The phrase became a meme before the word “meme” went mainstream. Following a loss, a player for the new expansion team in town, one that wouldn’t finish higher than third in its first 12 seasons, blamed the result on a failure to play “Lynx basketball.”
The early adoption of a popular sporting cliche by a team with no pedigree became a talk-show one-liner. The first six coaches in Minnesota Lynx history would compile losing records and “Lynx basketball” became a reliable punch line.
Playing “Lynx basketball” means something different these days.
Want proof? Lynx basketball is sending four current players — Maya Moore, Lindsay Whalen, Seimone Augustus and Sylvia Fowles — and coach Cheryl Reeve, plus a player under team control who will compete for Australia, to Rio for the 2016 Olympics to support another dynastic team: U.S. women’s basketball.
Lynx basketball has won three of the last five WNBA championships, and the four Olympians already have a combined six gold medals.
Lynx basketball might have built its most talented roster ever this season.
Lynx basketball provides one of the more engaging gameday experiences of any sport in town, as a handful of the world’s best players sign autographs and hold on-court dance parties for one of Minnesota’s happiest fan bases.
“Lynx basketball” is not only no longer a joke, but it is a phrase that commands admiration from First Avenue to Europe and Asia, where Lynx stars play during the winter.
How did a losing franchise in a mediocre arena become a comfortable haven for the world’s best players and Minnesota’s most relentlessly excellent team?
As with most success stories, there are simple and complex answers.
The simple: talent. The Lynx feature three No. 1 overall draft picks, a second and a fourth pick, two of the top 15 scorers in league history, one league MVP and three Finals MVPs, including one of the world’s best players in Maya Moore.
The complex: The Lynx hired a remarkable coach in Cheryl Reeve, have maintained continuity with assistant coaches and management, developed a system and team dynamic that emphasizes unselfishness and maximum effort, made deft trades and was lucky enough to be bad at the right time.
“I wish all of you could be in the huddle and see the look in their eyes and see them go out there and see the determination they had to get a stop to win the game,” Reeve said after a recent victory. “This is so much fun to be a part of.”
The transformation began when the Lynx, following a 14-20 finish in 2005, selected prolific LSU scorer Seimone Augustus with the first pick of the 2005 draft. Augustus would become a world-class pro, and her injuries in 2009 would lead to another 14-20 finish, the departure of coach Jennifer Gillom and the hiring of Reeve, who, by percentage, is the winningest coach in league history.
“Our patience is probably the common theme in this story,” said General Manager Roger Griffith. “And Seimone’s patience with us — her willingness to stick with us through the difficult times so she could enjoy the good times — is a big part of our success.”
Griffith heard dozens of cliches when interviewing head coaches in 2009. When asked how they would handle a problematic star, most told Griffith they would discipline the player, probably by decreasing playing time.
Reeve said her job was to communicate with the player to ensure the relationship never reached a crisis point. And if that didn’t work? “Cheryl said you had to quietly start working on a trade,” Griffin said. “That was the only time I heard that. It was typical of Cheryl in that she didn’t say what she thought she was supposed to say. She had her own ideas.”
With Reeve in place, the Lynx traded for former Gophers point guard Lindsay Whalen, and then got lucky. More injuries to Augustus and a shallow roster led to one more bad season.
A 14-21 finish positioned the Lynx to win the draft lottery and take Moore with the first pick in the draft. “We didn’t tank,” Reeve said. “We did it the right way. We tried to get into the playoffs. It came down to the last three games of the season. We lost in the waning seconds of a game against L.A., who we were competing with for the final spot in the playoffs. All that could go wrong did. With 1.1 seconds left, Tina Thompson drains a shot and we lost the game and missed the playoffs.”
That positioned the Lynx to land the first pick in the lottery and draft Moore. When the Sacramento Monarchs folded and the Lynx selected Rebekkah Brunson in the dispersal draft, and Reeve targeted veteran post player “Mama” Taj McWilliams-Franklin in free agency, the long-suffering Lynx suddenly had a remarkable starting five. (They also traded for Rachel Jarry, who is on the Australian Olympic team.)
In 2011, the Lynx would win their first title, Augustus winning the Finals MVP and Moore becoming rookie of the year.
The Lynx would win it all again in 2013 after adding former Gophers star Janel McCarville, another former No. 1 overall pick who added post depth and passing to a prolific offensive team.
The Lynx’s winning and reputation helped position them for a third title. Star center Sylvia Fowles refused to play for the Chicago Sky and reportedly demanded a trade to the Lynx. She is a powerhouse inside player who became the team’s third Finals MVP in five years.
“The beauty of what we have here in Minnesota is that everybody is willing to share the starlight,” Fowles said. “We have a coach who doesn’t treat us like stars. She treats us all the same. I don’t think it will be different when she’s in Rio with us.
“When Seimone and I were talking [in 2015], this is what I hoped for. And I asked: What can I contribute without taking away from everybody else?”
At the heart of the winning is Moore, a player of malleable and otherworldly skills. With stars around her, she is scoring about 4.6 fewer points per game than she did two years ago but averaging a career- and team-best 4.4 assists.
Whalen, another prolific scorer happy to share the ball, is the first player in league history to reach 5,000 points, 2,000 assists and 1,500 rebounds.
In Reeve’s offense the basketball moves like a pinball, enabling four stars to create and take open shots.
“The universe works in mysterious ways, as far as being able to get Whalen in a trade and Brunson in the dispersal draft, and however we got Maya,” Augustus said. “So many things started to fall in our favor. I understood as a No. 1 pick that anybody taken in the first five or six picks is coming to a team that isn’t very good.
“I think I understood that it was going to be hard the first couple of years. I didn’t know it was going to last five years. I never wavered as far as my faith in what Roger was going to do, and once we got Cheryl, just her presence made me believe. When she spoke to me the first meeting speaking on what she wanted to do and what she needed from me, I knew things were going to change for the better.”
“In 2010 we were all getting to know each other and the system and we had our struggles,” Whalen said. “We were 2-11, Seimone was coming back from injury, and then Candice Wiggins got hurt and it set us back a lot.
“A year later we were in Seattle, playing the defending champs, and we went up 22-2. Nights like that told you what we could be.”
Since then the Lynx have stocked All-Star and Olympic teams. Whalen credits Reeve for preparing her physically to earn an Olympic roster spot in 2012 in London, where the U.S. women won their 41st straight game and fifth straight Olympic gold medal.
“I wasn’t super aware of the ins and outs of the Lynx as a fan,” Moore said. “After I found out that they had the No. 1 pick and that I would be coming here, I looked at the roster and got excited. I felt really spoiled to be drafted into a situation where this team was coming together. I really liked the coaching staff and Cheryl’s competitiveness, passion and attention to detail.”
After a recent practice, Reeve repeatedly raised her voice, Whalen held her fist high after her squad scored the final basket, and Moore and Augustus danced as the team warmed down.
“It’s not an easy thing to do, to combine individual and team success,” Moore said. “But from the top down, we’ve got a great owner, and a great front office that sets the tone for our fan base. We’re very much team players and we emphasize doing things well together.’’