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Indiana all-in on Caitlin Clark fever

Brian Babineau / National Basketball Association / Getty

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Michelle Lennis grew up playing basketball in Indiana as a born-and-raised Purdue fan.

But this season, Lennis also found herself cheering for the Iowa women’s basketball team led by Caitlin Clark as the college player rocketed her sport to new levels.

When the Indiana Fever made Clark its No. 1 pick in the WNBA draft Monday, it immediately turned up the heat in a city and state that already live and breathe basketball. Lennis, 43, was all-in on the excitement.

“She put it on the map like nobody else has,” Lennis said Tuesday, tearing up as she described her own case of Caitlin Clark fever. “People don’t take it seriously. They just don’t take women seriously.”

Before shopping Tuesday at the team store, Lennis and her 7-year-old son attended a WNBA draft party Monday night at Gainbridge Fieldhouse, the home of the Fever. She was thrilled to see both young boys and girls hyped for Clark's upcoming WNBA debut.

“As a former player, seeing all the the hate and the comments and comparisons — and Caitlin just finally shut them all up," Lennis said.

Nearly 17,000 tickets were claimed for the free draft party on Monday at Gainbridge in Indianapolis, home also to the NBA’s Indiana Pacers. Fans watched a live video feed from the WNBA draft event in New York and erupted into cheers while balloons fell following the pick.

Fever players including Erica Wheeler, Maya Caldwell and Lexie Hull leapt to their feet and then pulled on red Fever jerseys with the No. 22 and Clark’s name in white.

Coach Christie Sides later joined the players on the court, asking the crowd to reenact their reaction to the pick since she hadn’t been in the room to experience it. She wore a red T-shirt that was among the Clark-branded items quickly offered on the team’s fan store: “With the 1st pick in the 2024 WNBA draft, the Indiana Fever select Caitlin Clark.”

Stephanie Bevins, who works with Lennis at a restaurant near Gainbridge, expects a surge of customers to the business during the the highly anticipated Fever season. The two bought Clark and Fever merchandise at the team store Tuesday afternoon over their lunch break for fear they would sell out later.

The anticipation of the Fever’s pick was already clear this spring. The WNBA scheduled 36 of the team’s 40 regular season games for national broadcasts or on streaming partners, appearing eight times across ABC, ESPN and ESPN2 as well as eight times on ION and twice on CBS.

Last season, the Fever had one game scheduled to be shown on ESPN and no appearances on the other networks.

The team hasn’t said how many tickets it sold during the 2023 season.

The Fever have two preseason games — May 3 away against the Dallas Wings and May 10 at home in Indianapolis. The regular season starts May 14 away against the Connecticut Sun. The team's first home game is May 16 against the New York Liberty.

Ticketmaster’s website on Tuesday showed courtside tickets for the home opener being listed for resale for as much as $2,300 apiece. Resale tickets in the topmost balcony were being shown for a more reasonable $40.

City and state leaders of the basketball state have eagerly awaited Clark's arrival since she announced her intention to enter the draft in February. Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb called Clark on Tuesday night following the draft welcoming her to Indianapolis.

“It's a basketball state, I know the ticket sales have been amazing,” Clark said on the phone call. "... I can’t think of a better place to start my career.”

“Caitlin's impact will almost certainly have ripple effects from our Downtown businesses to our neighborhood playgrounds,” Indianapolis Mayor Joe Hogsett said in a post on X after the draft.

Jeremiah Marshall said basketball was built in Indiana. He bought half-season tickets for the Fever for the first time this year ahead of the Clark fever.

“She's a Midwestern personality,” he said.

Shelby Tekulve, 20, bought a new collection of Fever merchandise Tuesday afternoon, including a T-shirt commemorating the historic draft that reads, “1st pick WNBA Draft Caitlin Clark.”

Tekulve and her family have been Fever season ticket holders for three years. She expects Clark to not only bring new energy to the team, but to the Fever fanbase, the city of Indianapolis and the WNBA.

“This season is going to be a lot of fun,” she said. “A lot of new people, a lot of new fans.”

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