Angel Reese Knows That People Want a Show

Near the end of the Southeastern Conference championship game, between Louisiana State University and the University of South Carolina—a tight, physical contest, which South Carolina, the top-ranked team in the nation, was winning as time wound down—L.S.U.’s Flau’jae Johnson intentionally fouled a South Carolina player, and then pushed another, Ashlyn Watkins, after Watkins, delighted at Johnson’s desperation, got in her face and crowed. Watkins headed toward the bench and clapped, taking the contact with a satisfied smile. But, behind her, South Carolina’s center Kamilla Cardoso came over and shoved Johnson, who is nearly a foot shorter, to the floor. Players from both benches ran toward the melee; coaches rushed to separate them. A man—later identified as Johnson’s brother—jumped over the scorer’s table to join the fight, before backing off, suddenly seeming to notice that Cardoso is six feet seven. He was led away by police. It took referees around fifteen minutes to sort out the ejections. In the end, it was easier to say who was still eligible than it was to list all the players who were thrown out.

After the game, South Carolina’s head coach, Dawn Staley, apologized “to the basketball community” for the fight: “That’s not who we are and that’s not what we are about.” L.S.U.’s coach Kim Mulkey was not so circumspect. “No one wants to see that ugliness,” she said, before criticizing Cardoso—not for pushing someone but for pushing someone smaller than her. “I can tell you this: I wish she would have pushed Angel Reese.” Presumably, Mulkey was joking—it can be hard to tell with her—but her implication was obvious enough.

When the fight began, Reese, L.S.U.’s star forward, was near her team’s bench. She had her hands on her knees. It had been a bruising game, and moments earlier she’d rolled an already injured ankle. Reese had been battling Cardoso for position under the basket all day, arms entangling, bodies bumping. She had fouled and been fouled; some of the fouls were called, and some were not, including a quick yank of Cardoso’s long hair as Reese turned to run up the floor. Reese is one of the world’s great trash-talkers, not least because she always seems ready to back it up. But she knew better, apparently, than to jump into a brawl. While players from the bench streamed past her toward the scrum, Reese turned and limped in the other direction.

After the game, which South Carolina ended up winning 79–72, a video of Reese walking away from the fight went viral. Never mind that another video of Reese, consoling and conversing with Johnson as the referees sorted out the situation, had surfaced on social media, as well. Angel Reese has many detractors, more on account of who she is than what she does, and they seized on her desertion as evidence of poor character. They would have said the same had she scrapped. There are also many people who adore Reese, likewise more for who she is than what she does. She makes no apology either way. “As a person at my STATUS, sometimes you have to walk away from certain situations,” she responded on Twitter, after the game, and then mentioned her ankle. “I ALWAYS ride for mine,” she added.

Two million people watched the matchup on ESPN. It got higher ratings than either of the N.B.A. games on the network later that night.

A year ago, Reese led L.S.U. to the national title, routing Caitlin Clark—technically, the University of Iowa—in the final. Reese won the Most Outstanding Player award, and became famous in the process. She oozed juice: strutting, vamping, batting her inch-long eyelash extensions, bullying her way to rebounds or tough baskets. She isn’t always the most gifted player on the court; she has a bit of a hesitation to her shot, and a number of her rebounds are off her own misses. But that says something, too: she doesn’t give up.

She clearly had a sense for what people want: a show. Her Instagram bio does not say “basketball player” but “entrepreneur.” After her mother overheard someone calling Reese the Bayou Barbie, Reese started selling merch splashed with the nickname, and tried to trademark it. (Her application was denied.) During pregame introductions, she incorporated a routine in which an actual crown was placed on her head. The artifice worked because it never seemed artificial. The show involved the drama of confrontation; there had to be something behind the style. She had that rare, riveting quality of genuine charisma, and it was built on her competitive bona fides. She tattooed the word “UNAPOLOGETIC” on her forearm.

There were models for what Reese was doing; Serena Williams comes to mind. But Williams was, first and foremost, a winner, one of the most dominant ever. Reese is in a more precarious position, and she is still only twenty-one years old. At the end of the championship game last April, Reese approached Clark on the court, copying a taunting gesture that Clark herself had done a few days earlier. When Clark, who is white, had done it, it had been widely characterized as a sign of her stone-cold cool. After Reese did it, she was called classless. The racial overtones were obvious. “All year, I was critiqued about who I was,” Reese said postgame. “I don’t fit in a box that y’all want me to be in. I’m too hood. I’m too ghetto. . . . But when other people do it y’all don’t say nothing. So this was for the girls that look like me, that’s going to speak up on what they believe in. It’s unapologetically you.”

The truth is, Clark and Reese had no problems with each other. They were both hoopers, ballers, competitive to a fault. There was a burgeoning hope among fans of the sport that they could be like Magic and Bird, rivals who would vault women’s basketball into the cultural mainstream. Last year’s Final Four broke viewership records, and when a new eight-year media deal was announced, in January, women’s basketball was valued at sixty-five million dollars, more than ten times its valuation in the previous deal. And some thought that was selling it short.

After winning the championship, Reese got endorsement deals with companies such as Mercedes-Benz and Coach. She posed for the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue. When Shaquille O’Neal became the president of Reebok Basketball, she was the first person he signed. According to On3, which tracks name, image, and likeness deals for college athletes, she is making more money from sponsorships than any college basketball player who isn’t Clark or LeBron James’s son. When L.S.U. opened its season, against the University of Colorado, the team was ranked No. 1 in the nation. During introductions, Reese wore a crown. And then Colorado, which was ranked twentieth in the country, won the game.

It’s been a weird season for Reese. During the fourth game, against Kent State, Mulkey pulled her at halftime—the team was up by just two points—and refused to say why. Then Reese missed the next game, and the one after that. She wasn’t on the bench, or in the building. Mulkey made vague references to “locker-room issues” and likened the situation to a parent disciplining her children. Then, without explanation, after four games away, Reese was back. She wouldn’t say what happened, either, except to talk about the importance of “mental health.” Everyone seemed fine! Any issues were left in the locker room, and L.S.U. started to mesh on the court as the season went on. Reese went on to win the Southeastern Conference player of the year, and the team has largely stayed out of the spotlight.

The spotlight has been dominated by one player: Clark, who was setting records and television ratings on fire. Clark has big sponsors (Nike, Gatorade), but she doesn’t get, or seek, the same kind of exposure as Reese, who has, for instance, 2.7 million followers on Instagram, to Clark’s 1.1 million. This season has largely been marketed as the Caitlin Clark Show, and for good reason. But the explosive growth of women’s basketball depends on more than one person. It takes two to fight.

Sports have always been cast in the symbols of war, of combat and victory and defeat. Of course, there is a line in sport between fighting and fighting, metaphor and reality. It is, in some sense, the bright line—the reason for sport itself, the productive transformation and channelling of aggression into competition. That sublimation is what seems to drive the game’s great competitors, including Clark, with all her ferocious hunger, in Iowa, and Dawn Staley and South Carolina, which went undefeated in the regular season, despite losing all its starters from last year. It seems to drive Reese as well. And it’s what’s driven the interest in women’s basketball this past year. It’s what real rivalries are about. ♦

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