Cheryl Reeve had been through WNBA championship celebrations before, so the Lynx coach thought she had some idea of what might greet her team at its victory parade down Nicollet Mall. But as she sat in the back of a white Lexus convertible, watching the pandemonium all around her, she turned to general manager Roger Griffith and asked, "You never dreamt it could be like this, right?"
A crowd estimated at 15,000 mobbed the parade route in downtown Minneapolis Tuesday, holding up Lynx signs and scrambling to get photos of the players. People climbed on any elevated surface -- lampposts, benches, the Mary Tyler Moore statue -- to get a better view. Kids whose parents pulled them out of school grabbed for candy being thrown by Lynx guard and native daughter Lindsay Whalen.
Some in the throng had followed the Lynx for their entire 13-season tenure in the WNBA. Some had gotten on board just this season, which ended last Friday when the Lynx swept Atlanta to win their first WNBA title. Some didn't know a thing about the team, but they couldn't resist cheering the first pro sports championship won by a Minnesota team in 20 years.
Hundreds of paradegoers followed the procession down 7th Street to Target Center, where 4,500 screamed their lungs out at a victory rally. Guard Seimone Augustus, who rode with Whalen in a car that was repeatedly swarmed by fans, said she had dreamed of what a championship parade might be like -- but reality turned out to be much, much better.
"When we turned the corner [onto Seventh Street], people were everywhere," Augustus said. "Everyone's been saying thank you, but we've got to say thank you to them for being so supportive. I've seen some amazing fans in my life, but this takes the cake."
When the parade began at 11:30 a.m., fans were gathered three to five deep along the route. The diverse crowd included carts full of toddlers from a local day-care center, elderly men posing for photos with the players, Target employees in their red shirts and khaki pants and even a few dogs. Office workers in suits stood elbow-to-elbow with skateboarders, and clumps of people gathered in the skyways to watch.
Jhyla Seimone Burns -- middle name inspired by the MVP of the playoffs -- attended her first Lynx game while in the womb. Her father, Joey Johnson, dressed Jhyla, 4, and her sister Zakiyah, 10, in their Lynx T-shirts and brought them from St. Paul to see the parade. "We all like going to the games," Johnson said. "We love their winning ways and the fact that they stick together."
While some folks watched from outdoor tables at Brit's Pub or The Local, others set up picnic lunches and lawn chairs along the mall. Impromptu chants of "Let's Go Lynx!" and "MVP!" broke out as Augustus held the championship trophy on her lap. Even the team trainers, Chuck Barta and Keith Uzpen, were applauded as they rode in the back of a red pickup.
At the corner of Nicollet and Seventh, the crowd grew so thick it spilled into the streets. Hundreds marched behind the parade to join the party at Target Center, where hundreds more already were waiting. Near a souvenir stand overrun by fans, Daniel Wenger and Ben Rascher, both 18, admitted they hadn't gotten on the bandwagon until the very end.
"I only watched the last game," said Rascher, who was wearing a Twins T-shirt. "But you've gotta support them, right? Never in my lifetime has there been a championship in Minnesota, and I really wanted to experience this feeling."
Dianne Star has been on board since the beginning. She is among 224 people who have held season tickets since the Lynx debuted in 1999, and Tuesday, she sat in the VIP section in front of the rally stage.
Along with most everyone else in the arena, Star, 57, gasped at the indoor fireworks and hollered in response when Gov. Mark Dayton, working the crowd like a preacher, shouted, "Are we proud of the Lynx?" Seeing Reeve walk onto the stage holding the championship trophy, Star said, was well worth the wait.
"I love watching them play, and I always have," she said. "It feels good to see these women get the support they deserve."
Minnesotans often head for the exits before games end, but they stayed in their seats Tuesday to see through a celebration they hadn't experienced since the Twins won the World Series in 1991. As the last of the glittering confetti floated to the floor, they didn't want it to end, and neither did the Lynx.
"You think about winning a championship, but I never really thought about what it would be like to have a parade and a celebration like this," Whalen said. "The way people have embraced us is overwhelming."