If ever a professional sports league needed a territorial draft, it is the WNBA. What the NBA went through when it created and used the tactic in its formative years — teams struggling to attract fans could forfeit their first-round picks and instead select college players from their immediate areas — might have enabled the fledgling women’s basketball league to piggyback on — and milk — whatever local or regional interest already existed in the sport.
The system wouldn’t have been without flaws; the Connecticut Sun might be a dynasty to rival the old New York Yankees, given all the UConn stars who would have stayed put in the Northeast. Any talented products of Pat Summit’s Tennessee Volunteers might have been squabbled over by the WNBA franchises sorta, kinda, surrounding Knoxville (Atlanta, Indiana, Tulsa).
But there is no doubt the Minnesota Lynx would have benefited — dare we say profited? — from a draft system that would have delivered University of Minnesota women’s star Lindsay Whalen to them six years ago.
Rather than making everyone wait until today. Finally, the Lynx can call Whalen theirs after the relative blockbuster trade, in WNBA terms, that sent guard Renee Montgomery and the No. 1 pick in the 2010 draft to Connecticut. The Lynx also get the draft’s No. 2 pick, with their eye reportedly on Stanford center Jayne Appel after the Sun likely select UConn’s Tina Charles.
Boosting the excitement level
“The excitement level inside Williams Arena,” Lynx Executive Vice President Roger Griffith said, when asked about his most vivid memories of Whalen’s transformative years (2000-2004) with the Gophers. “That was about the success on the court, it was about the style of play and it was about Lindsay. She made a tremendous difference in that program. The excitement and the enthusiasm is what sticks in my mind. She is a fun, fun player to watch.”
A difficult and elusive player to acquire, too, given what Griffith talked of during a Target Center news conference as nothing less than a six-year quest. A 5-foot-9 point guard who turned the Gophers women’s program into a hot-ticket phenomenon, Whalen was targeted coming out of college, but the Sun grabbed her with the No. 4 pick overall in 2004, when the Lynx picked seventh.
Many times since then, Griffith tried to bring the native of Hutchinson, Minn., home, only to blanch at Connecticut’s asking price.
“There were great attempts that were made,” said Cheryl Reeve, a WNBA insider long before she was named Lynx coach in December. “Roger has displayed a great deal of patience. You don’t mortgage the franchise for a player. Or you’re not held hostage — when people know the value and they’re trying to use that against you, it takes fortitude to stand your ground and say, ‘This is about basketball.’ … This was the first reasonable offer.”
From a basketball standpoint? We’ll take Griffith’s and Reeve’s word for that, since they’re the experts. But what price can a franchise put on a local hero as ambassador, maybe even as savior? Griffith and Reeve initially seemed reluctant to ‘fess up to the marketing appeal of Whalen’s homecoming — until such resistance began to seem silly.
In terms of the Xs and Os, Whalen still is upper echelon, a one-time WNBA All-Star who twice helped the Sun reach the Finals and whose best season came in 2008 when she averaged 14.0 points, 5.6 rebounds, 5.4 assists and 1.5 steals to finish as the league’s MVP runner-up. Last season, she averaged 12.3 points, 4.6 rebounds and 4.6 assists. She becomes the fifth member of the Lynx’s current roster with All-Star status, joining Seimone Augustus (2006, ’07), Nicky Anosike (2009), Rebekkah Runson (2007) and Charde Houston (2009).
“It’s not just a P.R. deal,” Lynx assistant coach Jim Petersen said. “Cheryl, Roger and I all think Lindsay is one of the top three point guards in the league with Sue Bird and Becky Hammon. … Hopefully, this does for the Lynx what the Kevin Garnett trade did for the Celtics.”
Well, then, that means basketball — and a whole lot more. Garnett’s 2007 trade from the Timberwolves to Boston gave the Celtics a versatile big man, a defensive spine and the final piece in their instant-championship plans, but it also gave them a credibility throughout the NBA and with their own players that they were back, baby. Similarly, Whalen returns not only as a dynamite playmaker and someone familiar with the ZIP codes but also has a shot at uncorking at Target Center in the summer what once pumped through those Gophers games.
“Do we expect better attendance? Yeah, we do. But what we were learning back then was the transfer [of Whalen-mania] wasn’t going to be as automatic as some people thought,” Griffith said. “For one, they hadn’t been educated about the WNBA. A lot of people didn’t know we played in the summer. A lot of them didn’t know how many home games we had, so they didn’t know the total cost of tickets. So we’ll never know what difference the lag [from 2004 to 2010] makes. It’s only speculation. There are going to be a lot of reasons why people are going to like this deal. Cheryl challenged them [to buy tickets]. We’re going to have to find ways we can capitalize on it the best we can.”
It cannot possibly hurt. The Lynx finished 14-20 last season, stymied by Augustus’ loss to a knee injury, and have not made the playoffs since 2004. They went 4-13 down the stretch, 0-9 on the road. Meanwhile, the proverbial Maytag repairman was hanging out in a Tokyo subway train, compared with the loneliness and wide-open spaces of the team’s non-crowds at Target Center.
The franchise loses more of Wolves owner Glen Taylor’s money each season — as long as he’s fine with that, it can continue to operate — and, like most WNBA teams, raises eyebrows when it claims big attendance numbers (it’s always a dead giveaway when those box scores are printed in red ink). You’d have thought this type of marketing-savvy — or at least helpful — move would have been a no-brainer for a league that has shrunk from 16 teams to 12, with franchises as storied as the four-time champion Houston Comets folding.
“Were they [the league] rooting for this to happen? Absolutely,” Griffith said. “The WNBA is as happy as anybody in Minnesota about this happening. But as far as pushing somebody to do something they don’t want to do, no, they can’t be accused of taking sides.”
So this might not be the NHL expediting Wayne Gretzky’s trade from Edmonton to Los Angeles to plant the league’s flag in a ripe U.S. market. But for the Lynx, in micro-terms today, it sure felt like it.
For her part, Whalen seems to accept the responsibility for selling tickets that owes more to her past than her present. “We all take a responsibility in improving our individual games and the teams we’re on,” Whalen said in a conference call from the Czech Republic, where she’s playing this winter for ZVVZ USK Prague. “Going into the community and being good role models, I think all of those things we take responsibility for. Some of that [business] stuff is out of our control a little bit. The product on the floor is what brings people to games.”
The product that they remember from the floor at Williams Arena, from a half dozen years ago, had better help.