It felt like a message. How could it not be?

As Iowa star Caitlin Clark warmed up on the court on Monday night for their heavyweight bout, LSU’s Angel Reese placed a crown on the LSU bench mere feet away from her rival not long before they tipped off.

Online speculation started immediately, context be damned. Social media accounts rushed to share pictures of the crown that Reese left in Clark’s view. Was it a taunt? A flex? Was it meant to say, I’m the champ until you come take this from me?

The crown was not meant as a message for Clark at all, it turns out. It’s a prop merely for the Tigers’ team ritual. Before every game, LSU teammate Amani Bartlett does a handshake with Reese and places the crown on her head because she’s “the queen.”

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We’ve never really been able to see how burdensome that crown can be for the Randallstown native until after LSU lost to the Hawkeyes on Monday night.

The 21-year-old Reese started off the game electric, pulling the Tigers back ahead of Iowa — but then twisted her ankle and wound up shooting just 7 for 21. She had 17 points and 20 rebounds to go with three authoritative blocks, but it was not enough to counter against Clark’s world-beating performance sizzling from well beyond the arc.

When asked about Reese’s leadership, sophomore Flau’jae Johnson took the opportunity to push back at the people who throw stones at her teammate.

“Everybody can have their opinion on Angel Reese, but y’all don’t know her,” she said. “Y’all don’t know Angel Reese. I know Angel Reese. I know the real Angel Reese, and the person I see every day is a strong person, is a caring, loving person. But the crown she wears is heavy.”

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Poetically, it was Johnson’s praise of Reese’s toughness that made her exterior finally crack. Reese sniffed and wiped away the tears forming at the ends of her billowing eyelashes.

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Reese’s Bayou Barbie persona (or “Baltimore Barbie” as she also has called herself) is about relentless confidence and self-assertion. She gives this city credit for raising her strong, for making her willful and hard-nosed, and for giving her the tenacity to climb to the top of women’s basketball a year ago and be crowned champion. And she gives back, whether it be through scholarships, or a recent campaign to help Black women close the racial wealth gap.

But getting to the top, in brash fashion nonetheless, made her a target — and we’re not talking about the teams who wanted to beat the Tigers on the court.

Reese has been called an “idiot.” She’s been called a piece of excrement. She’s seen her likeness twisted and manipulated by artificial intelligence for people’s crude imaginations. In the last week, she and her teammates were called “dirty debutantes” flippantly in a major publication (the sentence was later removed for not meeting editorial standards).

Reese said before the game that she was willing to play a villain role if that’s what people expected of her. But afterward, her teammates’ words moved her to show just how much she’s been dealing with since becoming famous.

A tiara that Angel Reese of the LSU Tigers placed on the bench is pictured before a game against the Iowa Hawkeyes in the Elite 8 round of the NCAA Women's Basketball Tournament at MVP Arena on April 1, 2024 in Albany, New York. (Sarah Stier/Getty Images)

“I’ve been through so much. I’ve seen so much,” Reese said. “I’ve been attacked so many times, death threats, I’ve been sexualized, I’ve been threatened, I’ve been so many things, and I’ve stood strong every single time. I just try to stand strong for my teammates because I don’t want them to see me down and not be there for them.

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Added Reese: “I just want them to always know, I’m still a human.”

Because Reese is a champion, because she’s a marketing star, newly rich and appears on the cover of magazines, she can feel more like a brand than a living, breathing person. For young girls, especially Black girls in her hometown, she represents the potential to succeed without having to compromise competitiveness and outspokenness — two qualities that women have been historically forced to suppress.

But achieving that level of celebrity at just 21 takes an enormous toll. Throughout the season, Reese has referenced how important tending to her mental health is. A mysterious in-season suspension raised all kinds of questions and conspiracy theories, undermining the sense of power she’s cultivated as a champion. Although Reese has often touted her coach Kim Mulkey as a supportive figure in her life, often in this NCAA Tournament run Mulkey’s own combative impulses seemed to be an off-court distraction.

If you add the projections that people place on Reese, including racist and sexist tropes, it’s beyond imagining how hard it must be for her to shut out the noise.

Teammate Hailey Van Lith — a highly marketable hooper in her own right who was roasted online as Clark scored on her — said she’s never seen anyone receive as much vitriol as Reese. But she’s also never seen anyone handle it as well.

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“Y’all do not get to Angel Reese, so you might want to throw the towel in because you’re wasting your energy,” Van Lith said. “Angel is one of the toughest people I’ve been around.”

Of all the people who would reasonably bear a grudge against Reese, Clark has been one of her biggest off-court supporters. After beating Reese’s team, Clark came up to to her in the handshake line and told her to continue being a great player. Reese said the same.

In the year since they went viral for Reese’s taunts (and the overblown reaction), they’ve seemingly only gained more respect for the weight of the expectations they each bear. Maybe they’re the only ones who can understand what that’s like.

In the next few days, Reese (who has a year of eligibility remaining) will decide whether her LSU career is over. But her days as a celebrity seem only to be beginning: She’ll undoubtedly be one of the WNBA’s most interesting players, and it’s easy to envision her outsized personality and charisma translating to other entertainment mediums whenever her basketball days are done.

Making the transition into the public eye has been difficult, Reese acknowledged. It has tested that human being who still remains beneath the Bayou Barbie facade. But it’s not in her nature to harbor regrets, and she won’t start now.

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“I wouldn’t change anything, and I would still sit here and say I’m unapologetically me,” she said. “I’m going to always leave that mark and be who I am and stand on that. And hopefully the little girls that look up to me, and hopefully I give them some type of inspiration that know hopefully it’s not this hard and all the things that come at you, but keep being who you are, keep waking up every day, keep being motivated, staying who you are, stand ten toes, don’t back down, and just be confident.”

Reese won’t be a champion again this year, but leave her the crown. As heavy as it is, she wears it well.