Jim Souhan
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Mara Braun remembers the cheers bouncing off the ancient walls and wooden bleachers of Williams Arena as the Minnesota Lynx won their last WNBA championship.

Paige Bueckers remembers sticking a poster featuring Lindsay Whalen on her bedroom wall, wearing Maya Moore gear and receiving an impromptu coaching session from Cheryl Reeve during a visit to the Life Time Fitness where the team used to practice.

Both became fans and followers of the team and the stands it took.

Whether the Lynx's excellence was causal or coincidental, two of the best high school basketball players to ever grow up in the Twin Cities were captivated by the winningest professional sports franchise in modern Minnesota history.

Braun, from Wayzata High, chose to play for Whalen at the University of Minnesota. She's a sophomore expected to star for new coach Dawn Plitzuweit this season.

Bueckers, from Hopkins, chose UConn, but many close to her have suggested that she may have signed with Minnesota had Whalen been hired earlier in her recruiting process.

This weekend, the Lynx are celebrating their 25th anniversary while hosting the key players from their four championship teams. On Sunday, they will retire the jersey of Sylvia Fowles, perhaps the best center in league history.

Braun and Bueckers say their appreciation for those teams is a constant memory, and a constant.

"They were amazing to watch, and they were part of the reason why I fell in love with the game,'' Bueckers said. "Just to be able to watch Maya, Lindsay, Rebekkah [Brunson], Sylvia, that whole core and all of the role players was amazing. Especially in The Barn, where everything was super animated and the fans were so into it.

"Watching those championship teams and appreciating their culture and their aura and the way they affected the city, that had a huge impact on me.''

Braun's father took her to the deciding game of the 2017 Finals against Los Angeles. "My Dad sent me a picture from that game a couple of days ago,'' she said. "Being in that environment and seeing how packed The Barn was and how loud it was, I told myself, "All right, one day it would be really cool to be a part of this.

"It's funny how it all works out. Now I'm playing on that same floor and hopefully one day we can get it packed again.''

The WNBA is important even in cities where the teams don't win, but by winning in the Twin Cities, the Lynx inspired a generation of young Minnesota girls, helping the state become a hotbed for basketball talent.

"Growing up, I would have to say that Maya Moore was my idol,'' Braun said. "I remember even putting that in my Instagram bio. I think my style of play most resembles hers. But, also, Coach Whay was another big fan favorite for me and my friends. I just loved the way she played, and her confidence.''

"I started playing first, then I started watching the Lynx, and that's when I realized I loved watching the game as much as I loved playing it,'' Bueckers said. "Those Lynx teams winning those championships helped set my goals for me, defined what I wanted to attain and what I wanted to be when I grew older.''

The word "heroes'' doesn't apply to all successful athletes. The Lynx champions earned that designation by combining great play with fearless social justice advocacy, whether protesting police brutality or discrimination.

Lynx games have become a safe space for those struggling to find equality and equity in the sports world.

"That was really important to me,'' Bueckers said. "Especially in Minneapolis, with the police brutality and how the Lynx spoke out against it. How much they believed in their cause and didn't care about the backlash. That inspired me to do that, as well; inspired me to use my voice and use my platform. They set the standard for that and showed us young kids and everybody else how to do it.''

Said Braun: "When you have that kind of influence upon the media and the environment around the team, and you have the success they had, I think that raises attention on some important issues that need to be talked about, and allows them to advocate for certain things. It definitely is a step in the right direction. I think when a program with a big following does that, it's a huge deal, and brings more respect not just only to them but to the entire state.''

Neither controls where they will play in the WNBA. Both would love to wind up with the team that meant so much to them.

"People ask me about my future, and that's just not something I'm thinking about right now,'' Braun said. "But, ultimately, that would be amazing, just to be able to play pro ball and stay here. I think I want to end up living here in the future. I love Minnesota. I stayed here for a reason. So that would definitely be very cool, to fall into the footsteps of Coach Whay and Rachel Banham. That would make for a picture-perfect ending.''

Bueckers plans to play at least one more season at UConn. If drafted by the Lynx, she would become their first star point guard since Whalen.

"I would just be blessed to make it to the WNBA,'' Bueckers said. "That's still my goal, to make it and play for any team, but obviously going back home to Minnesota, that would be really cool.''