The best-known women's basketball player in Minnesota history is coming home. The Minnesota Lynx announced Tuesday that Lindsay Whalen will join the team, as part of a trade with the Connecticut Sun.
For Whalen, it's a homecoming -- not only to her native state -- but also to the place where she helped put the University of Minnesota women's basketball program on the map.
Whalen is currently playing off-season ball in the Czech Republic. But even at that distance, her presence on the Minnesota basketball scene has been undeniable. She spoke to reporters on a conference call Tuesday afternoon about returning to her home state.
"I think it's always been in the back of my mind -- I would love to play professionally in Minnesota. And it worked out this year, and I'm really looking forward to it," said Whalen.
Lynx star forward Seimone Augustus remembers seeing Whalen a few months ago in Washington D.C., at tryouts for USA basketball.
"And I kind of laughed with her, 'Whenever you want to come home, you can come home,'" Augustus recalled. "And [Whalen] said, 'I have a year or two left on my contract.' and I said 'Well, whenever that's finished, you can come back to Minnesota.'"
What neither player knew then was how dramatically that timeline would move up.
Capping what officials called a six-year effort to get Whalen back to Minnesota, the team Tuesday announced the trade that makes Whalen a Lynx and sends Renee Montgomery to Connecticut.
The two teams also will swap draft picks this year, giving Connecticut the draft's first pick. The Lynx will get the No. 2 pick.
Executive Vice president Roger Griffith said there have been plenty of talks with Connecticut over the years, but they've never been close to sealing a deal before -- until now.
"It just fit in a way that never fit before. If you're giving up a point guard, it's great that they can get a point guard back in Renee Montgomery," said Griffith.
Whalen joins Minnesota for what will be her seventh season in the WNBA, where she's already considered one of the league's best.
But no matter what she does as a Lynx, there's little chance that Minnesota sports fans will ever forget Whalen's college days.
"If someone where to submit the story of what happened while Lindsay was here to Hollywood, they'd say it's too unbelievable," said Sue Corbin, who has attended Gopher women's games for years and is president of the team's fan club, the Fast Break club.
Before Whalen, attendance lagged for a team that rarely rose above mediocre. But Corbin says Whalen quickly became a fan favorite because while she looks unassuming, she has moves on the court that constantly wowed the fans.
Gopher teams - and attendance numbers - kept improving, leading up to Whalen's senior year, 2004.
After mowing over teams at the start of the season, Whalen broke her hand just a few weeks before the NCAA Tournament. The team slumped, but still mustered an appearance in the tournament -- which set up Whalen's first game back on March 21, against UCLA.
"She's got this big bandage on her hand and it's her shooting hand, so they're wondering 'how she's going to do this?'" Corbin recalled. "Within the first minute of the game, she puts up a shot and it goes in. And as she walks back, she just waves at everybody. It's like, the kid's back."
The Gophers won that game 92-81 and won their next three to advance to the Final Four, the only time the school's women's basketball team has ever done that.
In fact, the Minneapolis Star-Tribune named Whalen the 2004 Sportsperson of the year - never mind that Twins pitcher Johan Santana won the Cy Young award that year, or that the NBA's MVP was the Timberwolves' Kevin Garnett.
After Whalen graduated, there was plenty of talk, and later complaints, that the Lynx didn't do enough to secure a high enough draft pick to select Whalen.
Head coach Cheryl Reeve was not in Minnesota at that time but defended the move Tuesday, saying the Lynx would have had to "mortgage the store" to get Whalen.
Whalen's college coach Pam Borton also defended that move.
"I think she had a lot of growing up to do and a lot of growing as a basketball player, and I think it was great for her to do that somewhere else," said Borton. "Now she can come back and just play, and she has nothing to prove to anybody."
Whalen's return means a chance to both build a contender and sell tickets, a key for a league that's still young.
Reeve, who was just hired to her job a few weeks ago, initally thought the first couple years of her tenure would be spent building the team to be contenders.
But Reeve says the addition of Whalen changes that.
"It's going to make everybody on the court better, so you eliminate that window," Reeve said. "And it does make it a situation where the expectation for this basketball team from day one is going to be to win the Western Conference and compete for the WNBA Final."
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