Jersey retirements honor Lindsay Whalen the player, and the person
MINNEAPOLIS -- As an eighth-grader in Hutchinson, Minn., Lindsay Whalen was the smallest player on the Tigers’ varsity girls basketball team.
So she got the smallest jersey, No. 13.
“And stuck with it,” said former Hutchinson girls basketball coach Andy Rostberg, currently the Tigers’ football coach.
And a basketball legacy was born.
Whalen stuck with that number through high school, college and her WNBA career. And at all four stops — Hutchinson, the Gophers, the Connecticut Sun and the Lynx — that No. 13 will no longer be worn.
Whalen’s high school and college jerseys were retired long ago. Her two WNBA jerseys will enter the rafters this summer, with the Lynx retiring No. 13 on Saturday, June 8, before Minnesota’s afternoon game against the Sparks, and Connecticut hanging up No. 13 in August.
“When I look at the No. 13, period, no matter where it’s at,” former Gophers coach Pam Borton said, “I think of Lindsay.”
No. 13, Borton said, is “a very lucky number.”
For Lynx coach Cheryl Reeve, the symbolism behind Whalen’s jersey retirement is “excellence.”
Whalen was a three-time All-American with the Gophers, led Connecticut to the WNBA Finals, won five titles with the Lynx and two gold medals with Team USA.
It doesn’t get much better than that.
“This is somebody that, every single day, showed up on the job. There was a level of excellence about what she did,” Reeve said. “I don’t think you should understate the work, the sacrifice, that it takes to perform every single time she played.”
Then-Connecticut coach Mike Thibault took Whalen with the fourth pick in the 2004 WNBA draft. He credits Whalen’s arrival for getting Connecticut over the hump, as the young point guard led the Sun to back-to-back WNBA Finals in her first two seasons.
The same could be said for the Lynx and Gophers.
Thibault called Whalen one of the three best point guards he’s ever seen. Everywhere Whalen went, she won.
“I just think it’s a competitive spirit that the best players have,” Thibault said. “They don’t settle for just being OK. They never settle. They want to compete every day, they want to win every drill. There’s no accepting of being mediocre. I think that’s what the best players bring, and obviously she did that.”
Asked for one word to describe Whalen, Thibault replied, “Winner.”
The Gophers football team was recruiting a couple of Hutchinson football players when Whalen was at Minnesota.
The football players had U visits set up, and the Gophers coaching staff told them they had prime seats for them at the Minnesota men’s basketball game.
“The Hutch football players all said, ‘Well, could you get us tickets to the women’s game?’ ” Rostberg recalled. “ ‘We really want to watch Lindsay.’ ”
Whalen is the reason the Gophers women moved from playing at the Sports Pavilion over to Williams Arena. She developed a fan base that still exists at the U today.
She helped the Lynx reach a different stratosphere in terms of popularity as Minnesota became the WNBA’s gold standard. There are countless Lindsay Whalen fans, boys and girls, running around Minnesota today.
“It has changed girls basketball in our state,” Reeve said. “So for Lindsay Whalen’s jersey to be hanging in Target Center, it is absolutely fitting.”
Thibault said Whalen drove Connecticut public relations chief, Bill Tavares, “crazy” with her practical jokes.
Whalen once called Tavares at 10 p.m., telling him that there was a swarm of media gathered outside her apartment, asking him what she should do.
“And, of course, there was nobody there,” Thibault said, “She’s sitting with her feet up on her couch, watching TV.”
That humor was one of Whalen’s best assets, especially on the court. Yes, Thibault said, Whalen has a “serious side” — she’s one of the game’s all-time fierce competitors — but she also had a fun side, and knew exactly when to flash it.
“I remember those moments before huge games that Lindsay would always try to lighten up the mood on the bench and tell a few jokes and so forth,” Borton said. “I think as a coach, obviously for her teammates, for her to be able to have that was a gift to really be able to take that pressure of the moment off people was something that she would do quite often.”
Said Thibault, “she brought a joy to the game.”
Great player, better person
Borton thinks Whalen’s retired jerseys say as much about her as a person as a player. Whalen is remember fondly at every one of her stops.
“I’m not sure if she would have four jerseys retired if she was just a great basketball player,” Borton said. “I think this is just Lindsay being an all-around great person, player, friend, teammate and, now, coach.”
Amid all of her achievements and successes, Reeve said, “Lindsay did it with such grace.”
Some of that credit, Rostberg said, belongs to her parents, Kathy and Neil.
“They did a pretty good job raising her,” he said.
Their daughter was a natural leader throughout her playing career.
“She has that innate ability to get people to want to follow her,” Rostberg said. “They follow her out of, not fear, they follow her out of that burning desire to want to please her and to want to be a part of her and a part of the team that she’s around. They want to be a part of that, because they can see the greatness and what she brings to the table, and they want to be a part of that.
“Those are the leaders you want.”
That’s why Whalen is, as Reeve called her, “Minnesota’s favorite daughter.” Rostberg said Whalen has the ability to “rub off on a community and on people.”
“And what she rubs off on you is all really good stuff,” he said.
Borton said Whalen will be remembered by the lasting impact she made on everyone with whom she interacted.
That’s why she’s remembered so fondly everywhere she’s been. That’s why she’s honored at every opportunity. That’s why the No. 13 will hang in the rafters at every basketball building Whalen called home.
“I guess, for me, it was never about the number,” Rostberg said. “It was always about Lindsay.”