The girls never abandon their heroes. Win or lose, before the game or after, dozens of preteen girls crowd the rails where the Minnesota Lynx players enter and exit the court at Target Center, extending their hands for high-fives. Usually, they get ’em.
Lindsay Whalen slapped some palms leaving the court after her Lynx home debut Sunday night, because that’s what players do, even though she looked disgusted and embarrassment. This was no hero’s return.
Whalen, the ex-Minnesota Gophers star and the new face of the local WNBA franchise, could not rescue the Lynx from an offensive and defensive malaise over the final three quarters, could not prevent the Washington Mystics from obliterating an early 15-point deficit to win going away, 87-76.
“We laid an egg,” Coach Cheryl Reeve said.
Whalen did not dispute that in the locker room a few minutes later, though by then her mood wasn’t all gloom-and-doom. She sweetly warned a reporter not to step in the tub of ice another player left on the floor nearby. Then she smiled, and laughed. Whalen played OK — 12 points on 4-for-11 shooting, seven assists, four steals, two turnovers. But the Lynx will need more from her, especially from the perimeter, until offensive threats Seimone Augustus and Candice Wiggins return from their surgeries.
“We started out great,” Whalen said. “I thought our energy was really good. Unfortunately, in the second quarter, we got kind of bogged down.”
This, certainly, was not what anyone expected from the Lynx, especially after Saturday’s impressive road victory at Tulsa. The Lynx stopped defending early in the second quarter, succumbing to the fatigue of playing the second of back-to-back nights. The Mystics, a more veteran team that won in Indiana the night before, did not. Washington used a zone to stifle Minnesota’s inside game, and the Lynx could not make enough outside shots in the second half to loosen it up.
Whalen stars in preseason marketing effort
The Lynx leaned heavily on Whalen in their preseason marketing campaign, and Whalen’s return helped the Lynx record its first sellout in two years and its largest opening-night crowd since 2003, announced at 9,985. (The Lynx don’t sell seats in the upper deck. And unlike a lot of Timberwolves crowds, this count looked about right.) Several hundred fans wore T-shirts styled like Whalen’s No. 13 jersey, a gift for buying a three-game package for $77, billed as the Lindsay’s Back! Pack.
But except for the 75-person group from Whalen’s home town of Hutchinson — including the St. Anastasia’s girls’ basketball team (Whalen attended the school) — it was hard to find anyone who had never been to a Lynx game before. Whalen seemingly brought out people who have been coming for years, like Ed and Lois Obermeyer-Kolb of St. Paul, who bought the Whalen ticket package.
“We have two daughters, and we came here because it was good to see women in sports,” Obermeyer-Kolb said. “We like the atmosphere. I like to watch the teamwork, the passing, which I don’t see in men’s basketball. I may be biased because I have girls.”
Though never showy, Whalen gladly offered her time and face for nearly every marketing initiative the Lynx suggested. Sunday, you couldn’t escape her. She addressed the crowd on the court before the game, thanking them for coming and asking them to cheer. “We need the energy. We need the noise. And let’s get started,” she said. Moments later, there was Whalen on the Jumbotron in a taped bit, counting down five seconds until the house lights went dark for introductions.
Whalen’s face popped up, it seemed, during every timeout. In one, Whalen revealed a pet peeve: people eating with their mouth open. (Guess that means she’s not coming to my house.) She even cooked chicken in a skillet in a spot for a poultry company. You never saw any other Lynx player, not even Augustus, styling on the bench in a hipster porkpie hat.
Coach Reeve setting high standards
Reeve, by the way, is a pistol. She spent most of the game yelling at the officials, finally drawing a technical foul in the third quarter for running onto the court to complain after rookie Monica Wright committed her fifth foul. (Poor Wright. She scored 18 points in her WNBA debut but had no legs Sunday, shooting 2-for-13 from the floor for 5 points.) Reeve demands excellence from everyone, from her players to the security staff. I like her chances.
Whalen took the Gophers took the Final Four and pumped life into a moribund program. But she did not do it singlehandedly, and might not have done it at all if Janel McCarville hadn’t left her Wisconsin farm for Dinkytown, too. Whalen can’t save the Lynx alone, either.
For years, the Lynx have had three things working against them in their quest for the attention of Minnesota’s sports fans: summer (who wants to be inside when it’s 75 degrees and sunny?); the franchise’s losing tradition; and the legions of men who disparage female athletes.
The Lynx can change that if they play .500 until Wiggins and Augustus return in about a month. They’ll get immediate help from veteran 6-3 forward Rebekkah Brunson, who finished her European season on Sunday and will join the Lynx this week. But it may still be up to Whalen to do more than cook chicken.
“We’ll get better,” she said.
It sounded suspiciously like a promise.