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Angel Reese doesn’t deserve to be made the villain in WNBA story

CHICAGO — Angel Reese isn’t the villain here.

Oh, she’s willing to play the role. Has gotten comfortable in it, too, over the last two years. If this is what it takes to get, and keep, people watching women’s basketball, this idea that she hates Caitlin Clark or is jealous of her or any of the other mistruths about her, then fine. She’ll take that on.

But she shouldn’t have to. Nor is it accurate.

“I don’t think there’s any jealousy or hate or any of that. I think we’re appreciative to be a part of this journey,” Reese told USA TODAY Sports ahead of the Chicago Sky’s game against the New York Liberty on Tuesday night.

“Obviously, everybody wants this (increased spotlight) and has wanted this for a long time, especially my teammates who’ve been in this league for a little while now. They’ve deserved this for a really long time,” Reese added. “We’ve all been given these opportunities and we don’t take them for granted. So I’m just happy to be a part of it and continue to help grow the game as much as I can.”

So much of the discourse that has surrounded the WNBA in the first month of the season has been toxic and troubling. Rooted not in facts but in assumptions by people who until now have not paid much, if any, attention to the league.

It came to a head Saturday, when the Sky’s Chennedy Carter shoulder checked Clark hard and Reese was seen applauding. The narrative quickly became that Reese resents the credit Clark gets for the increased TV ratings, attendance and sponsor interest, and, as a corollary, the veterans want to put the high-profile rookie in her place even if it endangers her physically.

It’s an easy storyline to believe, especially the Angel as villain part, given the history between Reese and Clark. Their individual fan bases made up their minds about the other player long ago, and this just served to harden opinions.

But that’s ill-informed, too, zooming in on one play — which, to be clear, was inappropriate — of a 40-minute game without considering the context of the entire game and the rough-and-tumble nature of the league.

Worse, it does a disservice to both Clark and Reese.

“Nothing is malicious,” Liberty veteran Breanna Stewart said, speaking in general about the league’s physicality. “It’s just heat-of-the-moment things. Things happen in a game.”

Neither Clark nor Reese asked for the roles they’ve been assigned, Clark as the savior of the W and Reese the WWE-style anti-hero. By reducing them to these caricatures, it diminishes who they are as both people and players when all either wants is to play basketball and for more people to appreciate the game they love.

Expecting the rest of the W to roll out the red carpet every time Clark steps on the floor erases the progress of the previous 27 years and the women responsible for it. Ignores the role Reese and other young players have in the skyrocketing interest, too. Demanding the league step in and protect Clark is patronizing, suggesting she’s not strong enough to hold her own.

And painting Reese as the female Dennis Rodman disregards her considerable talent and hard work. She needed almost no time to prove wrong those who questioned whether her game would translate to the WNBA, coming into Tuesday night’s game leading the league in offensive rebounds and second to Clark among rookies in points per game.

Reese also is making a place for herself in the fashion world, attending the Met Gala last month and starring in Good American’s new ad campaign. Oh, and when LSU announced its student-athletes of the month Monday, guess who was one of them?

“I know my role and I know my purpose in this world,” Reese said. “God put me in this world for a reason. I’m beautiful, educated, smart — I’m so many different things. If (being a villain) is one of the characteristics that people want to put me as, that’s not a thing on it.

“But it doesn’t bother me,” she added. “I’ll continue to come in every day and work hard and grind for everything I deserve and I know that I deserve.”

Chicago loves hard-working, scrappy players who don’t back down to anyone — see the ’85 Bears defense — and the city has already claimed Reese as one of its own. Her jersey sold out almost immediately after she was drafted.

On Tuesday night, despite storms rolling in, some schools still in session and the Cubs and White Sox squaring off in the Crosstown Rivalry, Wintrust Arena was nearly full, with empty seats visible in only a few of the upper sections. Fans cheered every time the P.A. announcer said Reese’s name and they booed even louder when she was given a weak double technical late in the fourth quarter and ejected.

“I’ve dreamed of a moment like this,” Reese said. “Being able to see the (increased) coverage, so many people watching the games … who love us and enjoy us for who we are. All these players have a story that is just phenomenal. And I think that’s why everybody gravitates to us.

“Every little girl here gravitates to a different one of us,” Reese added. “That’s what’s important.”

Even if she wanted to just be Angel, that last part is why she’s willing to play the villain, too. She knows which one she really is.

It’s too bad so many others don’t.

Follow USA TODAY Sports columnist Nancy Armour on social media @nrarmour.

This post appeared first on USA TODAY

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