MINNEAPOLIS -- At some point in their careers, Lindsay Whalen said, WNBA players need to make a choice. What's more important, money or longevity? If it's money, go ahead and play overseas every winter until your body breaks down. You'll be financially well off, sure -- and out of basketball by your mid-30s, maybe sooner.
But what if you want to play, and play well, for as long as you can?
Whalen grew up in a small town in Minnesota, starred at the University of Minnesota and eventually came home to help lead the Minnesota Lynx to three WNBA titles. Whalen loves basketball and playing for the Lynx like most of us love ice cream or fishing or whatever else takes us back to the best times of our lives. It's a pure joy Whalen struggles to put into words.
Two years ago, with her 33-year-old legs aching from eight months of nonstop pounding, Whalen realized she couldn't push herself like that anymore. To extend her career, she had to say no to a hefty EuroLeague paycheck. So Whalen spent the 2015-16 winter in Minnesota for the first time in a decade, first letting her ravaged legs heal, then building them up for Team USA's pre-Olympic camp in February.
"You get to a certain age, and as much as the money sounds good over there, you also want to have more time with your family," said Whalen, sitting on an exercise machine at Mayo Clinic Square, where the Lynx practice. "I want to feel healthy here like I'm still able to play."
Mentally and physically refreshed, an energized Whalen helped USA Basketball win another Olympic title, contributing 17 points off the bench against Spain in the gold-medal game. With strong legs beneath her, Whalen also shot a career-best 51.3 percent from the field in the regular season without missing a game because of an injury.
By then, Seimone Augustus, Whalen's Olympic and Lynx teammate, had pretty much decided to take off the coming winter. Watching Whalen affirmed her decision.
"She had a new spring in her step," Augustus said. "She looked like the Lindsay Whalen of old."
"She had a new spring in her step. She looked like the Lindsay Whalen of old."Seimone Augustus on teammate Lindsay Whalen
Augustus wasn't alone. Rebekkah Brunson and Maya Moore reached the same conclusion long before Game 5 of the WNBA Finals, when the Sparks' putback in the final seconds denied the Lynx their second consecutive title and fourth in six years. Moore was the only one younger than 30, but the time had come for all to reconsider the grind.
In the end, four of the five Lynx starters -- all but center Sylvia Fowles -- took off all or most of the winter. So did reserve guard Jia Perkins, who has a 12-year-old daughter and last played overseas in 2013-14.
Brunson, 35, remained in Minneapolis until late February to train with Whalen, who turns 35 next week, before joining a team in Turkey for two months. (Committing to a Minnesota winter was quite the sacrifice for Brunson, a San Diego resident and no fan of the cold.) Augustus, 33, reacquainted herself with her extended family in flood-ravaged Baton Rouge. Moore, 27, grieved the Lynx loss with family, friends and members of her church in Atlanta. The players met up from time to time for specialized skills training.
When training camp opened April 23, Augustus, Moore and Whalen were there from the beginning -- a first. Brunson joined them a few days later. Augustus vowed to help Brunson win a record fifth WNBA title, and Brunson is committing to getting a fourth for Augustus, Whalen and Moore.
"We have some important things we want to do here as far as basketball is concerned," Brunson said. "Everybody wanted to make sure that they're in the best physical shape to do it."
The financial sacrifice was substantial. Many Americans playing overseas make $300,000 to $500,000 per season, with established stars such as Moore and Augustus commanding $700,000 or more. With the WNBA capping veteran salaries at $113,500 for 2017, that's a lot of cash to pass up.
But there's a mental toll as well. There's no coasting if you're the foreign superstar, as Moore found out in four seasons as the only American on her team in China. Playing heavy minutes, she averaged 30 or more points in three seasons and 29.9 points in the other while winning three titles.
"The main reason I wanted to stay home was to get some rest and to press pause and just be connected to friends and family, have a season where I could just stay home and recharge and rest and catch up with my life a little bit," Moore said. "It was amazing just to have that space to do that.
"I'm a person who can't go halfway. I'm all in with everything that I do. I couldn't commit to something I didn't feel like I could do 100 percent. I thought this offseason was a good time to recharge. I wanted to accomplish being still, which is really hard to do. I think I successfully did that in spurts, which is good, better than not at all."
Augustus knew she needed a break as early as 2015, when arthroscopic right knee surgery and a sprained left foot cost her 18 games. She decided to play one more winter in Russia. But last season for the Lynx, she averaged a career-low 11.2 points as coach Cheryl Reeve kept a watchful eye on her minutes.
"The turning point for me was when I had to get that scope on my right knee a year or two ago," Augustus said. "It was funny: I ran into KG (former Minnesota Timberwolves star Kevin Garnett) in the weight room, and he was like, 'Youngin, you gotta listen to your body.' That was a great sign. If you don't listen to your body and you don't listen to KG, I don't know what to tell you."
Brunson's initial thoughts of rest turned into something more. Last summer, Brunson helped create the team's "Change Starts With Us" T-shirts, memorializing the slain Alton Sterling, Philando Castile and five Dallas police officers while asking for dialogue and healing. Brunson continued her advocacy this winter, attending the local Women's March on Jan. 21 in St. Paul and judging a Black History Month essay contest with Timberwolves guard Kris Dunn. Her basketball clinic at a local Boys and Girls Club on Martin Luther King Day included a talk about Dr. King's historical impact.
"I just tried to leave my footprint wherever I could this offseason," said Brunson, a Georgetown graduate. "There are more things I can be doing to help and to be impactful in Minnesota, which is like a second home to me. Whatever it is I can do to help the city grow, I want to be available and around to do it."
Whalen's spryness sold the others on EXOS training, a sport-specific flexibility and conditioning program tailored to the individual. Augustus flew up once a month to train with Whalen and Brunson at Mayo Clinic Square. Reeve also hired Ganon Baker, a renowned basketball skills instructor, to provide monthly specialized training, augmenting local skills coach Scott Savor. Whalen, Brunson, Augustus and Moore joined Baker for a session at his basketball academy in Delray Beach, Florida.
"I like him especially for vets," Reeve said. "He's got an energy about him, a passion for what he's doing that's really contagious. It makes the workouts challenging and exciting. I thought it would be a good thing, coupled with EXOS. I wanted to make them uncomfortable. I thought it was really productive."
Will it help? Seven of the 11 players likely to be on the roster when the season tips off are age 30 or older. The age clock never stops, but the Lynx hope to prop open their championship window a bit longer.
"You get tired of coming back here and hearing how old we are," Augustus said. "I don't think any one of us is trying to outrun Father Time. We know the time is ticking. We're just trying to dance as slowly as possible with him, and enjoy the ride until the music stops. Then we get off."