For the past three years, former Gopher basketball star Lindsay Whalen has spent her winters—the off-season of the Women’s National Basketball Association—in the Czech Republic. The 27-year-old plays guard for USK Praha, where she’s known for her bullet-fast passes and acrobatic lay-ups.
But like anyone newly immersed in a foreign country and culture, she’s discovered there’s a lot to learn. “I know a little Czech—thank you, how are you doing,” she says. She has also learned much of her chosen trade’s specialized vocabulary: pass, dribble, shoot. To handle the rest of the nuances, a translator comes to practices, following the Czech-speaking coach along the sidelines and interpreting his commands to Whalen and the other English-speaking players. It’s the only time that Whalen seems even the least bit out of her element within the familiar confines of the basketball court.
So perhaps it’s no surprise that she enjoys returning to the United States each spring, where she doesn’t need an interpreter to decipher whether or not she can bail on the wind sprints for a water break. Still, this year has proved to be even sweeter: Thanks to a January trade from the Connecticut Sun, she’ll fly to Minneapolis after the Euroleague wraps up and start preparing herself to play for her new team, the Minnesota Lynx. It will be the first time that she’s played for a Minnesota team since she led the Gophers to a NCAA Final Four appearance in 2004. “I’m excited to be coming home,” she says. “I think there are a lot of good things ahead.”
It’s an understatement of Minnesota proportions, because expectations could hardly be higher for the team now that Whalen has been added to the roster. Teammate and captain Seimone Augustus has publicly started plotting out the team’s victory parade route along Hennepin Avenue. And head coach Cheryl Reeve has placed the future of the franchise squarely on Whalen’s shoulders. “If you think of the most exciting times in the history of the franchise, this would have to rank in the top two,” she says. “The first was when the Lynx announced that they would be in Minnesota. The second is the acquisition of Lindsay Whalen.” There’s no doubt that everyone from top brass to casual fans are expecting some hardware for the team in the very near future.
If anyone can handle that kind of pressure, it’s Whalen. Over the course of her four years as a Gopher, she helped move the women’s team from ho-hum to high-energy. She electrified crowds with her clutch shots, behind-the-back passes, and deft evasion of defenders. Those crowd-pleasing moves helped ratchet up average attendance from 1,000 a game when she started to nearly 10,000 during her final season.
Yet, it wasn’t just her sensational moves that endeared her to fans—it was her ability to get all of her teammates to perform at a higher level when it counted most. The Gophers were expected to fizzle at the 2004 NCAA tournament. Instead, Whalen and her teammates astonished their opponents, toppling the nation’s best teams as easily as dominoes. They decimated teams that should have defeated them handily, and gave the tournament’s eventual winner, UConn, a run for its money.
For the first time, Gopher women’s basketball became dinner-table talk. Whalen gamely signed autographs and fended off marriage proposals. Before Joe Mauer became our collective hometown sports crush, we had Whalen.
But Whalen was even bigger than her outsize stats could convey. She helped usher in a new era for Gopher women’s basketball and a heightened appreciation for women’s sports. Even today, the Gophers routinely draw enough fans to make them one of the most popular college women’s basketball teams in the country.
After her sweetheart season with the Gophers, she headed to Connecticut. But even from afar, Whalen has had an impact on the Lynx. The Lynx took out newspaper ads whenever Whalen showed up in Minnesota in a Sun uniform, and attendance invariably spiked. She was welcomed with a roar of approval, even when her jaw-dropping shots were helping Connecticut win.
The Lynx have no doubt that Whalen will continue her strong performances, which include leading the league in assists and coming this close to earning the league’s MVP award in 2008. Augustus, a longtime Lynx leader, admits she’s looking forward to having Whalen as a teammate instead of an opponent. “She’s a great floor leader,” she says. “She knows how to control the team and the tempo of the game. Her strengths will make us a better team.”
And the team is, after all, the point. The Lynx don’t just want Whalen in uniform to dazzle the crowd, they want her to create lifelong women’s basketball fans, just as she did for the University of Minnesota. Whalen, it is clear, is seen not just as the foundation for the Lynx’s success this year, but for the future of women’s professional basketball in Minnesota. “It’s one thing to be excited that Lindsay’s coming home, and it’s another to be a fan of the Minnesota Lynx,” says Reeve. “The thing we’re looking for is for people to become fans, buy season tickets, be at the games, and create the kind of energy that people saw with the Gophers. That will be the real Lindsay effect.”
Whalen is ready for the challenge, but more to the point, she’s ready to be home. Leaving Connecticut—where she’s become a fan favorite and built friendships on the floor and front office—will be bittersweet. Still, there’s no question that being far from home has worn her down. “Ben [Greve, Whalen’s husband and former Gopher golfer] and I are both from Minnesota, and our families and friends are there,” she says. “They enjoy visiting Connecticut, but when you just get to see them on holidays and quick trips between seasons, it can get lonely,” she says.
Maybe, it turns out, Whalen needs Minnesota just as much as the state needs her. Starting in May, the grueling schedule that has kept her in an unending flight loop between Connecticut, Minnesota, and Eastern Europe will get one leg shorter, and that’s something for which all of us can be grateful.
When Whalen steps onto her home court for the first time in a Lynx uniform, don’t be surprised if the crowd greets her like a long-lost friend. Cheers may not be anything like Czech, but there’s no questioning the translation: Thank you. How are you doing?
During the course of her college and pro career, Whalen’s put up some remarkable numbers. Here are a few of her top stats.
2,285 Number of points Whalen scored during her collegiate career, the highest of any Gopher, male or female
2 The number of WNBA players, including Whalen, who have averaged at least 10 points, 5 rebounds, and 5 assists per game for a season
2 Number of WNBA All-Star games Whalen has been elected to
Erin Peterson is a Minneapolis writer and editor. She co-wrote the magazine’s January cover story, “Who’s Making Money Now.”