Lindsay Whalen remembers the meeting going three hours. Cheryl Reeve says four. It was late March, late in the game when it comes to the Lynx getting ready for the WNBA season. And Whalen was being honest with her coach.
Maybe she couldn’t do this, play another Lynx season.
Sounds odd, doesn’t it? Move ahead just a few weeks and Whalen, who will be 36 Wednesday, isn’t doing one job, but two.
Point guard for the Lynx, head coach of the Gophers women’s basketball team.
From the time she gets up in the morning until the minute she goes to bed, she’s thinking basketball: playing, coaching, recruiting. Mapping Xs and Os for the Gophers on the court, minding the Ps and Qs off it — all while trying to help lead the Lynx to a fifth WNBA title in eight seasons.
Exhausting? Well, right now, no.
But back in late March? Before Marlene Stollings left the U for Texas Tech? Before Whalen, who always had thought about the job but refused to talk about it when it was held by someone else (“That’s just not fair”), started thinking about putting together her first résumé?
She was finding it hard to find motivation.
For three years she had stayed home over the winter rather than play overseas. The first time, she was motivated into the daily, lonely grind of preparation by her desire to make the 2016 Olympic team. In 2017, it was by a desire to avenge a Game 5 loss to Los Angeles.
But this time?
“There were days when I felt great,” Whalen said. “But there were days when I was like, 'I don’t know if I have the energy to go through a whole season.’ ”
Reeve remembers actually thinking, “Should we plan the [retirement] news conference?” She also remembers thinking how glad she was to have traded for Danielle Robinson. Give it a week or two, Reeve said to Whalen. Think about it.
Things changed suddenly.
Stollings left, that résumé was written, the Gophers called, and Whalen will coach. After a couple of weeks that were a blur, she has hired her staff at Minnesota and reportedly landed her first recruit.
And she can’t wait for a new Lynx season to start.
So in mere weeks, Whalen went from seriously considering retirement to being one of the busiest women in Minnesota. She went from wondering if she should have walked away after winning the 2017 title in Williams Arena to having an office there. And if you think taking the Gophers job would take away from her job as a Lynx guard?
Just the opposite.
“After those first two weeks, when I was so focused on what I needed to do at the U, I came back to practice,” Whalen said. “I was totally rejuvenated and refreshed. I had this other thing out there I wanted to be a success at. I wanted to take everything I’d learned from this championship culture and put it into the U. And it was just so cool. I’m busier than I’ve ever been in my life. But it’s a fun busy. This couldn’t have come at a better time for me.”
A typical day:
Up at 7. E-mails, messages phone calls, all U related. The other day in Des Moines, after a one-hour film review before the Lynx opened the preseason, Whalen emerged with both phones buzzing and spent awhile typing, furiously, before sitting back in her chair.
But back to her day. After a couple hours’ work on the phone, Whalen gets to the Lynx practice facility around 9:15 for warmups, stretching. Practice at 11. Weightlifting, film.
Then she goes to work.
“I’m in my office at the U by 3,” she said.
She gets back home about 8, spends a couple hours with husband, Ben Greve, and their 8-month-old goldendoodle Henry, maybe watches some NBA playoffs and gets to bed.
“And then do it all again tomorrow,” she said.
This is all-encompassing. Back when Stollings leaving was just a rumor, Whalen started thinking about the job. She always had assumed that’s where she would end up.
Then Stollings left.
Ben was all in. Ditto for her dad. Her mom worried how she’d do both.
It all happened so fast. Whalen was hired, a very different news conference was scheduled. Then: panic. Whalen had a suit she’d worn while doing a handful of Wolves broadcasts on FSN. But a button had broken. She had nothing to wear, so Ben was dispatched to Ridgedale. “It was, ‘These are my sizes, get out there, do the best you can,’ ” Whalen said.
And the next day Whalen walked onto the Williams Arena floor, where she had won a WNBA title months before.
Whalen freely admits that, while she is becoming a master at compartmentalization, she never fully shuts off one job from the other.
For example: The other day Reeve was running a conditioning drill that also forced the players to think. Whalen went to Reeve and said, ‘’Write this down for me. I need this for my team.”
There is so much Whalen brings with her from Mayo Clinic Square to Williams Arena. Whalen is in the ongoing process of taking plays out of Reeve’s book she thinks will work in the Big Ten.
Reeve’s strength has been in finding people who fit a team both in skills and in demeanor. With the Lynx she has created a family. Whalen is determined to do the same. Her Gophers will have each other’s back. There is no other way.
You can see it in her staff. Kelly Roysland played with Whalen in college. And, important to Whalen, she stuck with the Gophers back in 2006 when a raft of players left then-coach Pam Borton’s team. Carly Thibault-DuDonis is the daughter of Mike Thibault, Whalen’s first WNBA coach, in Connecticut. One year Whalen spent the offseason in Connecticut recovering from surgery, and spent much of it in the Thibault home, becoming part of the family. Whalen used to go to Carly’s high school games. Now they’ll be in the bench together. Danielle O’Banion had been an assistant with the Gophers when Whalen was playing there.
“She’s one of those people who has had it figured out for a while,” Mike Thibault said. “There are growing pains in everything. She’s smart. And if she doesn’t know something, she’ll ask.”
Setting a style
Reeve has said from the start this is a good idea, both for Whalen and for the Lynx.
“Lindsay has always had the intangibles,” Reeve said. “Now it’s up to her. When you walk out of the hospital with your baby, you’ve had all these people around you helping out. All of a sudden, you go home and now what? But she’s ready. She has good people, and she listens to them. She’ll be fine.”
Unfortunately, the job has required her to, as Whalen jokingly admits, grow up.
“Like approving an expense report,” she said. “I’ve never done that in my life. OK, this is new.”
Interviewing candidates, hiring people, making contacts, selling her vision. If she made her first résumé six weeks ago, it already has grown. Whalen compares it to playing. Everything is a rep. You run a meeting, you’ll be better next time. You get up and speak in public, a learning experience.
And her vision? Everyone likes to run and gun, Whalen said. Her teams also will play defense. She will modify her plan to meet the personnel, not push square pegs into round holes. But most importantly:
“I want to push these women to have a great experience,” Whalen said. “To do things they didn’t think they could do. Because Cheryl and Geno [Auriemma, her Olympics coach] and Coach Thibault did that for me. I want them to get their degree, to run out onto Williams Arena when it’s sold out. I had that, and I want my players to have that. Beyond that? Elite Eights, Finals Fours? Championships? Everybody wants that. But if we have the culture, a team with players who are good to each other? These are the building blocks.”
Love for the U
Whalen was thinking about it two months ago. Not so much now. She won’t say whether this will be her final year with the Lynx. She only knows a renewed joy at playing the game with her friends. On May 20 the Lynx will begin their fourth defese of a WNBA title and Whalen can hardly wait.
But her playing career is closer to the end than the start as she enters her 15th season.
As a coach she’s a rookie.
As a youth she watched Bobby Jackson, Sam Jacobson, John Thomas and Eric Harris play. As a kid she went to a game with her dad and remembers walking onto the court for the first time. She played there in college, won a WNBA title there last fall. This fall she’ll coach with her banner hanging from the rafters.
“If you grew up here, you couldn’t have drawn this up any better,” Whalen said. “To play in front of 14,000 people? It’s life-changing.”
Yes, it is.
“A few days after being hired, it really hit me, this is a huge deal,” she said. “But now, right now, I feel like this was what was supposed to happen all along. I’ll be here as long as they’ll have me. I hope I’m the coach here for 30 years. But, no matter what, I’ll always be a Gopher.”