MINNEAPOLIS – How much does Lindsay Whalen matter to the basketball community?
Monday’s press conference at Mayo Clinic Square offered a resounding answer. The entire Lynx and Timberwolves front office was in attendance to watch Whalen formally announce her retirement at the end of this season. FSN North and NBA TV had live broadcasts of Whalen’s goodbye, and a litany of tweets from the basketball world serenaded an architect of the Minnesota Lynx dynasty.
“She’s had a direct impact on the Minnesota Lynx. The growth, the rise of the franchise and therefore, the impact that it’s had not just on girls, but on boys as well. Lindsay Whalen is absolutely at the forefront of that,” said Cheryl Reeve, Whalen’s head coach for the last nine years.
Whalen’s impact on the court is wondrous: four WNBA titles, five All-Star selections, and one of only three players in league history to earn over 2,000 assists (The others: Sue Bird and Ticha Penicheiro). Not enough validation? How does a three-time league leader in assists and two Olympic gold medals sound?
“Knowing she’s going to find me on the late pass, the way she communicates or the way that she’s grown as an emotional leader for our team and watching her just will us…someone who’s just available. I’ve always appreciated that about her,” said Lynx forward Maya Moore. “All while having fun, keeping it fun. Someone who gives me confidence and energy knowing she’s there. I can’t put everything into words.”
Basketball reporters could spend many words reciting Whalen’s accolades, but her role in making women’s basketball a top ticket for Minnesota will last for generations. She will continue that work as the University of Minnesota women’s basketball head coach, and the number of youth and high school athletes who consider Whalen their favorite player is more than enough to cement a legacy.
“I don’t know (if) I go anywhere without one, people knowing who the Lynx are, but two, telling me their story of why they started watching women’s basketball and what she’s meant,” Reeve said.
This writer’s expedition with women’s basketball began in Whalen’s senior season with the Golden Gophers (2003-04). That happened to be the year of the sensational Final Four run, with Whalen bouncing back from a hand injury to lead the tournament charge. The “kid from Hutchinson” was a household name by that point; I attended an UMYS (United Methodist Youth Seminar) conference in St. Cloud and went to a workshop led by another University of Minnesota athlete. At the end of the workshop, another attendant asked the leader if he was friends with Whalen, and he replied in the affirmative.
The hype surrounding the 2003-04 Gophers team was legit. Sellout crowds poured unfiltered energy into Williams Arena, and its noise level generated a deafening roar that opponents didn’t look forward to. The media coverage surrounding the Gophers team was unparalleled, and former WCCO-TV anchor Don Shelby was a prominent supporter. I was a junior in high school when the magical journey took place, and seeing fans and local celebrities rally around a women’s sport convinced me that an audience was out there.
Whalen planted the proverbial seed in my consciousness, and in my college years, it was common for me to attend Gopher women’s basketball games and do play-by-play for local high school girls contests. Doing so led me to getting a season credential to cover the Lynx in 2009. A year later, Whalen was traded to the Lynx in what was a gutsy move, sacrificing the top pick in the 2010 draft as part of the package with the Connecticut Sun.
The terms of the deal weren’t lost on Whalen at the press conference, poking fun at the uncertainty with her patented dry wit. Any worries proved unfounded as the Lynx began their dominance in 2011, endearing Whalen to another generation of basketball fans.
“It’s pretty amazing, what we’ve been able to do for women’s basketball in this state. It’s something I’m definitely honored to be a part of,” she said.
I have no delusions of becoming the next Lindsay Whalen, but getting to know a fellow sports fan was an enlightening adventure. There was the double-whammy of a snowstorm trapping Whalen and her mother in North Dakota following a recruiting visit, because Whalen didn’t want to leave before the 1998 NFC Championship game started. The game didn’t end well for Whalen, a Minnesota loyalist: the Atlanta Falcons beat the heavily favored Minnesota Vikings in overtime to reach the Super Bowl. Whalen considered it her worst sports day ever.
One of her best days came in 2015, the first time the Lynx won a championship at home. Amidst the celebration, Whalen was happy to join her Lynx comrades in targeting the media with a champagne shower. When Whalen was aware that I broadcast prep basketball games, she would ask me if I planned to keep going with it (spoiler alert: the answer is still yes).
Whether you represented a big-time outlet like ESPN or a fledgling operation, Whalen was appreciative of anyone who devoted their time to women’s basketball. Her gratitude is one of many resounding qualities behind her iconic status in the state of Minnesota. Of course, legends like Whalen cannot be replaced, but she dropped a few tips for her spiritual successor.
“Depending on what your goals are and where you want to get to, it’s all about how much you work you put in and how good you want to get at your craft,” she said. “It starts with everything you do when you’re not at practice, not at a game.”
That could have been Whalen’s experience talking. When she graduated from Hutchinson High School in 2000, a local newspaper placed her on the All-Metro Third Team. Present-day fans might wonder “What were they thinking?”, but Whalen simply pushed ahead. As she transitions to coaching full-time, this writer and her legion of followers are forever grateful that Whalen got to write a few chapters of this story.