Powerhouse

How Lindsay Whalen resurrected the Lady Gophers

The Sports Pavilion next to Williams Arena on the University of Minnesota campus is festooned with two telling artifacts--an advertisement for Slumberland sleep mattresses and the massive "Ms" logo that someone came up with in the '80s as a way to artfully distinguish the women's athletic program from the men's. But to do so, all anyone had to do was compare the two facilities: If Williams is the Barn, the Pavilion is a shack. The Pavilion is where the Gophers women's basketball team played, and belonged, for 10 years. Fittingly, their last full year in the building was 2000-2001--Lindsay Whalen's freshman season.

Whalen's initiation was as dour as they come: one Big Ten victory, no postseason play, and a coach, Cheryl Littlejohn, who was fired for rules violations that brought the program sanctions, stripped scholarships, and to the brink of the NCAA death penalty. Not to mention some of the loneliest sounds known to any basketball player or fan during a game--the thump-thump of a ball bouncing, the squeak-squeak of shoes cutting, the echo-echo of coaches' instructions and players' grunts careening through a nearly empty gym.

"Sometimes we'd have a couple hundred people in there," says Whalen before practice last month, sitting in the team's film room located between the Pavilion and Williams. "We'd run out to the song, 'Who Let the Dogs Out?' And you just remember this quiet, dull cheer: 'Who...let the...dogs out?' It was like the most somber group of people ever assembled. It was seriously like a funeral. Plus there was the fact that it was a group of girls running out to 'Who Let the Dogs Out?' It just all didn't make sense."

 

Fast-forward to November 22 of this, Whalen's senior year. Opening night. The Gophers are about to play Southern (Louisiana) University in the first game of the Subway Classic at Williams, their home for the last two seasons. After two consecutive appearances in the NCAA tournament--including a run to the Sweet Sixteen last year--expectations are high. The team is ranked 13th nationally (and will jump to 7th two weeks later; the highest in school history), and has set attendance records (including the 13,117 who saw the Gophers beat defending Big Ten champions Purdue in January) at Williams, where the opening round of the NCAA tournament will be held in March.

Sitting in the locker room before the Southern game, coach Pam Borton tells Whalen, "This is your last first home game of the season. Make it your best one."

She does, by the numbers (27 points, 7 rebounds, 4 assists) and by the sort of artistry that doesn't make the box score. Seven minutes into the first half, already a blowout, with the Gophers up 11-1, Whalen streaks downcourt on a fast break with freshman guard Kelly Roysland on her left wing and a defender between them. Whalen's clipped ponytail bobs with ballerina primness, while a single wisp of hair flutters rebelliously from her headband. In one motion, Whalen--or "Deejay Wha, she spins the rhymes and drops the dimes," as she's been known to boast about her passing prowess--bolts at the hoop, freezes the defender, and flips a perfect behind-the-back pass to Roysland, who gets fouled but misses the layup. The crowd of 5,000 squeals and gives Whalen a standing ovation that acknowledges her creativity, tenacity, and the wondrous, ongoing serendipity of her presence in maroon and gold.

Some day this spring, most likely on a basketball court far away from the permanently popcorn-singed comfort of the Barn, Whalen's Gopher career will come to an end in a saline gushing of sweat and tears. The sweat will be from one last hard-fought game. The tears, win or lose, from Whalen and her followers, will stem from the fact that this kid from Hutchinson, Minnesota, won't be lighting up the cold winter nights on the East Bank anymore.

Sooner than later, a banner with Whalen's picture will hang from the Williams Arena rafters, joining fellow women's basketball pioneers Laura Coenen and Carol Ann Shudlick. But until that happens, every time Whalen is taken out of a game, every time she goes to the bench, slaps five with her teammates and sits down, the ovations will shower down on her with a discernible bittersweetness, as if everybody in the Barn recognizes that one of these nights she'll be gone forever.

Gone will be the army of young girls in high school basketball uniforms, who line the entrance to the mythical raised court at Williams and wait for her high five, shrieking, "I touched her!" when they get it. Gone will be the young boys who thought girls couldn't play basketball until they saw her do her thing, and who now hang around after games to ask for her autograph. Gone for Whalen will be the cheerleaders, the band, the old, young, straight, and gay fans, the families, the Minnesota rouser, Goldy Gopher, and the national anthem. But fans will always have the memories of Whalen herself, who came to Minnesota in 2000 with little fanfare, and who will graduate next fall with a sports management degree, and undoubtedly be a top pick in the WNBA draft next year.

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