Lindsay Whalen was running a practice last week when she called her team to center court. She had arranged for a four-time WNBA champion coach to speak to her players. That coach was also Whalen’s coach.
Lynx basketball boss Cheryl Reeve joined the circle and gave a short speech. Friday night, when Whalen coaches her first game, she will have former Lynx teammates Sylvia Fowles and Seimone Augustus in attendance.
Whalen’s debut as Gophers women’s basketball coach will be unique because her circumstances are almost as unimaginable as they are familiar. The greatest player produced by the Division I program will coach that program in the state where she grew up and in the city where she won four pro championships.
If Whalen has a coaching question, she can drive a mile or two and chat with the future Hall of Fame coach who guided her career. Although, as the two noted in Whalen’s office last week, we live in the age of texting.
A recent Whalen text to Reeve, following a difficult Gophers practice, read: “Coach, did you drink a lot?”
Whalen was joking about the alcohol, but not about the need for diversion.
“I’ve started working out again,” she said. “I needed something just for the stress relief. I also wanted to be in a situation where someone was telling me what to do and I wasn’t the one making the decisions. Just tell me how many reps.”
This led to Gophers athletic director Mark Coyle approaching Whalen with a nervous question.
“He had heard I was working out,” Whalen said. “I told him, ‘No, I’m not getting ready to play again. I just need to do it for my sanity.’ ”
Reeve raised an eyebrow.
“So this is a failed recruiting trip?” she said.
“Yeah,” Whalen said, smiling. “I think I’m done playing.”
Whalen and Reeve sat near the coffee table in Whalen’s expansive office, which features views of the practice court and the campus. The coffee table holds WNBA championship rings and Olympic gold medals.
“Pretty helpful for recruiting,” Reeve said.
“Oh, you know, it’s just there if anybody happens to drop by,” Whalen said.
Reeve became the Lynx coach in 2010. The franchise had never won a playoff series. She traded for Whalen. We now know the trade would produce one of the great alliances in Minnesota sports history, one marked by their almost telepathic relationship. What they remember about that first year was starting 2-9 and the development of mutual coping mechanisms.
“It was miserable,” Whalen said. “But Coach kept saying, ‘I bet the sun is going to come up tomorrow.’ And I’d come in the next day and say, ‘You were right.’ ”
Whalen has felt tempted to borrow that saying this fall, not because she expects to struggle, but because transitioning from playing to coaching is a shock.
Reeve noted that players practice, recover, go home and “watch Netflix.” Coaches prepare for practice, hold hosts of meetings, break down practice film, then prepare for the next day. College coaches also recruit incessantly, speak to university and alumni groups and help with fundraising.
“The first week of practice I get a text message from [Gophers senior center] Annalese Lamke — she got hit by a car when she was on her moped,” Whalen said. “Well, I was already asleep when she texted me. I went to bed at 10 because I was so exhausted by this schedule.
“She was OK, but it made me realize — I always have to have my phone on.”
Reeve said, “This is just the beginning. You haven’t played a game yet, haven’t traveled yet or gone through all of the ups and downs of a season. And things will come up. There are 18-to-22-year-olds who will have things come up.
“I’ve never been around a player turned coach who didn’t say, ‘I had no idea of all that went into this.’ It’s a tough, demanding job. And I think Lindsay is going to be exceptional at it.”