Jim Souhan: Whalen shows us her Olympic face

  • Article by: JIM SOUHAN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: July 22, 2012 - 6:32 AM

Minnesota star Lindsay Whalen takes her best game face to London.

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United States Olympic National Team women's basketball members Candace Parker, left, Maya Moore, Angel McCoughtry, Seimone Augustus, Lindsay Whalen, and Swin Cash watch a video before the men's practice Saturday, July 14, 2012 in Washington.

Photo: Alex Brandon, ASSOCIATED PRESS - AP

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Lindsay Whalen walks into the Oceanaire Seafood Room in downtown Minneapolis wearing her Team USA sweats and takes charge. "Let's sit in the bar," she says. "Someplace we can relax and see the TVs."

She commandeers a table in the corner and situates her party, then orders appetizers while her husband, Ben Greve, smiles knowingly at the point guard directing traffic.

Whalen, the most accomplished women's basketball player in Minnesota history, doesn't have much time. She's just finished practice with the Minnesota Lynx, is on her way to a photo shoot, has to pack for a trip to Los Angeles, and is a week away from leaving for a barnstorming tour with the U.S. basketball team that will compete in the London Olympics.

The obsessive sports fan asks about Zach Parise, then analyzes "her" Vikings. Whalen's humility probably doesn't allow her to acknowledge how well she fits into any discussion of Minnesota winners.

Whalen starred at Hutchinson High School, then elevated the Gophers women's team to unprecedented heights, including a Final Four appearance. She spent her first six seasons in the WNBA playing for the Connecticut Sun, making it to two league finals, and became a star in the Czech Republic. And just when it seemed she had faded from the Minnesota scene and entered the downslope of her career, the Lynx brought her back home and she put on what Lynx assistant coach Jim Petersen calls "Her Whalen face," and started winning even more.

After being left off the 2008 Olympic team in part because of her wedding, Whalen made the 2010 USA team that won the FIBA world championship. Last summer, she led the previously woeful Lynx to a WNBA title, turning her nice little coming-home story into a reminder that her Gophers career was appetizer, not entrée.

Now Whalen is in London, excelling at point guard for the loaded U.S. team and preparing to win a gold medal at age 30, as her quest for championships continues to span the Northern Hemisphere.

"We were in Prague on a Friday afternoon when I got the call that I made the Olympic team," Whalen said. "I was half-asleep, watching TV after practice, and I immediately told Ben, then called my parents.

"My father kept saying, 'No ... no! I can't believe this!' It was a big moment."

In London, she and her teammates will share a hotel with LeBron James and the men's team, and Whalen plans to soak up an experience her mother says she should have enjoyed earlier.

"I know this is extremely important to her," Kathy Whalen said.

Family values

It's a typical weekday morning, and Kathy has just returned to her Hutchinson home following a 7 p.m.-to-7 a.m. shift at the local 3M plant. She and her husband, Neil, work at the plant on varying schedules. "Oh, it's not a bad deal," Kathy says.

She sounds like her oldest daughter, and is even more blunt.

"I know this was extremely important to her," Kathy said. "She would have been terribly disappointed if she hadn't made the Olympic team. She felt that circumstances prevented her from making the last one, because she got married and missed an Olympic camp. I think she felt she deserved to go the last time, so I know she gave up a lot to make sure she made all the requirements and camps this time. She wants that gold medal."

Whalen grew up the oldest of six children. Neil was a standout high school hockey goalie, and Whalen's parents passed on their competitiveness through board games and match-play golf replete with trash-talking.

Not that Whalen needed prodding. She was the kid who organized the neighborhood pickup games. Her high school coaches gave her the run of the gym on weekends and in the summer, and she learned quickly that winning meant playing, and losing meant sitting on the sideline, absorbing the taunts of the victors.

"I had a 13-year-old-girl ask what she can do to get better, and I'm like, 'Play a lot of basketball,'" Whalen said. "I got more into drills and shooting in college. In high school, I just played, against guys and girls."

She signed with the University of Minnesota because she wanted her parents to see her play, but she wound up on Cheryl Littlejohn's last team, one that finished 1-15 in Big Ten play and played in the U of M Sports Pavilion, in front of crowds generously estimated at 1,000.

By the end of her career, Whalen was playing in Williams Arena, sometimes before sellouts, and taking the Gophers to the Final Four.

"I knew she'd stay at Minnesota, no matter how awful that program was," Kathy said. "I knew she would not leave home. Luckily, she got better coaching along the way.

"At first, it was horrible. At one point, her freshman year, she wanted to quit. She was so frustrated and disappointed in the way things were being run and just all the losing. We had one and only one conversation where she said, 'I wonder if I made the right choice.' I said that everything would fall into place."

The big rise

Brenda Oldfield replaced Littlejohn, and Pam Borton replaced Oldfield, and Whalen became a star, a remarkably fast and powerful point guard whose contortions near the basket often elicited gasps.

Connecticut took her in the WNBA draft, and while the league and the Lynx lost an easy marketing opportunity and busloads of fans at Target Center, Whalen said she matured and improved playing away from home.

And especially far away from home. For the past five years, she has spent summers playing in the WNBA and winters in Prague, where she is an imported star in the arena and an anonymous sightseer in the Czech capital.

Greve was an All-America golfer at Minnesota. He joined the Canadian Tour, what he calls "The Double-A baseball of the golf world," and built his schedule around Whalen's, spending much of each winter in Prague. Now he's working for State Farm in the Twin Cities and providing balance to what Whalen calls "a crazy life."

"I don't think she could do everything she does without his support," Kathy said.

The two met in a freshman statistics class at the U. "I kept showing up earlier and earlier, to make sure I could sit near her," Greve said.

They were both quiet athletes who loved talking sports. Greve was a standout basketball player at Annandale High, and the two would play pickup games together, although Greve would never allow himself to be lured into a game of 1-on-1. "No way," he said.

"He actually has a great jump shot, with great elevation," Whalen said. "And he was really fast."

Greve watched his girlfriend become a star and learned to identify the moment Whalen transforms from a workmanlike point guard into one of the best players in the world.

"When play gets a little physical, you'll see her get that look," he said. "And you know she's about to make something happen."

Petersen, another former University of Minnesota player, says there are different versions of "that look."

"In practice, she has the 'Whalen Face,' her competitive face," Petersen said. "Then, in games, there's the 'Whalen Glare.' Both of them are devastating. The 'Face' means death to the opponent. The 'Glare' means death to the individual. And sometimes 'The Glare' is directed at an official.

"She's so amazingly competitive. Last year, in San Antonio, she hit the game-winner in a game that kind of turned our season, put us on a championship arc. We played poorly in the first half and she came out in the third quarter and had that look, and hit a basket and had a steal and a layup and just catapulted us to that win."

Whalen will come home from a game, venting about an official's call or a bad play, and Greve will give her the quintessential golfer's perspective, that her team is winning and "it will all work out."

Going for gold

It has. No longer possessing an advantage in raw speed, Whalen has become an apt pupil under every coach she has had since Littlejohn. She is amazed by what Lynx coach Cheryl Reeve will see in practice, and she could see herself coaching after her playing career ends.

"I credit Coach Reeve for putting me in the mindset of always being aggressive," Whalen said. "When you're surrounded by great players, it's easy to be effective. And I'm motivated to do everything to the fullest, because you just don't know what's going to happen next."

But she's got a pretty good idea. Team USA is loaded. Whalen and Lynx teammates Seimone Augustus and Maya Moore expect to bring gold medals to their next Lynx practice, a year after winning a WNBA title. Whalen already helped spark a 21-0 run in an exhibition victory over Great Britain last week.

"Yeah, we're gonna hang out with LeBron James and Kobe Bryant at the team hotel," Whalen said in a voice filled with fake self-importance. "Most important thing is we have to try all the local food. Me and my teammates are serious about our food. We need to try fish-and-chips over there."

She leans across the table at Oceanaire, where she is gladly settling for shrimp. After teasing everyone at the table, she announces, "My next career is 'Saturday Night Live.' My teammates all say I should have my own variety show."

Greve isn't sure the entertainment could get much better. "For me, as a sports fan, to get to watch her compete at the highest level, and to have backstage access to this great basketball, has been a thrill," he said. "And it just keeps getting better."

Jim Souhan can be heard Sundays from 10 a.m. to noon and weekdays at 2 p.m. on 1500-AM. His Twitter name is SouhanStrib. • jsouhan@startribune.com

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