Lindsay Whalen joked, people laughed, Lynx coach Cheryl Reeve cried.
“I thought I’d make it a little longer,” Reeve said, with the news conference moments old.
This in front of a large crowd at the Mayo Clinic Square courts, one that included Whalen’s friends and family who go all the way back to her hometown of Hutchinson, and teammates who’ve been alongside her for years.
Whalen and Reeve, flanked by the four WNBA trophies they helped win, made official Whalen’s decision to retire at season’s end Monday afternoon.
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Reeve, tissue in hand, eyes red. Whalen wry, joking.
Perfect, really. Monday’s news conference means a golden age will end, with maroon already in the mix. The 36-year-old Whalen — about to finish her 15th season, set to begin her first as head coach of the women’s team at the University of Minnesota and one of the most popular athletes in state history — is moving ahead. She leaves behind no regrets, confident there are more games to be won down the stretch of the regular season and into the playoffs.
“I know I left it on the floor,” Whalen said.
A star at Hutchinson High School, Whalen joined a Gophers team mired at the bottom of the Big Ten. By the time she left in the spring of 2004, the Gophers had made their only run to the Final Four.
• Whalen will retire as the all-time winningest player in league history. In 15 seasons she has been a part of 322 victories. Add another 54 in the playoffs with Connecticut and Minnesota, second only to teammate Rebekkah Brunson. The Lynx have won 71.4 percent of their games since Whalen came back to Minnesota, via trade, in 2010.
• She has a Final Four appearance, two Olympic golds, four WNBA titles and eight total appearance in the Finals. She’s been an All-Star six times and was named one of the top 20 players in the WNBA’s first 20 years.
• She has appeared in 477 games, scored 5,501 points, with 2,337 assists, most in Lynx history and third-most in league history.
“I’m so lucky to be here at this time,” Reeve said, fighting tears. “For me it’s once in a lifetime. That sort of relationship is once in a lifetime … The Lindsay Whalen story — I don’t know if you could write a better story. I’m blessed to have had such a great seat through all that.”
Said Whalen, smiling at her coach: “Four championships. We’ve done it together, Coach. I don’t think it was anything we could have imagined when you guys pulled the trigger on that trade. Gave up a No. 1 pick to bring me here. I hope it’s worked out. I think it’s gone fairly well.”
It was clear that while Reeve was wrapped in emotion, Whalen was trying to keep it light. She was there to help celebrate her career, not rue it being over. But there were things she wanted to say. She thanked her family, her teammates, both here in and in Connecticut, where coach Mike Thibault became like a second father; his daughter, Carly Thibault-DuDonis, is on Whalen’s Gophers staff. Whalen chided husband Ben Greve for being on a golf course but then noted that he’s playing in the U.S. Amateur at Pebble Beach, so it was OK.
Whalen thanked the fans. “It’s been 15 great years,” she said. “Some great years in college. It’s been a wild ride, and I feel we’ve done it together.”
She is not leaving because of her coaching gig. She had contemplated retiring after the Lynx won their fourth title on the Williams Arena raised floor last fall — an achievement she put at the top of her list of memories — even before the coaching offer came. But she wanted to make sure she didn’t leave anything on the table. As the season progressed, she knew. Monday’s announcement was Reeve’s idea; The coach wanted the fans to have the opportunity to say goodbye.
Whalen stressed that it was the people she met, more than the games she played, that she’ll remember.
“That’s what it’s all about,” she said. “Yes, it’s winning. And championships. But it’s the people. You have those memories forever.”
Whalen will be remembered as one of the toughest competitors ever.
Former Gophers and Lynx teammate Janel McCarville remembers the first game of the 2004 NCAA tournament when Whalen, having missed six weeks with two broken bones in her shooting hand, returned to score 31 points against UCLA. “Lindsay willed us to win,” McCarville said.
Current Seattle coach Dan Hughes, who has spent years in the league and worked with USA Basketball, was in the Barn that day, doing TV analysis. He remembers the roar when Whalen walked onto the court.
“I thought Prince had come into the building.”
Thibault, now coach of the Washington Mystics, was at that game, too, scouting for Connecticut, which made Whalen the fourth overall draft pick that year. Early in her first season, Whalen was trying to learn the offense on her veteran-laden team. The vets were all arguing about who should get the ball.
“One of our better players chirped at Whalen,” Thibault said. “ ‘I need the ball here,’ she said. Well, Whalen stopped practice and said, ‘Shut up. I’m the point guard. I can’t keep you all happy at the same time. I’ll make sure you get the ball where you’re supposed to get it.’ Everyone was like, ‘OK.’ Nothing more was said.”
Former Lynx associate head coach Jim Petersen recalled a game against San Antonio in 2011 — the first title season — when the Lynx trailed by 12 in the third quarter.
“Cheryl called timeout,” Petersen said. “We walked into the huddle and Whalen screams, ‘This stops now! Do your job! Let’s go!’ She basically drew a line in the sand.”
Whalen scored eight straight points out of the timeout. At the end of the game she came off a screen and hit the game-winner.
The point: Whalen was a leader, not just a player. Sue Bird, a fellow point guard, has gone against Whalen for years. They also played together on USA Basketball.
“My lasting impression is her energy and her vibe as a teammate,” Bird said of Whalen. “She can simultaneously motivate you and make you smile. There is something special to that.”
Both Bird and Hughes mentioned the physicality Whalen brought to the point guard position, her ability to get into the paint and attack the rim. And more.
“Yes, the things you had to deal with at the position was her physicality,” Hughes said. “But it was her mind that made her special. She understood the totality of what’s going on, while at the same time playing to her strengths.”
During the news conference Whalen was asked about her impact on basketball in the state. Noting a recent report of high numbers of girls participating in high school sports in Minnesota, Reeve said of Whalen: “She’s absolutely at the forefront of that. I just hope she understands that.”
Reeve added: “She’s so humble, I recognize her impact more than her. I don’t know that I go anywhere without, one, people knowing who Lindsay is, and, two, telling the story of why they started watching women’s basketball. What she meant to their interest, or the impact they had with their child.”
The same can be said of her Lynx legacy.
“She’s the heart and soul of this state, I think,” Maya Moore said. “And so much the heart and soul of this team.”
So forgive Reeve her tears.
“I don’t like making people cry,” Whalen said. “But, you know, Coach wears her heart on her sleeve. … We have four championships. It’s gone pretty well, right?”