While the Lynx continued their surge toward the WNBA playoff Tuesday night, Jerry Leone sat courtside, in one of those seats that would cost a car payment at an NBA game.

The Lynx's overwhelming success this year has created a new breed of fan for the team. Attendance is up, and the enthusiasm of the crowd of 8,056 last night was remindful of the glory days of women's basketball at the U, when Lindsay Whalen, now the Lynx point guard, became one of the most influential athletes in state history.

Leone is not a newcomer. He started buying Lynx tickets years ago, and now, with the exception of the occasional Twins game, he spends his discretionary sports dollars on his favorite basketball team.

"I used to have Timberwolves tickets,'' said Leone, of Medicine Lake, from courtside on Tuesday night. "When Kevin Garnett signed for $21 million a year, I dropped them. It's been a long time since I've been here for those guys.

"I'll go to a few Twins games, maybe a couple of hockey games, but these girls here play the best basketball you'll see. For being professionals, they play with their heart. You can see it every single game.''

Leone tried bringing his daughter, Madison, to a Wolves game when she was young. "One player was swearing,'' Leone said. "I said, 'I can't do that anymore.' I came to the first Lynx game here, and we were hooked.

"They love the game. It's not all about the money. I've been a coach for 20 years for boys' and girls' basketball, and these girls are the best. They don't take four steps on the way to the basket. See Lindsay's unbelievable pass to Maya Moore, right there? It's just so exciting.''

The Lynx beat Washington 73-56 Tuesday night at Target Center. Leone sat near the team bench. On the other side of the court sat Vikings star Kevin Williams and linebacker Erin Henderson.

Leone had a front-row seat, again, as Whalen conducted the fast break. He was sitting a few feet away from Seimone Augustus as the announcer congratulated her on winning her third conference player of the week award this season. She waved shyly to the fans, turning to make eye contact, as her teammates teased her.

The Lynx are 24-6 and could win a championship in a state packed with underachieving and average teams, and they don't mind going out of their way to shake a few hands and make new friends.

We watch sports for the spectacle and the spectacular, and the Lynx provide enough of both, with fast-break baskets and reverse layups. We also watch sports to see cohesion and competitiveness, to see people who grew up in different climes and circumstances bonding together under pressure, and the Lynx are the best example of that on the local landscape.

"One thing I love is that before the game, Lindsay will come over and give me a high-five,'' Leone said. "You can't get that anywhere else. I'm a sucker for stuff like that. To have a professional team be so accessible ... I'm a sucker for that. If you tell me you like me, you've got me.''

Leone's daughter, Madison, is 17. She's been coming to Lynx games for years, too. "Everybody here knows her,'' Leone said. "Because she's been sitting courtside the whole time.''

Whalen has become a familiar face, all over again. In 2008, she finished second in the MVP voting playing for Connecticut. This season, Whalen is posting career bests in scoring, assists, field-goal percentage, three-point percentage and assist-to-turnover ratio, all while leading the best team in the league.

"It's been great,'' Whalen said. "The crowds seem to have gotten better and better each game. It's been loud, and when you walk around the city, people seem to be really into what we're doing. From the start of the season, it's been a totally different feel than last year.''

You don't need a courtside seat to notice the difference.

Jim Souhan can be heard Sundays from 10 a.m. to noon and weekdays at 2:40 p.m. on 1500ESPN. His Twitter name is Souhanstrib. • jsouhan@startribune.com