Book excerpt: Lindsay Whalen featured in 'Minnesota Made Me'

Aaron Lavinsky/Star Tribune via AP

Lindsay Whalen starred at the University of Minnesota from 2000-04, leading the Golden Gophers to their first Final Four, then helped the Minnesota Lynx win four WNBA titles.

Lindsay Whalen grew up in Hutchinson, Minnesota, and then stayed close to home and played for the University of Minnesota, which she led to national prominence. In 2004, the point guard teamed with then-junior Janel McCarville to lead the Gophers to the Final Four. The fourth overall pick of the 2004 WNBA draft, Whalen played six seasons with the Connecticut Sun before being traded to the Minnesota Lynx, where she played nine more seasons and won four WNBA championships. Whalen, who also won two Olympic gold medals for Team USA and is Minnesota's most decorated basketball player, male or female, retired from playing in September and is in her first season as head coach at her alma mater. The below is excerpted from Patrick C. Borzi's new book, "Minnesota Made Me."

Under different circumstances, the tough-minded Whalen might have starred in hockey instead of hoops. That was her favorite sport as a kid.

In fifth grade, Whalen skated with a boys Squirt A team, the last level before body-checking was allowed. At the time there was no girls high school hockey; Minnesota didn't sanction it until 1995, when Whalen was 13. Whalen's parents saw no future for her on the ice.

"I don't think my mom wanted me out there with the boys being checked into the boards," Whalen said. "My parents thought it would be best if I switched to basketball."

Luckily for them, at the same time Whalen and her best friend, Emily Inglis, were on a basketball team coached by Emily's father Tom. One weekend the team entered a tournament in Litchfield.

"The first game I had eight points, and I made a shot over the backboard," Whalen said. "I just fell in love with the game instantly after that."

On her bike, Whalen rode all over Hutch to play -- open gyms, playgrounds, wherever. Summer mornings, she was up and out of the house not long after her father returned from the night shift. The Whalens ate dinner at 4:30 or 5, before Neil headed back to work.

Courtesy North Star Editions

Patrick C. Borzi's book, "Minnesota Made Me," is available in stores Nov. 6. The first book by the longtime espnW contributor looks at Minnesota's most accomplished sports figures and how living in the state shaped their careers and values.

By the time Whalen reached seventh grade, she was so talented and such a draw that the middle school installed extra bleachers to accommodate crowds. She played briefly for the Hutchinson High varsity team as an eighth-grader, then started all four years of high school, making honorable mention All-State each season and leading Hutch to three conference titles.

The town always turned out for Lindsay. If the girls played before the boys on a Friday night, that game often drew the bigger crowd.

Hutch's blue-collar, neighborly vibe rubbed off on Whalen. Everyone in her father's circle of friends did manual labor or construction work on the side -- drywall, electrical, roofing -- and everyone helped each other. They brought a sense of pride to a job well done. And Whalen embraced that in basketball.

"My parents never really had to push me," Whalen said. "I would just go do it. That's because of the hard-work mentality.

"The other thing is, we were never the big school. We had to play in a conference with Prior Lake, Farmington, Holy Angels. We always kind of felt like we had something to prove, because we were never the Metro team. We never really got players mentioned for the All-Metro team or the All-State team, and we always felt like we were pretty good. That made a lot of us play almost with a chip on our shoulder. We were always up against the big schools and the Metro schools, and we took that into every game and every practice."

Preferring to go to college close to home, Whalen chose Minnesota over Iowa, Wisconsin and North Dakota. She had aunts and uncles in the Twin Cities, and always considered trips there a treat. Minnesota was lucky Whalen felt that way, because at the time, 2000-01, the Gophers were terrible. Minnesota's last winning season and only NCAA Tournament appearance had been in 1993-94, and the team's 8-20 finish in Whalen's freshman year cost coach Cheryl Littlejohn her job.

"We weren't any good that first year," Whalen said. "We had the players to do it. Turns out we needed the direction to do it, the coaching. We couldn't have predicted it was going to turn into (what it did). But Minnesota supports a winning team, a hard-working team it can be proud of. Most of us were from Minnesota or the Midwest. I knew the team would be able to take off if we eventually got it right."

McCarville, a rugged, free-spirited center from Wisconsin recruited by Littlejohn, arrived Whalen's sophomore year, when the Gophers took off under new coach Brenda Oldfield. Whalen averaged a career-high 22.2 points per game as the 22-8 Gophers made the first of three consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances.

By then, Whalen was a sensation. A promotion to "Pack the Pav," the nickname for the Sports Pavilion, for a January 2002 game with Indiana hit a snag when a water main break forced a move to Williams Arena. To everyone's surprise, 11,389 people turned out at "The Barn," more than double the previous team record. The Gophers never played in the Pav again.

In a shocker, Oldfield left after the season for the head coaching job at Maryland. Pam Borton came from Boston College, Whalen's third coach in three seasons. But the Gophers and Whalen kept on winning.

The town always turned out for Lindsay. If the girls played before the boys on a Friday night, that game often drew the bigger crowd.
Excerpt from "Minnesota Made Me"

Her senior year the Gophs started 15-0 and ranked as high as sixth in the national polls. People who had never followed women's basketball were enthralled by this team and its seemingly unsinkable hometown star.

Then in early February, Whalen broke two bones in her right hand in a fall at Ohio State, an injury that threatened to wreck Minnesota's dream season. She missed five weeks before returning for the NCAA Tournament.

Most players would have been rusty after so much time off. But most players aren't Lindsay Whalen.

Facing UCLA in the first round at The Barn, Whalen, a brace on her right hand, turned in a performance that Gopher basketball fans still talk about -- 31 points and nine assists in a surprising 92-81 victory.

"Not from anything that I saw in practice did I expect what I saw against UCLA," Borton told the New York Times. "Does it surprise me? No, because that's Lindsay Whalen."

Whalen and the Gophers were the talk of the town. Even now, Whalen struggles to explain how she did it.

"I couldn't shoot for a month," she said. "I think I had one practice, then the open practice (the day before the tournament began). There were probably 500, 800 people there. We did a drill, and the first shot I made with my right hand, people just exploded. I was like, whew. This is going to be crazy tomorrow.

"We go out, I go out, and the place is just going nuts. I couldn't make an outside shot, but I could get to the basket and I had enough touch to make it."

The mystique about this game includes the long-held notion that Whalen reacted to her first made jumper by waving her hand toward the crowd, as if to tell Gopher fans, "I'm good." Not quite. Whalen said she was holding up five fingers to change the defense.

"I was signaling we were going to be in man because zone wasn't working," Whalen said. "It's funny. Things like that take on a life of their own."

The Gophers weren't done. Advancing to the Mideast Regional final, Minnesota upset top-ranked Duke 82-75 behind 27 points from Whalen, the regional MVP. For the first time, Minnesota advanced to the NCAA Final Four.

That's where the magical run ended, with a 67-58 loss to eventual champion Connecticut in the national semifinals. Whalen graduated as the school's career scoring leader with 2,285 points, a mark surpassed later by Rachel Banham, another Minnesotan who grew up idolizing her.

But that was only a glimmer of the success Whalen would continue to find on the court.

Definition of a winner: From 2010 to 2017, Whalen took home a championship every year -- WNBA crowns in 2011, '13. '15, and '17; world championship gold medals in 2010 and '14; and Olympic gold in 2012 and '16. Only Maya Moore, her teammate on all those squads, matched Whalen's run to distinction.

"So it's been a good decade," Whalen said, in classic understatement.

Excerpted from MINNESOTA MADE ME. Copyright © 2018. Available from North Star Editions. Get your copy here.

Related Content