Fascinating ‘Full Court Press’ captures off-court lives of Caitlin Clark, Kamilla Cardoso, Kiki Rice

We know Caitlin Clark, Kamilla Cardoso and Kiki Rice can ball, and the four-part ESPN documentary “Full Court Press” does a stellar job of showcasing their respective talents — but my favorite parts of this timely and fascinating and inspirational series are the insider, behind-the-scenes moments, which range from silly to insightful to uplifting to heartwarming. Just a small sampling:

  • As Iowa’s generational and transcendent superstar Caitlin Clark’s life becomes ever more surreal (“Tom Brady just followed me,” she casually notes to boyfriend Connor McCaffery while scrolling through her phone), Clark and her teammates and coaches gather at the St. Burch Tavern in Iowa City for a holiday party. Wearing a necklace of old-fashioned Christmas tree bulbs, Caitlin jokes about the number of candles that are gifted in the Secret Santa exchange — before getting a candle, and a pair of heated gloves, as a present. It’s that increasingly rare moment when Caitlin can just be a happy college kid, hanging around and joking with her friends. (Albeit with cameras lurking.)
  • UCLA sophomore guard Kiki Rice is a singular talent with a rich family legacy of high achievers. Her father John played basketball for Yale, her mother Andrea was a tennis player at Yale, her cousin Allan Houston was a two-time NBA All-Star and her aunt, Susan Rice, is a diplomat who was U.S. ambassador to the United Nations from 2009 to 2013. Rice is a brilliant player, but she has a relatively reserved personality and has moments of wavering confidence. Meeting regularly with sports psychologist Nicole Davis, Kiki works on the mental side of her game, and overcoming her “fear of results.” It’s a reminder of the enormous pressures felt by these young stars in a game that has exploded over the last few years.
  • South Carolina superstar center (and now Chicago Sky rookie) Kamilla Cardoso grew up in Montes Claros, Brazil, and moved to the United States when she was 15 to pursue her basketball dreams, leaving behind her hardworking mother, Janete Soares, and her fiercely loyal sister, Jessica Cardosa Silva. Cardoso’s family had never seen her play in the United States — until they visit her in advance of South Carolina Senior Night. “I can’t even believe it,” says Kamilla’s mother upon arriving in the United States. “I can’t even believe I’m in America.” If you don’t have a lump in your throat when Cardoso’s mother and sister surprise her after a practice, you might be dead.

Directed with great skill and fly-on-the-wall style by Kristen Lappas, featuring extended interviews with Clark, Rice and Cardoso, as well as their coaches, family members and a deep roster of ESPN talent including basketball-great-turned-analyst Rebecca Lobo, Holly Rowe and Elle Duncan, “Full Court Press” follows in the tradition of insider sports docs such as HBO’s “Hard Knocks” and Netflix series such as “Formula 1: Drive to Survive,” “Full Swing” and “Quarterback.” The key to these series is for the filmmakers to reach a level of comfort and trust with their subjects; of course they’re going to be aware of the ubiquitous presence of the cameras and microphones, but the more time you spend with them, the more they let down their guard and give us access to their lives, on and off the court.

Recognizing that Women’s College Basketball was on the precipice of an historic year, the ESPN documentarians have their cameras in place from the outset of the 2023-24 season, starting with the “Crossover at Kinnick” exhibition game between Iowa and DePaul, with a women’s basketball record-setting 55,646 in attendance at Iowa’s football stadium, Clark sinking jumpers through the outdoor winds.

We follow Clark, Rice and Cardoso as they work the weight room and practice sessions and hit the floor for early season games; it’s an added bonus to see how coaches Lisa Bluder, Cori Close and Dawn Staley conduct practices, motivate their players and make game-time adjustments. There’s also a treasure trove of home video footage, e.g., when little “Caty” Clark insists on riding her pink bicycle without training wheels because her older brother had ridden his bike sans wheels. The competitor was there practically from birth.

“Full Court Press” shows us the benefits of college stardom — as when Rice gets NIL deals with the Jordan brand and Beats headphones, and Clark does a State Farm ad with Jimmy Butler and poses for pics in front an enormous Times Square electronic billboard of her likeness — as well as the pressures. Cardoso is filled with remorse when she’s suspended for the first game of the NCAA tournament for a fighting penalty in the SEC Championship Game, and she talks about how her teammates are family to her, while Clark opens up about “always having to be on,” even when she’s having a bad day, because when “somebody comes up, this is their 10-second interaction with you” and they’ll be telling that story for the rest of their lives.

Mostly, though, “Full Court Press” is an invaluable chronicle of a special time for women’s basketball, and three amazing women who are pivotal in shaping its future.

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