HUTCHINSON, MINN. – There’s no statue of Lindsay Whalen in this city of 14,000 residents on the Crow River about an hour west of Minneapolis.
But in the town where the winningest player in WNBA history grew up, there’s a mural on Main Street depicting the homegrown basketball star in her Olympic uniform, driving hard to the bucket. And in a perfect summary of Whalen’s relentlessly gritty character, it’s painted on the side of a pawnshop.
As news of Whalen’s retirement Monday from the Minnesota Lynx spread through town, those who know her and followed her and cheered her on stopped to pay tribute to the local girl who made good, an international sports star who never forgot her roots.
“She’s a hometown sweetheart, that’s for sure,” said Tiffany Hopkins, pouring drinks at the Main Street Sports Bar, where the two TVs were tuned to Whalen’s televised retirement news conference Monday afternoon.
“It’s cool to see the culture that follows her in this town.”
That culture includes photos of Whalen at local businesses, signed basketball gear displayed under glass and so many yard signs — “Lindsay, We Are Proud of You” — that one new Hutchinson resident, assuming the signs were put out by family members, wondered how she could possibly have so many relatives.
“She’s pretty much done everything you can ask of an athlete,” said Matthew Johnson, manager of Security Coin & Pawn, home of Whalen’s mural, as he watched Whalen speak on television from Mayo Clinic Square. “Some people got it, some people don’t.”
At Hutchinson High School, Whalen’s retired No. 13 jersey is kept in a frame in the school activities office. Sarah McGraw, an administrative assistant, was a neighbor of the Whalens; her son, Adam Froemming graduated in the Class of 2000 with Lindsay.
“She was a quiet girl,” McGraw said. “She’s an introvert, not an extrovert. Just a nice neighborhood girl.”
Whalen was never the biggest player on the court, but she earned a reputation for fierce, hard-nosed play.
“My gosh, she looks small out there,” said Darlene Baune, a clerk at Carly’s Shoes downtown, where a Whalen yard sign is on display. “You see her with all those other big players, and you think, ‘Oh, she’s going to get bounced around.’ But she can handle herself.”
Behind the counter at the Hutch Cafe Monday, Angie Jergens ladled gravy onto a turkey sandwich — “It’s hand-carved,” she noted — and praised Whalen’s ongoing connection to her hometown.
Jergens’ daughter teaches at St. Anastasia Catholic School, where Whalen attended the elementary grades. Jergens said Whalen regularly returns to the school to hold basketball clinics and meet the students.
Waiting for her lunch in the cafe, 92-year-old Roxanne Jensen recounted how she calls her 101-year-old friend, Irma , whenever Whalen is on TV.
“I tell her, ‘Turn on your TV, Lindsay’s on!’ ” Jensen said. And when the Lynx need a little extra help, Jensen tells her friend to put on her prayer shawl.
“She has been a very big role model for all the young sports enthusiasts,” Jensen added.
That’s true, said 13-year-old Maddy Steintl, who runs track, cross-country and plays basketball. She and her peers look up to Whalen, who led the Gophers women’s team to the NCAA Final Four in 2004 before going on to win two Olympic gold medals for Team USA and four WNBA championships with the Lynx.
“It kind of makes you feel that since she came from our town, people from our area could actually go to the Olympics,” Steintl said.
Whalen was named head coach of the Gophers before this WNBA season began, a job that could lead to a whole new generation of young admirers.
“All the girls want to be another Lindsay,” said Tim Sanken. “She has really remembered the community.”
John Reinan • 612-673-7402