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Iowa Hawkeyes guard Caitlin Clark cuts the net after defeating the LSU Lady Tigers in the finals of the Albany Regional in the 2024 NCAA Tournament at MVP Arena, in Albany, NY on April 1.Gregory Fisher/Reuters

Shortly after he arrived in Toronto, Raghib (The Rocket) Ismail was presented at a public practice on the field of an Etobicoke high school.

I’d gone up there with a couple of friends expecting a Beatles at Shea Stadium experience. Ismail was the hottest thing going. Coming out of Notre Dame, he was the likely No. 1 pick in the NFL draft, but chose the CFL and $20-million instead. And so here he was.

It wasn’t much of a crowd. More of a gathering. You could see Ismail coming from a long way off because he had to walk in from the parking lot in his spikes.

He waved at the few dozen of us, and we waved back. There wasn’t any cheering that I can recall. The setting was too desultory for that.

You didn’t know for sure how it would turn out, but right then you strongly suspected that a terrible error in judgment had been made.

When I see Caitlin Clark right now, Raghib Ismail is who I think of.

This week, Clark graduated to a new level of stardom. The one where people don’t have to unroll your CV every time they say your name. They just know that they’re expected to know who you are.

On Friday, Clark’s Iowa team will play the University of Connecticut in the semis of the NCAA women’s Final Four. The championship game is on Sunday. If all goes to plan, that might be the biggest game of college sport ever.

Sound the trumpets. Women’s sport is past arriving. Riding Clark’s ability and charisma, it is on the cusp of transcendence.

Now things get tricky.

Were women’s sport more developed, Clark’s next steps would be set in stone. Join the best league, work hard, get better, win championships, go to a couple of Olympics, remember to have fun, retire before your body is held together by pins, bask in glory.

But since women’s sport is not developed, Clark is at a fork. Does she go the expected route, or does she join the circus?

The expected route is the WNBA. The salary of a top WNBA draft pick peaks at US$75,000 in the first year. As a college player, Clark makes about $3-million for her image rights.

Thus, Clark is in position to go from amateur to professional and lose a lot of money (though probably not).

Either way, Clark isn’t getting stinking rich off her night job. The highest-paid player in the history of the WNBA makes a quarter-of-a-million a season. This is where the circus sees an opportunity.

First man in was rapper/actor/would-be impresario Ice Cube. He runs a 3-on-3 league called Big3. It has a Battle of the Network Stars feel, and has yet to gain much traction.

Ice Cube is telling anyone who’ll listen he will pay Clark US$5-million a year to join one of his teams. A season in this instance is 10 games including playoffs. Ice Cube believes Clark can do both – play in the WNBA and do the Big3 during the off-season.

Once Barstool Sports founder Dave Portnoy heard that, he announced he would pay Clark $10-million to play on his intramural basketball team. No word on how many games he means. I guess it depends on how often can they get a court at the West Side YMCA.

Like a lot of 21st-century media ideas, it’s a joke, but not really.

Next up – rapper L’il Durk. He also has $10-million burning a hole in his pocket if Clark will agree to be on his 3-on-3 team. Small wrinkle – he doesn’t have a team. But, again, after you’ve reached a certain level, $10-million isn’t that much for a commercial everyone will talk about.

So far, Clark has chosen the ‘I don’t even think about this stuff’ routine, which is smart. A bald-faced lie, but smart. She is in the unprompted-bidding-war phase of her professional life. Why sour that by being seen to lean one way or the other?

But when it comes time to start leaning, she would do well to have someone like Ismail and his misadventures front of mind.

Like Clark, Ismail was more than a physical genius. He was a cultural phenomenon. He oozed warmth and intelligence. He was going to make the NFL less brutish. He would help them access a different sort of customer.

Clark is in the same position. It’s more than being able to hit a three from two postal codes away. She’s got that secret sauce that makes people want to watch. The best word you can think for it is charm.

Charm is a perishable commodity, especially once you start exchanging it for cash.

Who knows what sort of impact Ismail would have made if he’d made the obvious decision instead of the clever one. In the CFL, he was a disappointment – often injured, soon ignored.

By the time Ismail abandoned Canada, people had stopped caring. He went on to play nine seasons in the NFL. You’d be hard pressed to recall a single highlight.

A lot of people want a piece Clark right now. They’re offering a ton more money than the WNBA. But she should be clear on the job they want to hire her to do – professional clown.

A pro athlete competes for a reputable business which is an ongoing concern. A professional clown works for the circus, which is designed to collapse overnight and move along to the next opportunity.

Ice Cube, Portnoy, Mr. Durk, whoever else comes along rattling the change in their pocket – they are carnival barkers.

Bruce McNall, the Argos owner who lured Ismail to his professional doom? Not just a barker, but also a grifter.

The people who run the circus do not have Clark’s interests, or the interests of sport, in mind. Theirs is the rationale of the huckster – get ‘em in the door by whatever means necessary and we’ll worry about the show later.

It may seem like you can go the expected route and take circus money, but you can’t. Every dollar you earn is a bit of your charm frittered away. Soon, no matter how good you are, you’re just like every other clown on the internet.

Ismail was no one’s clown, but he made one bad decision and paid for it forever. Clark is too young to remember him. I hope for her sake the people advising her aren’t.

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