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."

David Kern

 

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.

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.

"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."

 

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.

"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."

A few minutes later, the men's basketball team leaves the Williams floor and the women enter the gym for practice. Whalen and Schonrock lead the pack, both rapping different OutKast tunes as they grab balls from the practice rack. Whalen glides down to the far end of the court to shoot jumpers with a few others, while Schonrock, a gum-chewing spitfire and born leader from Winnebago, gathers some of her teammates for layup drills. She fires a chest pass to one of the freshmen, shoots a look at the coaches huddled at center court, then claps and chirps, "Let's go, ladies! Talk to each other! All right, ladies! Let's go, ladies!"

The sound echoes off the Barn's rafters, as does the squeak-squeak of shoes cutting, the thump-thump of balls bouncing, and the woof-woof of dogs being let out, once and for all.

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