A Comet Passes

James O'Brien

With a few minutes gone in the first half of the Gophers women's basketball game against Ohio State last Thursday, my eight-year-old son Henry turned from the TV and asked me if I thought Lindsay Whalen could beat Kevin Garnett in a game of one-on-one.

I scoffed. I said Lindsay is great, but that K.G. is older, bigger, and stronger, and that he'd swat her shot every time. He disagreed, citing her quickness and her ability to glide past bigger players. He was starting to convince me. He said if it was a game of make-it-take-it, she's got that deadly three, so who knows? "Man," he said. "I'd pay a million dollars to see that."

A minute later, Whalen was down on the Value City arena court in Columbus, writhing with two broken bones in her right hand, her collegiate career probably finished. Some probably thought coach Pam Borton was exaggerating when she said the next day, "I think this is devastating for everyone involved in the program, from the fans to the community to the state of Minnesota." Certainly it's not true of WCCO-AM's Dark Star, who called Whalen's departure "a relief, because now they [the women's basketball team] can go back to page nine [of the sports section] where they belong."

His loss. I've been at every home game this season and I'll keep going, not only because I've grown fond of the team, but because I'd rather watch Lindsay Whalen sit on the bench in street clothes rooting for her teammates with a broken hand than almost any other show in town.

"You just want to tell people to see her now, because she's gonna be gone," is how my brother Jay reacted to seeing her in person for the first time during the Michigan game on New Year's Day. We'd been sitting in Williams Arena, talking about our favorite memories of the Barn and the best games and players (all male) we'd seen there. Whalen lit up the Wolverines in the first half, including five straight three-pointers, and that's when I trotted out the word I always use whenever I try to explain the appeal of the Replacements to anyone who never had the pleasure: a comet.

You knew it wasn't going to last. You knew Whalen would go on to a professional career and other successes, but it was plain to anyone who saw her play over her first three years at the U that this winter was a moment to be seized and savored. In some sports media circles, there was talk that the women's basketball team had become "trendy," the "in" thing this season, or proof positive that women's sports had finally arrived. What a pile of horseshit. True basketball fans went to see Whalen for the same reason people have been turning turnstiles since Abe Saperstein was selling tickets--they like to go to the magic show.

There is no other word but "magic" for what Whalen brought to Williams, or the game. And if this reads like a premature eulogy, sorry, but that's how it feels at the moment. It wasn't supposed to be written until next month, when the Gophers start their run in the NCAA tournament, or whenever the end of the season came. I hope Whalen fights back from this injury to suit up in that lucky number 13 jersey one more time, but just in case she's gone for good, I need a couple of paragraphs to say, "Thanks for the memories" and think about what I'll miss most.

I'll miss those eyes, the ones that went from placid to laughing to steely--the same competitive glare that made Kevin McHale say about Larry Bird, "He has the eyes of an assassin." I'll miss the sight of her bringing the ball up on the fast break, her jaw jutting out and her body gearing up for contact or some mind-blowing crossover move. I'll miss her no-look passes, her behind-the-back passes, her hang time, and the combination of nonchalance and fierce desire she played with. I'll miss that extra gear she had, the one that made her blow through the lane as if she'd just flicked a switch, the one that prompted Fox color commentator Andrea Lloyd Curry to call her, perfectly, a "hummingbird."

Probably the thing I'll miss most is how she'd start every game: After each Gopher is announced at Williams, they throw a balled-up T-shirt into the crowd. Whalen always did so with deadpan cool, watching to see how far into the crowd it made it. Then her face would explode into a fit of passion as she did a huge bunny hop into the huddle. Surrounded by her grinning, throbbing teammates and coaches, she was the embodiment of why we're drawn to watching team sports, why we dream of being on teams of any kind, and of one reason why big wins happen, according to LSU coach Dale Brown: "We dared to love each other."

I'll also remember seeing her alone. The first time I saw Whalen this season was a couple of hours before the first regular season game. I walked into Williams and saw a lone figure shooting baskets on the far end of the court. It was Whalen, and I stopped and started counting. She made 12 in a row without a miss--most barely rippled the net--until she stopped to sign autographs for two girls. Alone like that, in her element with just her and the ball and the basket, Whalen looked like some sort of deer running wild.

The last time I saw her on that court was February 8. The Gophers and then fifth-ranked Penn State were tied with 10 minutes to go. Sitting on press row, I turned to Pat Donnelly, the AP reporter who's been covering the Gophers this season, and told him we were going to find out a lot about the team in the next 10 minutes.

On cue, Whalen took over, zipping passes and doing spin moves that nobody in the Barn had seen from her before. She was creating, making it up on the spot, feeling it, and in one particularly unforgettable sequence, she stole the ball at mid-court and finger-rolled the ball in with a pizza-chef's panache. Whalen finished with 23 points, and the Gophers blew out Penn State by 19.

After the game and postgame interviews, I saw Whalen coming out of the media room. The last time I'd seen her, after a bitter loss to Michigan State, my son gave her a "good luck" drawing of herself. She smiled sincerely and thanked him, but she was in no mood for glad-handing. This time, with Penn State vanquished, all was right with the world again, and anything and everything seemed possible. She reached out her strong right shooting hand and clasped mine. "Hey, Bud," she said, her face full of a winner's glow.

Five days later that hand was in a cast and that face was on the front page of the Star Tribune, hanging at a press conference announcing the probable end of an era. It was Valentine's Day, but she looked heartbroken. She's not the only one.


Jim Walsh can be reached at [email protected] or 612.372.3775.

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