This is why basketball is, in so many ways, the best game. This is why, if you spend enough time on asphalt playgrounds or in cramped gymnasiums, it gets its hooks into you early and never lets go. This is why, for those who spent so many countless, solitary hours taking aim at driveway hoops, it remains an unending source of fascination, and inspiration.

Because basketball, unlike most sports, allows for The One.

Other sports have generational stars. Basketball breeds revolutionaries. And they can come from anywhere: inner city or farm country, Prague or Paris or Provo. You can be over 7 feet or under 6. If you’re good enough, if you have enough imagination and enough skill and are willing to pile up the hours of sweat equity, you can be The One.

Caitlin Clark is the latest. Right now, she is The One, and it is glorious to watch.

In truth, basketball hasn’t always known how to treat its rarest gems respectfully. Back in the day, NBA teams grew weary of George Mikan destroying them game after game setting up so close to the basket, so they doubled the width of the three-second key from six feet to 12. Later, when that still wasn’t big enough to keep Wilt Chamberlain from dominating every game he played in, it was expanded again, to 16 feet.

On Dec. 3, 1966, Lew Alcindor made his varsity debut for UCLA in a game at Pauley Pavilion against USC. He scored 56 points. He averaged 29 points that year, shot 66.7 percent – not all on dunks, but enough. UCLA finished off a 30-0 season with a 79-64 blowout of Dayton in the NCAA Tournament on March 25, 1967; two days later the dunk was outlawed by the U.S. Basketball Committee, which oversaw all rules for high school and college basketball.

(Thankfully, the joyless USBC never took aim at Kareem’s sky hook, which was even more deadly a weapon for him).

“It’s madness,” Mikan’s college coach, Ray Meyer, said when the lane was widened to neutralize his star pupil. “It’s like taking the brush out of Michelangelo’s hand and replacing it with a pencil. Why would you do that to your best player?”

Basketball learned, though, and has learned not only to embrace the generational geniuses who’ve come after, but has allowed itself to be permanently shifted by them.

Julius Erving showed that the dunk could not only be effective, but beautiful. Larry Bird and Magic Johnson introduced to countless future generations that passing the basketball was just as essential a skill as shooting it. Nikola Jokic was born Feb. 19, 1995, three years after Bird played his last game and 15 months after Magic ended his final comeback, but it’s impossible to argue that his game wasn’t birthed by theirs.

And of course there is Steph Curry, who by himself proved the possibilities that a small man can still dominate a big-man’s game. You can argue if his influence hasn’t been almost too great since the 3-pointer proliferates now, often in hands not nearly as gifted as his own, but there is little debate that he permanently changed the game.

Caitlin Clark has changed the game.

Before Clark, even the most progressive basketball voices were prone to distinguish the best of women’s basketball players that way. Sue Bird was a dynamic women’s player. Dawn Staley was a magnificent women’s player. Diana Taurasi may have been the best women’s player. Clark has eliminated the need for the adjective.

She is a great basketball player.

She drew a raucous house to Albany’s MVP Arena Monday night. She had basketball fans of all stripes scrambling to DVR Iowa’s game with LSU if they couldn’t watch the game live. She had folks making road trips to the Capital District, the way the truest believers used to seek out prophets. She is that good. She is that unique. She can shoot. She can pass. She makes her teammates better. She makes the sport better.

Not her sport. Not women’s basketball.

The sport. Basketball. Period.

Here’s everything you need to know about Caitlin Clark’s run at March Madness

Printable NCAA women’s bracket: Complete 2024 March Madness field

If there is a true comparison, you probably need to leave basketball and travel back a half century and shake hands with 29-year-old Billie Jean King. King had already won 10 grand slam singles titles and 33 overall grand slams by the time she faced Bobby Riggs in Houston on Sept. 20, 1973. Her straight-sets victory in that night’s carnival show made her an international star but it also fast-tracked tennis becoming a sport where prize money for women and men would be equal.

Basketball, unlike tennis, isn’t wholly defined by prize money, so it may be a while before a woman earns the $53 million Curry is making this year as the NBA’s richest player. No one player can accomplish everything, not even someone, like Clark, who has become The One, and who got to do that without having to endure the Astrodome side show that King did.

But she has done more than her share. We’ll only know for sure five, 10, 15 years from now how deep Clark’s impact has been on the millions of girls to whom she unlocked the mysteries and the beauties of basketball. In the afterglow of what she’s done, it’s a reflex to maybe say, “We’ll never see her likes again.”

But we will. She’s guaranteed that.

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