MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — 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.
Now the Minnesota Lynx are hoping she can do the same for the professional team in her home state.
The Lynx sent point guard Renee Montgomery and the No. 1 overall draft pick to the Connecticut Sun on Tuesday for Whalen and the No. 2 overall selection in a deal that has both players returning to the states where they starred in college.
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.”
When Whalen, a native of Hutchinson, came to the Golden Gophers in 2000, the program was coming off its sixth straight losing season. After an 8-20 freshman year, Whalen led the Gophers to three straight NCAA tournaments, culminating in 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 storied 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. But Connecticut’s asking price was too high, and Griffith received some criticism for not breaking the bank to make a move to bolster the team’s lagging box office.
Six years later, Griffith finally got Whalen home in the prime of her career. The Lynx now have five All-Stars and should be considered 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 and it is becoming increasingly evident that on-court success isn’t enough to sustain franchises in the fringe league.
The Lynx, who have only been to the postseason twice in their 11-year history, 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.”
Like the Lynx, the Sun needed a boost. After Whalen led them to two straight WNBA Finals appearances in 2004 and ’05, they finished 16-18 and missed the playoffs and drew an average of just 6,794 fans per game.
Montgomery helped UConn win the national championship last season before being selected fourth overall by the Lynx. The Sun also are expected to take UConn center Tina Charles with the No. 1 overall pick in this year’s draft, bringing two Huskies home.
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.”
Associated Press Writer Pat Eaton-Robb in Storrs, Conn., contributed to this story.