The young men decked in Twins gear had their minds on baseball when they noticed a crowd funneling into Target Center.
“Let’s go to the Lynx game,” one said, “they actually win.”
Nicole LaVoi, within earshot of the group, remembers that day three years ago as a sure sign that arguably the most successful pro franchise in the Twin Cities was at last catching hold among ardent sports fans.
LaVoi is co-director of the Tucker Center for research on girls and women in sports at the University of Minnesota. She is also a Lynx season-ticket holder. For all the team’s playoff runs and their three WNBA titles, this spontaneous conversion on the street corner outside the arena might be her favorite Lynx memory.
“First of all, they win,” LaVoi said. “And, as a society, we like winners.”
The Lynx will play in the WNBA Finals for the sixth time in the last seven seasons when they tip-off against the Los Angeles Sparks at Williams Arena on Sunday in a best-of-five series. The winner could be fairly described as a dynasty. A franchise that early on found winning as hard as making a half-court shot is the most accomplished of any current pro team in Minnesota.
No longer a mere curiosity, the Lynx, with WNBA Most Valuable Player Sylvia Fowles, are a dominant team in a city desperate for title chases. The Twins are contending for a playoff spot. The Timberwolves open camp Saturday in San Diego with true playoff aspirations. The Wild gets its season underway soon with a deep run in sight. The Vikings continue to push uphill in the NFL.
And then there are the Lynx.
With the Target Center under renovation, Lynx regular-season games were moved this season to St. Paul’s Xcel Energy Center, where they saw their attendance rise 12 percent, finishing with the highest total (176,919 in 17 games) in franchise history. (The team is owned by Glen Taylor, owner of the Star Tribune.)
“They have been able to flip the switch for some people who wouldn’t otherwise go to see women’s sports,” said Mary Jo Kane, Tucker Center director. “And when they do, they see gifted athletes who compete at the highest level with the biggest stakes. These are things we’ve long admired about men in sports. And the Lynx have it in spades.”
Ask Lynx coach Cheryl Reeve where it all began and she points to Aug. 12, 2010.
Near the end of the season the Sparks came to town. Late in the game, Lindsay Whalen, who’d previously starred for the Gophers, was fouled as she drove to the basket. She sank both free throws to give the Lynx a one-point lead with 1.1 seconds remaining.
But on the ensuing inbounds play, two Lynx defenders collided and fell. The Sparks’ Tina Thompson sank the game-winner.
“I remember being incredulous when the horn sounded,” Reeve said.
The loss put the Lynx into the WNBA draft lottery, which they won to secure the No. 1 pick.
That player? Maya Moore, a transcendent talent who will go down as one of the best of all time.
The rest is historic.
“I tell Maya her number shouldn’t be 23,” Reeve said. “It should be 1.1. It’s a defining moment in our history.”
The arrival of Moore, who has a special collection Jordan brand shoe debuting on Sept. 30, signaled new fortunes for the franchise. Seimone Augustus was drafted first overall by the Lynx in 2006 and witnessed the dog days up close.
“Our mentality had to change,” Augustus said. “We were in a losing mind-set, from the players on the floor to the organization. There was a big fog around us.”
Reeve arrived in 2010 from Detroit determined to make the Lynx a playoff contender. In November of 2009 Rebekkah Brunson was the second pick in the dispersal draft after the Sacramento Monarchs folded. Seven weeks later — after years of trying — the Lynx traded with the Connecticut Sun for Whalen, the hometown favorite.
Still, there were only 13 wins in 2010.
The Lynx then signed veteran center Taj McWilliams-Franklin and Moore.
Reeve remembers the 2011 training camp as the best in her 17 seasons. Augustus was razor-focused and healthy. The veterans accepted Moore from the start. “The chemistry, the passion for what they were doing, for each other — they loved being around each other,” Reeve said. “That 2011 training camp was where we were born.”
Months later, in a Finals sweep against Atlanta, Minnesota won the first of three titles.
If success breeds more of it, the Lynx are benefactors. They exude energy and charisma.
“People talk about the culture of a team,” said recent Basketball Hall of Fame inductee Rebecca Lobo. “It’s hard to put a finger on. But look at the bench. Seimone, her dreads flying, celebrating Sylvia [Fowles]. That’s what you see on great teams.”
Everyone in the league knows it. Fowles was an all-star in Chicago, but she wanted to go from being a very good player to a great one. Having seen how the Lynx operate, she decided it had to be there. So she sat out the first half of the 2015 season in order to force a trade to Minnesota. That fall she was the MVP of the Finals. Last week, she was named 2017 MVP.
“This chemistry is special,” she said. “It is. This team knows what’s important is how you are on the inside.”
Kate Wulf and Marianne Christianson have had season tickets since the inaugural season in 1999; they had season tickets for the Minnesota Fillies of the short-lived WBL 40 years ago.
They have seen the franchise arc and remember nights with hardly any fans. These days, they revel in the crowds.
“It’s like a miracle,” Christianson said.
Said Wulf: “It’s their cohesion. Their selflessness. … And they love the people in the crowd. They reach out to us. They’re warm. A lot of people get to their position and forget about that sort of thing.”
They both love watching the players dance with children after home victories.
They’re not alone.
The Lynx have given a generation of young girls something to aspire to, and young boys something to admire.
“It has to have an impact,” Lobo said. “The Lynx, in what they’re doing, what they’ve done in all those finals, it’s good basketball.”