Powerhouse

How Lindsay Whalen resurrected the Lady Gophers

 

Even with the rise of Whalen and the women's basketball program, the team is still something of an underground phenomenon in the crowded Twin Cities spectator sports universe. The games are carried by WMNN-AM (1330) on radio, and only a handful of regular-season games will be televised. Sid Hartman has seen the team play exactly once, suggesting that some of the attitudes expressed by an infamous 1991 column written by the Strib's Patrick Reusse, in which he characterized the entertainment value of women's/girls' basketball as "tiptoed ball-throwing" still exist. Reusse apologized for the crack a few weeks later, but clearly some of the same chicks-can't-jump-so-why-bother vibe is at play in this supposedly sports-rabid burg.

When I tell Whalen that some of the guys I play pickup ball with don't believe it when I insist that the women's game is exciting, and that Whalen would smoke every last one of us, she doesn't flinch. "Ego," she sniffs, then slyly sizes me up. The moment illustrates what makes her tick, as does one that took place earlier that morning in her senior sports management seminar. A student was giving a presentation on post-9/11 sports arena security, and the professor noted that Gophers women's basketball games come with heavy arena security. "We're higher octane," Whalen quipped dryly to her ribbing classmates, obviously proud of her team and sport, but also unwilling to push it.

David Kern

"I think it's a good and a bad thing," she says of her relatively low profile. "I think it's good, because I think when you hear about yourself too much, and you're on the news every night and everyone stops their whole life to watch you on Sunday afternoons at noon, I think that goes to a lot of players' heads. For us, it can still be a lot better. We could obviously get more games on TV and more exposure, but there's so many other things going on that it's hard to focus on the women's basketball team. But in the past two years, it's been the talk of the cities at times."

In terms of pure entertainment, this team, as drilled by Borton, is basketball at its purest: motion offenses that work for open shots, which are taken and, more often that not, made. A smothering defense (led by Whalen, who has responded this year to the coach's challenge to reverse her reputation as a defensive liability) that leads to fast breaks and bunches of points. Then there's the inevitable bandwagon draw of a winner: Though Whalen's personal goal is to "have fun and enjoy my senior year," she and the team have publicly professed their desire for a Big Ten title and a trip to the Final Four.

"Everyone involved is going in one direction," says Whalen. "Last year at the beginning we had people worrying about everything but basketball--not necessarily playing time, but just a lot of worrying about things they shouldn't be worried about. This year there's so much of a focus on basketball, the most I've ever been around. I think everyone senses that this year is our chance for Minnesota to do something that's never been done before.

"Everything this year, for some reason, is focused on what's on the court. The last two seasons I have had a boyfriend, but not this year. It gets to be a lot. More so on them than anything, because I feel bad if I don't go out with them enough or if I don't do this or don't do that. I don't want to be up late, I just want to be focused.

"So this year--it's not like I've got 25 guys at my door--I just decided this season I'm gonna take for myself and hang out with the girls on the team and my family. There's gonna be 50 years of my life when I'm married and whatnot, but I'm not worried about it right now. It's not in my realm. Basketball is what I do now."

As well as make a little history along the way, a fact that isn't lost on her.

"I would like, out of the whole thing, for people in 20 years to think back," she says. "Hopefully, the team would have won a few national championships by then and gone to Final Fours, and it'd be cool to look back to the years that we turned it around, and to know that we're the reason why a lot of that happened."

 

This time next year, the Gopher women will be preparing for their first post-Whalen Big Ten season. They will be led by some highly touted recruits from Chicago; this year's impressive freshman threesome of Roysland, Jamie Broback, and Liz Podominick; junior center Janel McCarville; and sophomore guard Shannon Schonrock. In another gym somewhere, Whalen will most likely be gearing up for a career in the WNBA, but there is a palpable feeling around Williams these days that a part of her will always pump through these Gophers.

"You can't even explain what it is like, playing with her and having her as a teammate, because she's so awesome," says Schonrock, outside the locker room before practice last month. "I just hope our program continues to excel, and we continue to make this a prominent one in the nation--a program that people are gonna want to come to, so we continue to get great players, the caliber of Lindsay Whalen."

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