Powerhouse

How Lindsay Whalen resurrected the Lady Gophers

She leaves behind a thriving program that now attracts some of the top recruits in the state and nation; her time at the U will affectionately be known as The Lindsay Whalen Era. During her four years at Minnesota, Whalen has sat back and watched as her male counterparts have left the U for professional mediocrity before Gophers fans could develop anything resembling a bond with them. Because of those premature departures, there is no such thing as a Joel Przybilla Era or a Rick Rickert Legacy. And these days, watching freshman stud Kris Humphries tune up for his inevitable early NBA career is like living out the Lifter Puller-as-lifted-by-Slug lyric: "You kiss like you already came."

But Whalen is already a Gophers basketball legend--or "icon," as the Star Tribune's Pam Schmid recently put it, noting that the only jersey hanging in the window of the U of M's Gold Country store is Whalen's number 13, and that the team plans to sell Whalen bobblehead dolls this year. To be sure, Whalen may be loved by her cult of followers (she was named "favorite female athlete" in last year's City Pages Best of The Twin Cities reader's poll) for her talent, but also for what people perceive as old-fashioned loyalty. Recruited by Iowa, Wisconsin, and North Dakota, Whalen chose Minnesota because, "obviously, it's your home. Home state. Your home team."

"I think the Rick Rickerts and those guys, for whatever reason, they want the money instead of to play here," says Whalen, eating a chicken salad sandwich at an on-campus deli after class earlier this season. "The senior class this year is so strong in women's [college] basketball, and when's the last time you remember a strong senior class in men's basketball? It just doesn't happen; everyone goes to the NBA.

"The women's college game is at one of its highest points, because every year now there's a strong class, and every year it gets better. The guys in college basketball just start thinking about money rather than playing. I mean, when Rick Rickert was eight, he didn't go down to the gym and shoot baskets because he was going to make 2.5 million dollars. They lose sight of that completely. They lose sight of the fact that it's a game, and that's what it is: a game."

 

The Minnesota gym rat is a different breed of rodent from those bred on the coasts, where the outdoor game is still something of a focal point. From early on, the Minnesota gym rat learns to spend its winter months honing its talent in hot houses with clanking radiators and warm-watered drinking fountains. Here, the gym rat shoots and dribbles for hours; practices and plays full- and half-court games, H-O-R-S-E and P-I-G, one-on-one and one-on-none. Then it showers and bundles up in hats and scarves to protect itself from catching cold, so it can get up and do it all over again the next day. Talk to anybody about Whalen, and those are the first words they'll use: gym rat.

The oldest of five children born to Neil and Kathy Whalen, Lindsay grew up in Hutchinson, a town of 13,000 located 60 miles west of the Twin Cities. Her love of sports and long hours in the gym were augmented by the discipline it took to help take care of her younger brothers and sisters in the summers.

"I learned a lot about responsibility and being accountable for myself, because there's so many other people in my family," she says. "My parents couldn't really worry about me. The importance of family is a big thing for me. A lot of times college kids go, 'Oh, I never go home anymore. I don't like my hometown.' I hear people from Hutchinson say that a lot: 'I haven't been home in two months, why would I go back there?'

"But I like going home. I like to see my family and my friends. I like to go to my house and not really do anything. I think it makes college kids feel good that they don't go home, because it makes them think they have a lot more going on now than they used to. I just think, That's where you came from. That's how you got to where you are--from your hometown, and your family."

While at Hutchinson High, Whalen played tennis and ran track, but basketball was her passion. She has a fan's love for everything about the game--the rhythm, the competition, the five-moving-in-sync aspect of the team game, and, especially, the creativity. Which is the heart of basketball's rich lore, the thing that aficionados talk about at least as much as a player's or team's various titles. And, even though her coaches have told her to score more this season, Whalen still sees herself as a passer first. Asked to name her all-time favorite pass or play, the gym rat's eyes wander dreamily. Then:

"Two things in the same game," she says. "It was in high school, senior year. It was the second quarter, we were playing New Prague and they were undefeated. I was coming down, and the girl--I don't know if she was going for the steal or what, but I just decided to go around my back, keep the ball just like this, [tucked] in the middle of the lane, and [score]. The crowd just went nuts. People couldn't believe it.

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