I’m depressed. I knew this would happen. She played so hard, with such reckless abandon. Constantly crashing to the floor. And Thursday night it happened. Lindsay Whalen broke her hand as she got upended while crashing the boards for a rebound. She’ll be out for 4-6 weeks, the rest of the season unless she can get back by the time the NCAA tournament starts. Knowing her she’ll do it. I’ve been meaning to do a tribute to her and this seems like the time. This is the story of the woman who brought University of Minnesota Women’s Basketball out of obscurity and into the top 10. And set the stage for an ongoing basketball powerhouse.
Minnesota is a hotbed for girls hoops. In 1999 the NCAA was loaded with Minnesota women. Notre Dame, Stanford, Colorado State, Iowa State all had Minnesoans starring for them. Not to mention the fabulous Miller twins at Georgia. But the U’s program was in the toilet. In 1999-2000 they were 10-18, 3-13 in the conference. The blue chip players weren’t staying home. I think every kid growing up playing hoops in Minnesota wants to play at Williams Arena. But at that time, with the team drawing crowds of less about 1000 fans, they weren’t even playing in the Barn. The coach, Cheryl Littlejohn, was a disaster. A screamer who apparently did little else. The Women’s Athletic Department was getting terrible press and the team just kept losing. And Hana Pjelto and April Calhoun and Katie Alsdorf went to Harvard and Iowa and Marquette.
So in 2000 Lindsay Whalen decided to stay home and play for the Gophers. This part of the story I’m not too sure about. She was honorable mention All State and scored over 20 a game at Hutchinson High School, but wasn’t Ms. Basketball and I know I’d never heard of her. I don’t know if she was highly recruited, although I’m sure she got some notice around the country. But she wanted to stay home and play in front of her family. So she became a gopher.
The first season was rough. Lindsay averaged 17 a game, but the Gophers where 1 and 15 in the conference and were getting beaten by 20, they were laughing stocks and no one cared. Littlejohn was fired and replaced by Brenda Oldfield. Brenda did two things in her first year that turned the team around. She saw that Littlejohn had been platooning Whalen, not giving her much playing time. It was obvious to her that this girl needed to be on the floor as much as possible. The other thing was she made freshman recruit Janelle McCarville drop 50 pounds and get in shape. Janelle had been co-player of the year in Wisconsin, but hadn’t been heavily recruited because she was, well, fat. Janelle developed into a female equivalent of her nickname, Shaq. Corrin Von Wald, a star at UW Green Bay, decided to transfer to the U to study architecture, they talked her into playing ball. They won nine of their first ten games and on January 17, 2002 they moved from the Sports Pavillion to Williams Arena to play Indiana in front of 11,000 fans. The young girls playing in Minnesota took notice.
This had to be one of the greatest turnarounds in Sports history. They went from 8-20 to 22-8. Oldfield was named NCAA Women’s Coach of the Year. Lindsay was an All-American and the Big 10 player of the year, aveaging 22.2 points and 5.3 assists per game. People were suddenly excited about women’s basketball. Then it happened. Oldfield, disgusted with the Athletic Department politics, took the job at Maryland. The team was devastated. Lindsay gathered them together and reminded them that it was them and not the coach that had played the games, she took on a huge leadership role and helped hold the team together. The stage was set. The new coach, Pam Borton, came in and emphasized defense. Oldfield had recruited Ms. Basketball, Shannon Boldon and Shannon Schoenrock. The team ended up 25-6 with an upset of Stanford at Stanford in the NCAA’s and their first ever Sweet 16 appearance. The team was getting exposure, girls were seeing the atmosphere of Williams Arena and a winning team that played hard and aggressively. They recruited the three top Minnesota players that year. April Calhoun, Ms. Basketball in 2000 and the starting point guard at Iowa, transferred back as did Katie Alsdurf, a star at Marquette. They’ve had national recruiting success, getting big name players from Illinois and California coming in next year. When Lindsay was a freshman the program sold 42 season tickets, this year they sold almost 4,000. Her first game as a gopher had a little over 1000 fans, what may prove to be her last home game, last Sunday against Penn St. had over 14,000 fans. No one is more responsible for this turnabound than Lindsay Whalen. And she has remained quiet, soft-spoken and humble.
Let me describe this young woman. She’s 5’9″ and solid as a rock, she’s built like a running back and has running back speed. I’ve seen her miss a lay up and then block the other teams outlet pass on the far end of the court, don’t ask me how, she was just there. She has qualities that you rarely see in women players and not that many men either. She’s the best woman I’ve ever seen in the open court, she has the best body control in the air that I’ve ever seen in a woman, she has, without a doubt, the best touch off the glass of anyone, man or woman, that I’ve ever seen. She is a great passer. I keep asking myself, “How does a girl growing up in Huchinson, Minnesota learn to play like she spent her days on a playground in Brooklyn?” Typical Lindsay play, loose ball in the key on the oppenents offensive end, Lindsay gets there first and contrary to the standard basketball wisdom, she doesn’t grab the ball with both hands but takes a couple of hard low dribbles to get it under control and then takes off for the other end. She meets a defender at the free throw line and simply blows by her, already at top speed, another defender might try to slow her down but she crosses over and leaves her in the dust. Her teammates know what to do, they are filling lanes, it’s show time. The defenders know the mantra of fast break defense, stop the ball. They can’t. It typically ends one of two ways. Lindsay takes the ball to the hoop creates body contact and kisses the ball off the glass and goes to the line for a foul shot. Or she makes a no-look, wrap around, behind the back pass to someone filling the lane and left alone because three defenders are trying to stop Number 13.
I have hundreds of highlight film memories of her, but I’m going to describe the one that I think is the most amazing. The game had turned into an up and down track meet, something you want to avoid if you’re playing the gophers. Somehow Janelle McCarville got the ball around the opponents free throw line. Lindsay probably was picking herself off the floor again under our basket and was all alone. McCarville, one of the best outlet passers I’ve seen, sent a rocket to the other end. But it was a bad pass. It was too high and going out of bounds on the right side of the hoop. Lindsay was running to save it, toward the basket at the baseline. She leaped and snagged the ball with her right hand, momentum carrying her our of bounds and her body turned facing into the court and already behind the backboard. She switched the ball to her left hand and scooped it up off the glass and in as she went out of bounds. I kid you not.
So in conclusion, if you ever wonder how the University of Minnesota Women’s basketball team went from doormat to powerhouse just think of one humble, quiet young woman who scored over 2000 points and dished out over 500 assists in her career. A great player and a class act all the way. Thank you Lindsay!