Lynx hope Whalen spurs fan interest

MINNEAPOLIS -- Fiery and charismatic with a little streetball flare to her game, Lindsay Whalen was the biggest reason for the revival of women's basketball at the University of Minnesota. Renee Montgomery helped the University of Connecticut to the national championship last season.

Now the Minnesota Lynx and Connecticut Sun are hoping Whalen and Montgomery can do the same for the professional teams in their states.

The Lynx sent Montgomery and the No. 1 overall draft pick to the Sun on Tuesday for Whalen and the No. 2 overall selection in a deal that should help both teams at the box office as much as on the court. The Sun are expected to take Huskies center Tina Charles with the top pick.

Both teams said the deal was strictly a basketball decision and did not hinge on generating more interest for a summer league that has struggled mightily to sustain consistent fan support. But Minnesota coach Cheryl Reeve's bold challenge to local fans strongly indicated otherwise.

"I'd like to say to all the Minnesota fans out there that it's not just about being aware that Lindsay Whalen is coming to play for the Minnesota Lynx," Reeve said. "It's about paying for tickets to come watch Lindsay Whalen. That's really important and that's a challenge to the fans. Yeah, we're all excited, but come watch her play."

Whalen, a native of Hutchinson, turned a Golden Gophers program that had seven straight losing seasons into a three-time NCAA tournament qualifier and led the team on a stunning run to the Final Four in 2004.

During her time on campus, average attendance went from just under 1,100 fans per game to 9,866 in her senior season. The women had to move from the cozy little Sports Pavilion to Williams Arena, where the men play, to accommodate a suddenly fervent fan base.

"I'm very, very excited," said Gophers coach Pam Borton, who coached Whalen for two years in college. "It's about time. It's about time for Lindsay, it's about time for us to get her back home."

Lynx CEO Roger Griffith tried feverishly to trade up in the 2004 draft to select Whalen.

Six years later, he finally got Whalen home in the prime of her career, turning the Lynx into a favorite in the West. But perhaps more importantly, Whalen's arrival could spur interest in a team that has had monumental difficulties in a flooded Twin Cities sports market.

"To be able to come home and play in Minnesota, I think everyone is pretty excited," Whalen said from Prague, where she is playing in the offseason.

The Lynx certainly hope the Whalen Effect translates in the WNBA, which has had a tough offseason. Despite being a perennial championship contender, the Detroit Shock relocated to Tulsa, Okla., in search of better support. The Sacramento Monarchs folded amid lagging attendance, one year after the four-time champion Houston Comets shut down.

The Lynx had an average announced attendance of 7,537 last season, which was ninth out of 13 teams. Anyone at the games will tell you the actual attendance was far lower for most contests.

"We anticipate a growth [in interest]," Griffith said. "We have not tried to put a number on it. But we anticipate it will have an impact in the arena for a variety of different reasons. Partly it'll be about her. Partly it'll be about winning. Partly it'll be about catching that fever again."

The Lynx record for single-game attendance is 16,227 in 2004. It just so happens that was Whalen's first game back home as a pro.

"We haven't seen in this league any single player kind of transform attendance," Reeve said. "Now, if [Diana] Taurasi were in Connecticut or if Sue Bird were in New York or Connecticut, would that happen? Probably. Is Lindsay Whalen maybe on that same level? That's what we have to find out."

Could Montgomery and Charles do the same in Connecticut? The Sun sure hope so. After Whalen led them to two straight WNBA Finals appearances in 2004 and '05, they finished 16-18 and missed the playoffs in 2009, drawing an average of just 6,794 fans per game.

Montgomery, the fourth overall pick last year, and Charles should give Huskies fans a reason to make the drive to Uncasville. But Sun coach Mike Thibault said that played no role in the decision to make the deal.

"To say we're doing a trade to get UConn players per se is ludicrous," Thibault said. "That's not why you do a trade. You do a trade to become a better team."

That line of thinking, according to Borton, may be misguided in this day and age.

"I think with the state of the economy, I think it might help get people to the games and for the franchises to break even or make a little more money with homegrown players on their rosters," Borton said. "There's a lot more excitement."

That was the case at Target Center on Tuesday. The press conference was packed, a rare turnout for a team that has garnered little coverage in the Twin Cities.

"I don't usually speak to more than about three or four people in the front row," Griffith said with a chuckle. "[The interest] is obviously very high."