May 17, 2024 

Caitlin Clark’s Indiana Fever home debut featured better atmosphere than basketball

Fever struggled in Clark's Indy debut, but crowd excitement never wavered

INDIANAPOLIS — For several hours before the 2024 Indiana Fever home opener, basketball fans in Indianapolis walked to the same spot to take photos. Just outside of the northwest entrance to Gainbridge Fieldhouse near Pennsylvania Street, sat a triangular poster with a picture of Caitlin Clark on it.

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The Fever guard and rookie phenom was set to make her regular season debut in Indianapolis against the New York Liberty, and thousands of fans would come from out of town for it. Downtown Indy was full of Iowa fans clad in yellow who had made the trip over. As they explored the city and the areas around the arena, many stopped for a photo with the picture of Clark to document the special day.

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A sign with a picture of Indiana Fever guard Caitlin Clark hangs outside of Gainbridge Fieldhouse. (Photo Credit: Tony East / The Next)

It was Clark’s second professional game — her first was on Tuesday in Connecticut — but this one was at home, in front of the fans that will cheer for her for years. On top of that, fans from Iowa could make a reasonable drive over to see Clark play. It all made for quite the spectacle.

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Early in the day, Clark spoke about getting acclimated to Indy. She thinks the new giant Gatorade ad in the city is cool and has started to get a better feel for her new team and situation. Clark is also aware of the gravity she has, and not just on the court.

“People are sacrificing a lot to spend money to get here, spend resources to get here or travel. Pay for their young daughter or son to come,” she said. “People get so excited to come to these games and spend a lot of their time and money. First of all, just being aware of it, and enjoying that and making time for as many people as you can.”

The star rookie certainly did that. Clark made time for just about everyone after her pregame warmup, signing dozens of autographs for waiting Indiana Fever fans. As she headed for the tunnel to leave the court and go to the locker room, she instead turned to her right with a sharpie and made time for everyone.

Afterward, she turned all the way around and spent a moment with grouped supporters on the other side of the tunnel. One fan began to cry and ran to the back of her seating section to take pictures of her now-signed uniform.

Clark warmed up with many cameras nearby, and fans watching with awe and excitedness. In between drills and shot attempts, Clark spent time with Katie Lou Samuelson‘s daughter, Aliya, before the game.

Clark’s brothers, as well as a few cousins, aunts and uncles came to the game. Sometimes, Clark said, she doesn’t even know who will be there to watch her until a game starts, though her parents often bring family with them.

Lisa Bluder, the former Iowa Hawkeyes coach, and Jan Jensen, Bluder’s replacement, were both in attendance. They were shown on the jumbotron during the third quarter and received a massive ovation, which was the perfect display of the number of Iowa fans in attendance.

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Many key Indianapolis figures also came to see the No. 1 overall pick. Indiana Pacers head coach Rick Carlisle and assistant Jim Boylen were there, as was former Indianapolis Colts punter Pat McAfee. Pacers and Fever owner Herb Simon was in attendance, as was his son and team governor Steve Simon. Indiana’s state governor, Eric Holcomb, was also among the crowd.

That’s just eight of the 17,274 — a sellout — people that filled Gainbridge Fieldhouse to watch Clark on Thursday. Per Across the Timeline, it was the third-most attended game in Indiana Fever history. It was noticeable before the game, and there was a loud roar as Clark was introduced to start the action.

Fittingly, Clark scored Indiana’s first points of the game. It tied the score at 2–2 after about 90 seconds of play, and the crowd roared once again. It was a much grander environment than what the Fever saw last season, or even for most of the early 2010s, when they were a title contender.

The New York Liberty scored next to break the tie, and it was never knotted up again. The Liberty eventually ran away with the game, leading by double digits after just eight minutes of play. Indiana cut it close in the middle of the second quarter, but one more strong New York punch put things away.

In concept, it was a similar outing as the Fever’s opening-night loss to Connecticut. “Once things got a little bit hard, we got a little bit frantic … we showed our youth,” Clark said of the loss to the Sun. That happened once again on Thursday, as the Fever had 13 turnovers and shot 36.7% from the field.

Head coach Christie Sides said her team needed to have more pride. They couldn’t get the ball into the paint and they were stagnant all night. They missed layups and were lazy with defensive rotations. It all led to a dominant Liberty performance — and an 0–2 Indiana Fever team.

Despite the heightened atmosphere, the Fever looked dreadful in their home opener. After a solid final preseason game in which the team looked more connected on both ends, Indiana is already doing some soul searching after two regular season games. They’ve lost their first pair of outings by 57 combined points.

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And yet, fans will show up in bunches to watch them play all season. Tens of thousands will be at Gainbridge Fieldhouse every night to watch Clark and the Fever, and the team hopes to have better energy going forward. “It was great. We heard them every step of the way,” center Aliyah Boston said of the crowd and the environment.

“We will give the crowd more energy than we gave tonight,” Samuelson added. “That’s something that will never happen again.”

Clark discussed the game the next day and wanted to make it something that pushes the team forward. “There’s a lot of things we can learn from,” she said. “The more disappointing thing is I thought we did it to ourselves.”

But the big crowd, something she is used to, was special. “That’s just something I embrace and expect at this point. It’s going to be what it is all year long,” Clark said. “I hope our fans just continue to come back and support us. It’s going to get better, it’s going to be a learning process. Not everything is going to be perfect right now.”

The game wasn’t. The atmosphere was.

Written by Tony East

Indiana Fever reporter based in Indianapolis. Enjoy a good statistical-based argument.

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