Lindsay Whalen was a Minnesota legend long before Basketball Hall of Fame 2022 call

Lindsay Whalen led the University of Minnesota to its first Final Four, helped the Lynx win four WNBA titles and was part of two Olympic gold medals. Illustration by ESPN

The Minnesota Lynx were staring at possibly losing a second consecutive championship to the Los Angeles Sparks, and guard Lindsay Whalen wasn't having it. The relationship between the two teams was frosty and it had been a physical series -- both times.

It was about to become more physical.

Early in Game 4 of the 2017 WNBA Finals in Los Angeles, Sparks guard Odyssey Sims was going for a breakaway layup, and Whalen was determined to stop it. Later that night over Thai food and wine, she told her teammates what she was thinking at that moment.

"It was premeditated," said Whalen, who will be inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame as part of the 2022 class on Saturday. "I wasn't going to hurt her or be ejected, but I knew I'd probably pick up a flagrant because I was going to foul hard. I wanted to see how the Sparks would react.

"I knew my team had my back. We were down 2-1; in Game 3 we had just gotten pummeled out there. You looked at the two rosters: They had a lot of players in their primes. A lot of us were nearer the end of our careers. I thought at that point, they were more talented. But I was gonna send a message with that foul: 'Hey, we're here all night, you're going to have to go through us to win.' And the rest is, well, history."

Whalen got the flagrant foul but the tone was set. The Lynx won the game and the decisive Game 5 back in Minneapolis to clinch the franchise's fourth title.

A year later, Whalen retired and now will be the first of the Lynx championship core to go into the Hall of Fame. A native of Minnesota, a state known for its American folklore, Whalen was the women's basketball version of Paul Bunyan, except she was 100% real. And it's why she was so beloved by teammates and fans.

She led Minnesota Gophers women's basketball -- where she is now head coach -- to the 2004 Final Four, and was the No. 4 pick in the WNBA draft that year. Minnesotans desperately wanted her to go to the Lynx, but she was selected by Connecticut. She played in two WNBA Finals with the Sun before the trade that brought her home in 2010 and helped launch the Lynx dynasty under coach Cheryl Reeve.

The 5-foot-9 Whalen was also part of a group of point guards -- along with players such as Sue Bird, Becky Hammon, Courtney Vandersloot and Chelsea Gray -- who have redefined what the position can do in the WNBA. Whalen was a premiere passer and leader, but she could also score at a high level when needed.

"You could always rely on Whay getting us into our sets and being that floor general," said Rebekkah Brunson, Whalen's longtime Lynx teammate. "But the best thing about her is when s--- was hitting the fan and the clock was running out, she could just put her head down and get to the rack.

"We could always depend on that. If the play was getting blown up, we knew we had that other offensive threat with her. Her sheer will and determination to get to the rim was something that always set Whay apart."

Or as Bird -- Whalen's Olympic teammate who also played against her for many years in the WNBA -- put it, "My thought process with guarding Lindsay was always, 'The quicker I can pick her up, the better.' Because the second she got that head of steam going to the basket, you really weren't going to be able to stop that. That's a big way she impacted that evolution of the point guard."

Whalen grew up in Hutchinson, Minnesota, about an hour from Minneapolis. She is the oldest of five children -- supervising the group was her first taste of being a point guard -- and she played every sport with kids all over town until dinnertime. It's where Whalen discovered a love for another sport that influenced the kind of player she became.

"I always said she was a hockey player playing basketball," Reeve said. "The physicality you envision in hockey -- that was Lindsay coupled with basketball skills.

"With her size, her physique, her strength, her will ... I think she was probably the all-time greatest finisher at the rim in our league's history. She had this ability to get there and find an angle off the glass. Her physicality stands out; she could get where she wanted to go."

Whalen was a center in hockey, but gave up the sport because it wasn't available to girls at her high school then (she proudly says it is now). As a hockey center, she was adept at reading the passing lanes on both sides and fearlessly crashing the net. Plus, had a good right-handed wrist shot. It all translated to hoops.

"I ended up making a career out of my left shoulder, using that and my strength to shield me and get me to the rim," Whalen said. "I tell people my left shoulder made me a lot of money."

So did the Mikan drill -- so named after former Minneapolis Lakers center George Mikan -- which Whalen did religiously. She said sometimes, even before practice started, she would have made 150 layups, which helped her confidence when she was facing actual defense.

Brunson chuckled about Whalen never hesitating to go into the paint no matter how many or defenders were there, or how big they were. It wasn't just that Whalen was willing to take the contact. She thrived on it.

"She was born for that -- I don't think it would have been fun for her if she wasn't getting beat up on her way to the basket," Brunson said. "I think her hockey mentality never left her."

But Brunson, who now works as an assistant to Reeve with the Lynx, also pointed out that Whalen knew how to manage looks for her teammates. She knew when players were getting hot and deserved the ball, and also when they needed it to build back their confidence. By the same token, Whalen understood when someone could use a break, and she would direct play away from them to let them get a breather without needing to go to the bench.

While her penetrative drives forced opponents to guard her and her kickouts to teammates, Whalen also could burn teams from the perimeter. In a 15-season WNBA career -- six with the Sun and nine with the Lynx -- Whalen averaged 11.5 points, 4.9 assists and 3.8 rebounds.

Her jump shot was more effective from midrange, but she also made 194 3-pointers in the regular season and 35 in the playoffs. As lethal as Whalen's drives were, Bird said especially near the end of games, opponents couldn't afford to just sag off her, because that's when she would strike from the outside.

Whalen also was known for her Minnesota-dry sense of humor and facial expressions. She picked up the nickname "Weezy," first with the Sun, and then Lynx teammate Seimone Augustus and others started calling her "Weezy F. Baby."

"The F is for finisher," Whalen said.

"With her size, her physique, her strength, her will ... I think she was probably the all-time greatest finisher at the rim in our league's history." Lynx coach Cheryl Reeve on Lindsay Whalen

Brunson said that everyone -- from coaches to teammates to practice players to fans and even occasionally referees -- got the "Weezy stare" at times. It would make them pause, but also often cracked them up.

"Serious as she was trying to be, it was hilarious," Brunson said. "She's probably my all-time favorite teammate because she just has this uncanny ability to bring humor to every situation. The Weezy stare to me just showed her ability to bring light in."

Whalen's entire family -- husband Ben Greve, parents Kathy and Neil Whalen and all her siblings -- will be in Springfield, Massachusetts, for her induction this weekend. She has been reflecting, especially about how serendipitous it all was. Getting to play for her home state university, reaching the Final Four as a senior despite a serious wrist injury that season, being drafted by Connecticut, coming back to Minnesota as a seasoned veteran right when so much talent, including 2011 No. 1 draft pick Maya Moore, was in Minneapolis.

She credits then-Sun coach Mike Thibault for "making me a professional," by teaching her so many aspects of the sport and how to better prepare physically. While the dream scenario might have been joining the Lynx right out of college, Whalen says it was better that she went away from Minnesota and grew up more on her own, played for a coach with NBA experience and then was ready for the leadership that the Lynx needed from her.

She says that Reeve then "changed the trajectory of my career." Whalen recalls a two-hour-plus conversation they had in the coach's office in the summer of 2010, the first season for both in Minnesota, when she wasn't shooting well and the Lynx weren't winning. Whalen said she realized she needed to recommit. Later that year, she made the U.S. senior national team and won a gold medal in the FIBA Women's Basketball World Cup with coach Geno Auriemma.

"It started this run where I was able to win championships," said Whalen, who subsequently won two Olympic gold medals and another World Cup gold. "I had such great coaches with Mike, Cheryl, Geno -- they weren't afraid to push me and tell me what I needed to do, and I wasn't afraid to listen."

Whalen now paces the sidelines at Williams Arena, which is also where she got her last WNBA title. Renovation work was being done on Target Center in 2017, so the Lynx played their WNBA Finals home games that year at Williams, where Whalen had been a college star.

After the Game 4 victory at Los Angeles when Whalen committed the hard foul that changed that series, she came back to Williams for the decisive Game 5 and "it was probably mentally the strongest game I've ever played.

"I was like, 'Now, there is no way we're losing,'" Whalen said. "We all went to a different place mentally. And we were right at home."