Sunday, April 7, 2024

The Joy of Basketball – And What Is Humanly Possible…..

Caitlin Clark three-pointer (cropped)


In addition to the clinical work – psychiatrists need to have their finger on the pulse of popular culture.  Not just the content – but the process of it all.  How else can you talk with a young patient who is describing their experience of a rock and roll lyric and what it means for their life?  Or patients who are caught up in the latest cultural movements – whether they are useful or not.  Sports of course are a big part of the culture and in the last few months there has been no bigger sports phenomenon than Caitlin Clark of the Iowa Hawkeyes basketball team.  As I type this – she and her teammates are scheduled to appear in the NCAA Women’s Basketball Championship tomorrow afternoon. 

If you are just catching up that is a small part of the story. The statistics leading up to this game are readily available elsewhere and I will just mention a few highpoints without specific numbers.  Clark is the all-time leading scorer for men and women who have played NCAA basketball. The Iowa team has set both live attendance records and records for television viewers - as the most watched basketball game in the history of ESPN and the second most watched non-football event on that network. With that demand the tickets prices for games have also increased greatly sparking new enthusiasm for the viability of women’s sports at all levels. 

What is it about this player and her team that have cause all this excitement? I preface this by saying that I am not a big basketball fan.  I played it in intramural sports and for two years I was one of the statisticians for my high school team.  I have never followed any team consistently but have usually seen the US Olympic teams and a lot of clips of the great players from the NBA. NBA players clearly have a high degree of athleticism and much greater than usual height and physical stature. I recently learned that if you are over 7 feet tall - one person in 6 plays in the NBA.  My maximum height as an adult was 5’10”.  At that height only 0.117% of men play in the NBA.  Currently only 2 of 560 total players in the NBA are 5’9” or less.

The average height in NCAA women’s basketball is quoted between 5’8” and 6’1” by various sources although there are some very tall players ranging from 6’5” to 6’7”.  Caitlin Clark is 6’0” and the team range in height is 5’9” to 6’2”.  Watching Iowa and their closely matched competitors play – physical size fades into the background.  They obviously have the form and the skillset of accomplished basketball players.  I watched NBA star Steph Curry comment on Clark that she is more than just a shooter – she has an excellent ground game.  Seeing clips from her high school games – she had it back then.

There will be the invariable comparisons between men and women.  About how Clark could “never play in the NBA.”  That misses a huge point – there are highly accomplished woman athletes that are every bit as skilled as men.  As an observer of mostly individual sports – it doesn’t take much critical ability to realize that you will never be able to skate like Bonnie Blair, or ski like Lindsey Vonn, or play tennis like Serena Williams, or swim as fast as Katie Ledecky.  More than that you can learn something from watching them.  As a speedskater – I read everything I could find that was written by Bonnie Blair on training. I had the same thoughts about Caitlin Clark describing her jump shot and the left hand component consisting of a thumb flick maneuver.  If you watch her videos, it is so fast it is barely noticeable.  Even as an old man I want to try it. I can imagine that there are boys out there thinking the same thing and wanting to learn how to handle the ball like her.  Like everything else in the world – whether academics or sports – women add greatly to it and that recognition needs to be automatic rather than qualified. People should not give it a second thought.  It is not a “battle of the sexes” and it never has been.

The greats in any field are more than just technically competent.  They set a bar that encourages everyone else.  People start thinking: "That is not something I can do – but I am going to try it." Clark, her coach, and her teammates all consistently say this in post-game press conferences.  There is the realization that an inspirational teammate makes everybody better and that the team is more than just one person no matter how good they are.

What about the average person who has no sporting aspirations? There is a team loyalty factor.  But beyond that – it is inspirational from the standpoint of being a member of the human race. To watch someone accomplish something that nobody has done or done as well before.  Back in the early days of this blog – I posted a link to a video clip that I thought was a good explanation. It involves seeing someone perform so well that it feels uplifting. I get that feeling watching Caitlin Clark ball handling and shooting from well outside of the 3 point line.

The current state of women’s collegiate basketball as well as the abundance of great women athletes is also a reminder that 40 to 50 years ago things were not this good. They were not even close.  I was a high school athlete at that time. Most women’s basketball teams were intramural. Almost all of the high school resources were focused on boy’s football, hockey, basketball, wrestling, and baseball.  In 1972, two female high school athletes who were highly competitive in tennis, running, and cross-country skiing sued to be able to compete in those programs at their high schools. Since there were no programs available for girls – they sued to participate in the boys’ program.  Judge Miles Lord in a landmark ruling (1) concluded that they should be allowed to compete in those programs and compete with boys because discrimination in sports programs solely based on sex was a violation of the 14th Amendment. He was backed up in appeal by the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals (2). This ruling led to the development of far more resources for girls’ and women’s’ athletic programs than were previously possible. This ruling illustrates that when given the resources it leads to the development of the expected high caliber of competition and athletes. 

Are there any downsides to these developments?  I do not see any.  As a physician I have seen women athletes with significant and disabling injuries from both contact and non-contact sports.  Anyone watching the current basketball competition realizes that contact and injury can occur even during a game that is considered a non-contact sport. Judge Lord initially emphasized the availability of non-contact sports but today the question comes down to whether girls and women should be able to choose to risk injury by participating in the same way that boys and men do.  I cannot think of a reason why they should not have that freedom of choice. 

There has been criticism for trash talking, posturing on the court, and the usual differences of opinion about what players say in post-game press conferences. I have not seen any behavior to the level of what men's teams have been doing for decades.

I wish Caitlin Clark and all her teammates a great game tomorrow. I have the same wish for their opponents.  If I tune in and sit back to watch great basketball – I will be thinking:  “This is what happens when women have the chance to develop and compete in any field.” 

I am glad I lived to see it….


George Dawson, MD, DFAPA

NCAA Woman’s Basketball Postscript -

I watched the last half of the game yesterday. I am not a basketball analyst so I will not give my impressions of what happened.  It is likely if you are reading this that you have heard numerous opinions about this from friends, family, and coworkers. I first noted detailed post-game analyses at the hospital where I used to work. Every day after rounds I would take a break and walk down to the coffee shop for my usual tea or mocha. If it was a Monday – it was a safe bet that I would hear a detailed analysis of the Sunday football game by staff members of multiple disciplines. In some cases, it would involve criticism of the coaching staff, suggestions about who should be drafted, and of course criticism of players.

The post-game comments of the coaches and players of the South Carolina-Iowa game had none of that.  In fact, some of the commentary was the most enlightened commentary about organized team sports that I have seen anywhere. And it was all presented matter-of-fact – no gnashing of teeth or excessive self-criticism and sadness.  Several themes were apparent.

First, the importance of the coaches both on and off the court. Both sets of players emphasized good relationships with the coaches.  They were described as maternal figures and women who had done a lot for the game of basketball.  Both coaches in their Q&A emphasized their interest in growing the game and making sure their players got a lot of out the game besides winning. They emphasized developing a culture where the players know what to say to players, where everyone feels supported and in the case of Coach Staley – where there is extended family involvement. She emphasized recruiting players who had respect for their parents, how those parents had access to the coaching staff, and how both were focused on players succeeding.

Second, confidence at the player level was an important point. The coaches and players talked about it  - how it is instilled and how it develops. It was described as a significant factor is being able to compete irrespective of statistics and related concerns.  Coach Bluder pointed out how Clark came in to their program confident that they could get into the Final Four and despite the naysayers was able to convince everyone that she was correct. 

Third, respect was a frequently used word.  Respect for coaches, teammates, opponents, and fans was an important part of the equation. Numerous examples were given at all levels including previous players who advanced women’s basketball.

Finally, there was an overall plan and formula. This was probably best elaborated by coach Staley who emphasized that the staff who worked with her in implementing these plans were extremely important in the overall success of the team.   

 All things considered NCAA woman’s basketball is an impressive sport no matter what way you analyze it.  Women clearly know how to play basketball.  They know how to win and they know how to lose.  They know exactly where basketball is in the scheme of things.

We can all learn a valuable lesson from that…


George Dawson, MD, DFAPA 



South Carolina National Championship Postgame Press Conference - 2024 NCAA Tournament

Iowa National Championship Postgame Press Conference - 2024 NCAA Tournament



 1:  Judge Lord ordering a school district to allow high school girls to compete on boys' sports teams: Brenden v. Ind. School Dist. 742, 342 F.Supp 1224 (D. Minn. 1972).

The District Court,

Miles W. Lord, J., held that where plaintiff high school girls wished to take part in interscholastic boys' athletics in tennis in one instance and in cross country and cross-country skiing in second instance and it was shown that plaintiffs could compete effectively on those teams and there were no alternative competitive programs sponsored by their schools which would provide an equal opportunity for competition for female plaintiffs, application of rule prohibiting girls from participating in boys' interscholastic athletic program as to plaintiffs was arbitrary and unreasonable, in violation of the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, and application of rules as to plaintiffs could not stand.”


2:  Eighth Circuit affirming Judge Lord: Brenden v. Ind. School Dist. 742, 477 F.2d 1292 (8th Cir. 1973).

“The Court of Appeals,· Heaney, Circuit · Judge, held that where · high schools attended by plaintiffs, two female students, provided teams for males in noncontact sports - of tennis. – and cross country skiing and running but did not provide such teams for females and where . plaintiffs were - qualified to compete with· boys in such sports, application  of rule -prohibiting females from participating in the boys' interscholastic athletic program as to plaintiffs was arbitrary and unreasonable and in violation of equal protection clause of Fourteenth Amendment. · Affirmed.”

Graphics Credit:  Click directly on the photo for the Wikimedia Commons page.  Details from that page include:

John Mac, CC BY-SA 2.0 Caitlin Clark three-pointer (cropped).

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