April 21, 2024

Iowa superstar Caitlin Clark and her Hawkeyes teammates had just wrapped up their third straight Big Ten championship.

As Bri Lewerke watched the celebration on the Target Center floor in Minneapolis, the freelance photographer couldn’t help but think about another basketball icon — the late Kobe Bryant, who had become a huge champion for women’s sports following his 20-year career with the Lakers.

“I often think about Kobe Bryant when it comes to women’s basketball in general,” Lewerke, 29, told The Times in a phone interview. “ I often find myself just feeling sad, like we missed out on so much of Kobe’s support for the women’s game.”

Specifically, Lewerke thought about a famous photo shoot in which a stoic Bryant sat with the Larry O’Brien trophy inside the shower room at Philadelphia’s First Union Center after the Lakers defeated the 76ers to claim the 2001 NBA title.

Lewerke noticed similarities between that trophy and the one the Hawkeyes had just received, and she was inspired. Why not try to re-create the well-known Bryant photo with a new basketball icon who recently broke the all-time scoring record for NCAA Division I basketball, men’s or women’s?

“It wasn’t really planned, but it just came from the inspiration of seeing the trophy and also knowing that this was Caitlin’s senior year and after this she’s moving on to the WNBA,” said Lewerke, a Dallas-based social media manager for Spotify who does photography on the side. “I was hoping to capture that photo while we had the chance.”

Before she became a household name, Clark was a local phenomenon at Dowling High in West Des Moines, Iowa. As a junior in 2019, Clark dropped 60 points during a game against Mason City (Iowa) High, which just happens to be Lewerke’s alma mater.

Iowa guard Caitlin Clark closes her eyes with her arms outstretched as confetti falls on the basketball court.

Iowa guard Caitlin Clark celebrates after an overtime win over Nebraska in the Big Ten championship game Sunday in Minneapolis.

(Abbie Parr / Associated Press)

Lewerke has followed Clark’s career ever since. The two women connected in person last year at the women’s Final Four in Dallas.

“We’ve kind of stayed in touch and talked about opportunities where we could photograph together and whatnot, and then she knew I was coming to the Big Ten championship,” Lewerke said. “We had been talking all weekend and she made sure that I was able to kind of follow her around after the celebration and after the game to get a bunch of photos.”

Lewerke was taking photos of Clark after the championship game when she pitched the idea of recreating the celebrated Bryant photos. Clark, who has worn Bryant’s Nike signature shoes all season, was “super-excited” about the idea and helped Lewerke gain access to the locker room for the shot, the photographer said.

Clark has retweeted several of Lewerke’s posts from the tournament, including one that shows side-by-side photos of Clark and Bryant in the same well-known pose. The Times reached out for comment from Clark through the Iowa women’s basketball team and did not receive an immediate response.

Lewerke has received “overwhelmingly positive reactions” regarding the photos, she said, although there has been some backlash as well. Some people think she shouldn’t be drawing parallels between a conference championship and an NBA title, Lewerke told The Times, while others have said the new photo is inappropriate because of the story behind the old one.

Bryant was emotional during the 2001 photo shoot, later saying, “That was about my dad.” At the time, Bryant was estranged from his parents, who did not attend his wedding in April of that year and were not on hand to see him win his second NBA title in the family’s hometown moments before the shower photos were taken.

But Lewerke stands by her work and all of the positives she feels it represents.

“I think Caitlin absolutely has the Mamba Mentality and I think if Kobe was still here he would be absolutely elated to see Caitlin Clark play and support her,” Lewerke told The Times. “It’s just heartbreaking that we never got to see that happen, but it was still amazing what Kobe did do for the women’s game while he was here. And I think my thought was more about how Kobe would’ve been honored that Caitlin is paying homage to him.”

She added: “I just think there’s a really strong connection there even though he’s not here with us. I think there’s still ways to highlight that connection and honor what he did for the women’s game, and I was just lucky to be a small part of that.”

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