Sports are always with us, and so is hope. There is always another game, another season; another prospect, another star. Wait ’til next year. Wait ’til you see this kid.
That’s why Lindsay Whalen’s retirement feels as pointed as it does poignant, like a thorn caught on your fingertip. We may never see a story like this again.
Whalen grew up in a medium-sized Minnesota town, played high school basketball without making first-team all-state, chose to take her overlooked skills to a terrible basketball program in her home state …
Then became a star. Locally, then nationally, then back home, then internationally.
A star who elevated her state college to heights it has not achieved before or since. A star who proved her mettle in the pros, then returned to Minnesota and won four championships in seven years, and won two Olympic gold medals, and at every stop acted like the role model you wish every public figure could be.
Will this ever happen again? Will there ever be another basketball player or athlete from Minnesota who so ideally combines greatness, charm, achievement, accessibility and serendipity?
Whalen on Monday announced her retirement from pro basketball effective at the end of the season. She’ll continue her improbably ideal life story by coaching the program she took to the Final Four.
Through the years, an athlete so shy she sometimes seemed mute became expansive and inclusive. During her news conference on Monday, she prompted laughs while her coach, Cheryl Reeve, fought back tears.
“It’s once in a lifetime,” Reeve said of her relationship with Whalen.
Through the years, Whalen gave more of herself to the public. Once she warmed to public life, Whalen became the friendliest star in town, someone who let you see what it was like to be Minnesota’s greatest basketball player.
I was lucky enough to cover Whalen in college, the Olympics and the WNBA. Here are my favorite out-of-order memories:
• I coached my daughters in basketball. When I took them to Williams Arena to see Whalen play in the NCAA tournament, they saw great female athletes playing to a packed house. Yes, dears, you can do anything you want in life.
• Whalen wanted to make an Olympic team and relied on Reeve to prepare her. She was chosen for the squad that would play in the London Olympics in 2012. Before she left, I met Whalen and her husband, Ben Greve, at Oceanaire to talk.
That Whalen was the one you saw during her news conference Monday — quick and funny, the life of the dinner party, telling stories about her family’s Burger King gold card. She also told stories that couldn’t be repeated, and kept offering versions of this sentence: “A kid from Hutchinson is going to the Olympics.”
• In 2010, the Lynx traded for Whalen. The first game I covered with Whalen in a Lynx jersey, she approached me during warmups. She wanted to hear about all of the local teams. She asked about my family, and the newspaper. “I’m a Minnesota sports fan,” she said. “Tell me everything you know.”
• In 2016, Whalen won a second gold medal, in Rio, with Reeve as an assistant coach and Seimone Augustus, Maya Moore and Sylvia Fowles as teammates. She’d stop after every game to tell stories about the luxury ship they were staying on, and when it was over she spoke, again, of dreams becoming reality, knowing her time with USA Basketball was coming to an end.
• Before 2011, the Lynx had won one playoff game in 12 years of existence. With Whalen, Augustus, Moore and Rebekkah Brunson, the Lynx would go 7-1 in the postseason and sweep Atlanta in the finals.
I filed my game column on deadline from Atlanta, then went back to the locker room. It was closed. The team was partying inside. At 1 a.m., Whalen fulfilled her promise to meet me in the hallway.
She emerged from the party drenched in champagne, still wearing her uniform. “We did it,” she said, raising her fists. “We’re bringing it home.”
Jim Souhan’s podcasts can be found at talknorth.com.