Column: Chicago Bulls host their first ‘Girls’ Day of Play’ — for the girls, by the girls

Vincent D. Johnson/Chicago Tribune/TNS

Just hours after Caitlin Clark made history by breaking the all-time scoring record in Iowa, a different Clark was making basketball history her way on the west side of Chicago.

Lauren Clark, 13, has been playing basketball against her male cousins for years. At her West Side public school, Lauren has competed in every sport and been named captain for each team while maintaining good grades, according to her coach.

Photos: Chicago Bulls host inaugural ‘Girls’ Day of Play’

On Sunday afternoon, along with 149 other girls, Lauren participated in the Chicago Bulls’ first “Girls’ Day of Play” at the Advocate Center. A celebration of women and girls in basketball for Women’s History Month and International Women’s Day, the two-hour long event started with opening remarks from Lt. Gov. Juliana Stratton and a panel featuring WNBA player and Whitney Young graduate Linnae Harper; Conor Richardson, a former guard for Duquesne and Bulls community relations manager; Maezelle Millan, a former point guard for Claremont McKenna and a Bulls data analyst; and Makiyah Williams, a junior guard for UIC.

When I first arrived at the Advocate Center, the girls, their parents and coaches were lined up awaiting entry. The air was buzzing with excitement. But as they checked in, received their new jerseys and separated from their parents, the girls got a little quiet. For some, it was their first time having only girls as teammates.

“Don’t worry about someone telling you what you can’t do,” Stratton told the group in her opening remarks, emphasizing they can be leaders. Near the end of her 10-minute speech, she revealed her favorite T-shirt that read “Do It Afraid.” It was both a mantra for herself and a call to action for them, she said, to let the young women know to not let fear prevent them from following their dreams.

Though there were dads and male coaches there, much of the event was led by women — by design.

“For the past few years, we’ve been doing a girls coaching cohort. A few of us in (the Bulls front office) actually are former college athletes ourselves and we started having discussions about what it means to coach girls because it’s different from coaching boys and a lot of times people coach the way they’ve been coached,” said Adrienne Scherenzel, Bulls vice president of community engagement.

“We’re just thinking differently about how girls should be coached. A group of coaches that are dedicated to coaching girls has been fantastic, but we wanted to do more of a combination event this year. That’s why we came up with the ‘Girls’ Day of Play’. It’s been specially curated to have everything from female coaches to a female DJ to make sure this was a day for the girls by the girls.”

But one man’s presence still loomed large: Michael Jordan. While many of the girls wore Jordan sneakers and apparel, all of them were far too young to have ever seen the man himself play.

After the Q&A panel where Harper and the others shared their experiences, participants were led in drills led by coaches from the Bulls staff while DJ Zel played a selection of tunes by mostly female artists.

Wearing a pink headband, gray sweats, her Bulls-given jersey and a huge smile, it was clear Lauren Clark was in her element. A leader at her school and one of the older girls at the one-day camp, she was encouraging others.

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Screaming “girl power!” as they moved excitedly around the court, the girls shared high fives while learning new skills. As I moved from group to group, they cheered and supported one another and talked about empowerment.

Lauren, who dreams of becoming a professional basketball player, said the shooting drills were her favorite exercise of the day. She also enjoyed the camaraderie: “I made friends and it was a great opportunity. Even if you missed your shots there was a lot of positive energy.”

Cynthia Rosario, a mom who brought her two teenage daughters, agreed the afternoon was about empowerment. The time spent together around women in sports made them feel “approved,” she said.

“The way the girls entered is beyond different than how they’re leaving. When they came in they were shy, they didn’t want to speak to each other just because it was new. It happens to everybody. But as they were doing the clinic, they started to ask each other for their names,” Rosario said.

“It’s like ‘Hey, come on! We can do this!’ And you see this enlightenment happening in their faces; this shine coming through that they’re girls and it doesn’t mean they’re weaker, you’re strong, and they have each other’s back.”

As the event wrapped up, I asked Lauren how her day went and more about her basketball background.

“Who’s your favorite player?” I asked, expecting her to name a WNBA or women’s college basketball player.

“Michael Jordan,” Lauren said confidently.

“You don’t have a current favorite?”

“No, just Michael Jordan,” she replied.

This is still Chicago after all. And for one day, thanks to the Bulls, the girls could all be like Mike.