask him to come back for a series or two.

(Top photo of JJ Redick, Doris Burke and Mike Breen: Andrew D. Bernstein / NBAE via Getty Images)

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College golf team puts Delta on blast for handling of golf clubs before NCAA championship in viral video

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College golf team puts Delta on blast for handling of golf clubs before NCAA championship in viral video

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The East Tennessee State University men’s golf team is going viral after the school’s social media account showed the team’s golf bags being launched by Delta Air Lines’ employees, as the group prepares for their fourth straight appearance in the NCAA Division I Men’s Golf Championships.

ETSU’s golf account on X posted a video on Tuesday that showed airline employees throwing the team’s golf bags after arrival. 

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A set of clubs is seen during the Division I Men’s Golf Championship held at Grayhawk Golf Club on May 30, 2023, in Scottsdale, Arizona.  (C. Morgan Engel/NCAA Photos via Getty Images)

“Nice of Delta to handle our clubs with such care…,” the post read. 

Several users on social media lamented similar issues with the airline, prompting Delta’s social media account to respond to several. 

Delta also posted a message directly in response to the team’s video, which had nine million views as of Thursday afternoon. 

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“We’re so sorry this is how your golf clubs were handled. It’s not who we are,” the statement read, “And we’re working to make it right, so you’ll have everything you need to compete at the tournament this weekend.”

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A NCAA logo is seen during the match between the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets and the Florida Gators during the Division I Men’s Golf Championship held at Grayhawk Golf Club on May 31, 2023, in Scottsdale, Arizona. (C. Morgan Engel/NCAA Photos via Getty Images)

DELTA AIRLINES STOWAWAY CAUGHT ON TEXAS-BOUND PLANE AFTER SNAPPING PHOTO OF PASSENGER’S BOARDING PASS: FEDS

The ETSU Buccaneers punched their ticket to the NCAA championship for the fourth straight year, after placing second at the Chapel Hill Regional earlier this month. 

It also marks the program’s 21st appearance for the men’s team. 

A member of the East Tennessee State Buccaneers during the Division I Men’s Golf Championship held at Grayhawk Golf Club on May 26, 2023, in Scottsdale, Arizona.  (C. Morgan Engel/NCAA Photos via Getty Images)

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Nationals are scheduled to begin Friday at the Omni La Costa Resort & Spa in Carlsbad, California. 

Six individuals and 30 teams will compete in a 54-hole round, with just the top 15 teams and top nine individuals advancing to the next stage. 

Follow Fox News Digital’s sports coverage on X, and subscribe to the Fox News Sports Huddle newsletter.

 

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Black former players to play in Negro Leagues All-Star Game tribute on Memorial Day weekend

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Black former players to play in Negro Leagues All-Star Game tribute on Memorial Day weekend

The names trigger memories recent and long-ago. From David Price to Russell Martin, from Tony Gwynn Jr. to Jerry Hairston Jr. to Dee Strange-Gordon, former Dodgers sprinkle the rosters.

And the 14 Hall of Famers serving as coaches include a who’s who of legends that tormented the Dodgers as exalted opponents: Ozzie Smith, Ken Griffey Jr., Fergie Jenkins, Dave Winfield, Fred McGriff … the list goes on.

They’ll gather in Cooperstown, N.Y., for the East-West Classic: a tribute to the Negro Leagues All-Star Game on Saturday at historic Doubleday Field. Team captains CC Sabathia and Chris Young held a draft of recently retired Black players to fill rosters for the game, which anchors a Memorial Day weekend of festivities at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum surrounding the opening of an exhibit titled “The Souls of the Game: Voices of Black Baseball.”

“I’m looking forward to seeing these guys’ faces when we walk into the Hall of Fame,” Sabathia said. “We are all super close, and it’s going to be fun to get us all together.”

The exhibit will cover the Negro Leagues era, the complexities of integration, Jackie Robinson, the struggles Black players experienced and calls for change in today’s game. Stories from Black baseball also are being added to other exhibits throughout the museum.

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Only 6% of players on opening day MLB rosters this year are Black, a number that has slowly eroded for decades. A study by the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport at Central Florida found that Black players represented 6.2% of MLB players in 2023 and 7.2% in 2022. When the study began in 1991, 18% of MLB players were Black.

Baseball has launched programs to boost participation in recent years, and one result has been an uptick in the number of Black players drafted in the top 100 — an average of 12 per year since 2021. Ten of the first 50 draft picks in 2023 were Black and 30% of the first-round picks in 2022 were Black — a significant increase over the previous decade, when 17.4% of first-round picks were Black.

Four of the first five selections in the 2022 draft were Black, and all four were alumni of at least one of the following MLB diversity initiatives:

— The DREAM Series operated by MLB and USA Baseball has since 2017 brought together predominantly Black high school pitching and catching prospects nationwide during the Martin Luther King Jr. weekend. The program includes seminars, mentorship, scout evaluations and video coverage in addition to on-field instruction. Cincinnati Reds starting pitcher and Sherman Oaks Notre Dame High product Hunter Greene participated in the DREAM Series.

— The MLB ID Tour scours the country for baseball talent among underexposed and diverse groups of athletes, and this year has held events at the Compton Youth Academy as well as in Atlanta, Dallas and Chicago.

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— The Breakthrough Series provides a platform for players who have entered the MLB diversity pipeline to perform for scouts and collegiate coaches. The Series, which began in 2008, has produced 22 first-round draft picks and 36 players have advanced to the major leagues.

— The Hank Aaron Invitational will be held in July at Jackie Robinson Training Complex in Vero Beach, Fla., where approximately 250 teenage players from across the U.S. will by trained by former MLB players and coaches that in the past have included Griffey, Winfield, Eric Davis, Marquis Grissom, Reggie Smith and Delino DeShields.

Only 6% of Division I baseball players are Black, a number that has grown slightly but remains alarmingly low. Developing future major leaguers is a clear objective of MLB’s diversity initiatives, but getting Black players into college is also important.

“We see more kids playing at the Division I college baseball ranks, and we see more kids being drafted into the minor leagues,” said Del Matthews, MLB vice president of baseball development. “And so we’re just flooding that through [our] various programs.”

The Memorial Day weekend festivities honoring the history of Black baseball will begin with an unveiling of a bronze statue of Aaron on the first floor of the Hall of Fame Museum. Then the East-West Classic — the name is a nod to the Negro League All-Star game held annually from 1933 to 1962 — will bring living, breathing Black players together.

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“It’s going to be one of those weekends that’s going to stick with us for a long time,” said Young, the East team captain who played for the Angels in 2018, the last of his 13-year career. “If you have a son or daughter who plays baseball, take them to the Hall. If you are a baseball player, go check it out. It’s life-changing.”

East-West Classic rosters

East: Captain Chris Young, Josh Barfield, Doug Glanville, Tony Gwynn Jr., Jerry Hairston Jr., Scott Hairston, LaTroy Hawkins, Ryan Howard, Edwin Jackson, Jeremy Jeffress, Adam Jones, Russell Martin, Melvin Mora, David Price and Mo’Ne Davis.

West: Captain CC Sabathia, José Contreras, Ian Desmond, Prince Fielder, Dexter Fowler, Curtis Granderson, Darrell Miller, Tyson Ross, Tony Sipp, Dee Strange-Gordon, B.J. Upton and Justin Upton.

Hall of Fame coaches: Harold Baines, Rollie Fingers, Ken Griffey Jr., Fergie Jenkins, Jim Kaat, Fred McGriff, Eddie Murray, Jim Rice, Lee Smith, Ozzie Smith, Joe Torre, Dave Winfield, Pat Gillick and Ryne Sandberg.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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