Powerhouse

How Lindsay Whalen resurrected the Lady Gophers

"Then, same game, we were up four with two minutes to go, and I came down on a break and I did a behind-the-back pass to a post player. You know, with two minutes to go. Up by four. Not recommended, because you probably want to hold the ball on a key possession. But again, the crowd went nuts and we won.

"In a pick-up game at Bierman about a year ago, we were playing with the guys. And this guy was at half-court and I was running baseline under [the basket], and I was going for the alley-oop. He threw it on the other side of the backboard, so I jumped up. The rim's here [between her and the backboard] and I caught it around the block, and fading away I just threw it up and it went in. It was nuts. I started laughing.

"There's like 10 plays that I just go through in my mind. One time in high school against Holy Angels I drove between a girl's legs, split a trap between her legs, brought it to half-court and made a no-look pass through the two defenders to score."

Coach Borton is reading this right now and shuddering.

"What's the worst that can happen?" says Whalen with a grin. "Turn it over? It's not like someone's gonna get hurt, or you'll get ejected. Worst that can happen is they yell at you and take you out for a minute, but you go back in the game anyway."

 

Why do we watch athletes? Why do we invest so much time and energy in seeking out someone like Whalen? Sometimes they embody something we admire--beautiful things like, in Whalen's case, pure athleticism, competitiveness, chutzpah, and toughness. Other times it comes down to intangibles, such as the simple fact that she's really fun to watch.

Do so with Whalen for a few consecutive games and practices and ultimately it registers why, exactly. Sure, there's the master-artist's confidence to her game, the what'll-she-do-next anticipation when she's got the ball, and her utter lack of self-consciousness. But it's something else, something that has to do with individual style, that special something that all great basketball players have. When it comes to Whalen, this is it: Lindsay Whalen glides.

She does so in layup drills, in one-on-one drills, in games when she goes hard to the baseline, drives the lane, spins past a trap, or pulls up for the splay-ankled jumper that will, barring injury, help her become the Gophers' all-time leading scorer by the end of the season. Her head, shoulders, and torso remain rigid, but her feet blur across the floor, almost as if she's skating. And, as elegant and self-contained as she and her game may be, she's widely regarded as the team's most unselfish player.

"I've never coached a kid like Lindsay Whalen," says Borton, who was at the University of Vermont and Boston College before coming to Minnesota last year. "I've coached many great players, but sometimes when you find great players like that, they've got to get their averages and, 'Hey, I wanna be an All-American again this year.' You see them taking bad shots, because you know they want to get their points. Lindsay is nothing like that. I've never coached a kid like her, who's a Kodak All-American that'll end up with 10 assists and 15 points a game, and be the happiest kid on the block."

Last March 22, at Maples Pavilion in Stanford, California, the Gophers were down 28-27 at the half to Tulane in the opening game of the NCAA tournament. Uncharacteristically, Whalen was held scoreless throughout the first half. As the teams came out for warm-ups before the second half, Whalen sidled up next to Borton, with whom she shares a certain steely purposefulness. The two women stood watching the other players, not talking to each other, for a minute. Two. Maybe three.

All that silence left an observer wondering about what might have transpired between the pair at halftime, about how they get along, and about how Whalen has dealt with having had three coaches in three years--Borton, Littlejohn, and Brenda Oldfield, who left the Gophers for Maryland after the breakout season of 2001-2002. The answer, in part, came as the horn sounded for the second half. Without a word, a blank-faced Whalen wind-milled her arm and spanked Borton hard on the butt. Borton barely reacted. Neither said a word. Borton picked up her clipboard, Whalen roared at her teammates in the huddle, then went out and hit two three-pointers to open the half. She finished with 18 points, and the Gophers blew out Tulane, 68-48.

"We don't have to say goodbye yet," says Borton, when asked about how she deals with graduating seniors. "It's hard, though. You spend tons of hours with them in practice, you spend tons of hours with them on the road. And Lindsay's one of those kids who pops into the office to see the staff every single day. She's always around. Her senior season, I just want to sit back and enjoy Lindsay--on and off the court. She's a great basketball player, but she's a better person than she is a basketball player. She's funny, she's fun, there's not another kid like her. She's one of a kind."

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