We’re nearly two decades and two 2-term presidents into the 21st Century. A traumatic terrorist attack has changed our society forever and the Millennial Generation has come of age. On a far less serious and more local note, dozens of talented athletes have made their way to and from Minnesota. So, it’s not too early to wonder who has been the most significant and impactful; whose legacy will matter most.
An argument could be made for Joe Mauer or possibly Adrian Peterson. Kevin Garnett certainly warrants consideration. Maya Moore and Seimone Augustus would be on the list. Budding Timberwolves superstars Andew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns may one day reshape this landscape, but right now, the honor goes to Lindsay Whalen.
Whalen’s on court exploits are well documented; she’s a 5-time All Star, 3-time WNBA champion, the only player in league history to compile over 5,000 points, 2,000 assists and 1,500 rebounds, a member of the WNBA Top 20@20 team, and a double Olympic gold medalist. Her most important contribution however transcends the statistics and accolades.
Starting with her stellar career at the University of Minnesota, Whalen has inspired a generation of girls and young women to pick up a basketball. She put the women’s game on the state’s sporting landscape. She’s become part of Minnesota’s identity and culture.
Having been born in Hutchinson, Whalen is also the only native Minnesotan other than Mauer on this list. While it may not be fair, she gets bonus points for that. As the saying goes, she’s “one of us.” We like that.
When Whalen joined the Golden Gophers as a freshman in 2000, the team was a perennial conference cellar dweller, averaging just over 1,000 fans per game. When she left in 2004, they were a national power, reaching the Final Four. Average attendance jumped to nearly 10,000. The Gophers record book had been rewritten. A love affair had begun.
Despite the front office’s best efforts, the Lynx were unable to swing a pre-draft trade to nab the hometown hero. Instead, she went to Connecticut with the No. 4 overall pick (the Lynx owned the No. 6 and No. 7 selections in 2004). In Whalen’s six seasons with the Sun, the team made five postseason appearances and won two Eastern Conference titles, but were unable to claim the big prize.
The Lynx meanwhile, were stuck in the bottom half of the Western Conference, without a playoff berth to their name. They had Seimone, but not much else. Their fans yearned for Lindsay Whalen. Finally, in January 2010, Roger Griffith completed a deal that brought the local legend home. Rebekkah Brunson also joined the team that winter via the dispersal draft. Maya Moore entered the fold a year later. A dynasty was born.
Today, three championship banners hang in the Target Center rafters with fourth possibly coming soon. For a generation of Minnesotans, the Lynx are the only champions they know. It all began 16 years ago on the U of M campus in the mostly empty Sports Pavilion.