On Friday night, Lindsay Whalen walked into the University of Minnesota’s Williams Arena and was greeted by a familiar sight. “The Barn,” as the arena is known around the Twin Cities, was packed with spectators, all there to watch the Gophers women’s basketball team take on New Hampshire in its first game of the season. Some of the sold-out 14,625-person crowd was clad in full-body animal costumes—as the students take the fan section nickname, “The Barnyard,” quite seriously—and many more were carrying gold towels that read “Welcome Home 13” in maroon lettering.
For many of the Minnesota players, walking out to a crowd that size was intimidating. “I was nervous,” senior Annalese Lamke said after the game, and with good reason. Last year, the team’s home opener drew less than a fifth of the number of people at Friday’s game, and the rest of the Gophers’ nonconference games that season averaged even less than that. “It was our first time seeing that,” Lamke said. “My chest was pounding.”
Prior to last week, the arena had only once held more than 14,300 people to watch the women’s basketball squad: in 2004, when the Gophers took on (and beat) then-fifth-ranked Penn State. Whalen was also in the building for that contest but in a significantly different capacity: Fourteen years ago, she was Minnesota’s starting point guard, and the senior was on her way to leading the Gophers to the team’s first and only Final Four appearance in program history. On Friday, she stepped onto the court for the first time as the Gophers head coach.
How did Whalen get to the point when merely attaching her name to a team is enough to set attendance records? It was more than drive, or dedication, or commitment—though Whalen’s former teammates and coaches would tell you she possesses all of those qualities, and in larger quantities than almost anyone else they’ve coached or played alongside. Whalen’s career has run a parallel track with the building up of institutions across all levels of women’s basketball, which allowed her to see basketball as a viable career option. And, of course, there was a whole lot of winning.
“When I was growing up [and] I was shooting [hoops] in my driveway, I would envision myself as a Gopher,” Whalen said. “But then there was no WNBA. You hoped to get your four-year scholarship and that was it. … Lisa Leslie, Sheryl Swoopes, Tina [Thompson], they laid the groundwork. ... I feel like I was in the generation where we really built it.”
As a player, Whalen set countless records at the college and professional levels, became the all-time winningest player in WNBA history, and helped build up the league. Now, as she takes over the Gophers, she’s facing a new challenge: trying to lead the program back to the place where only she has taken it before. And, as Whalen saw Friday night, the state of Minnesota—as well as the rest of the country—will be watching to see if she can raise her already impossibly high legendary status to new heights.
Lindsay Whalen never imagined she’d be a retiree at age 36. Then again, she never guessed she’d have the four gold medals that sit in her Minneapolis office—one each from the 2012 and 2016 Olympics, and one each from the 2010 and 2014 world championships—or that she’d get the chance to play international basketball at all.
As a kid growing up in Hutchinson, Minnesota, she never figured she’d play professional basketball. The WNBA didn’t exist until 1996, when Whalen was 14, so there weren’t many paths to fantasize about as a kid. There was high school ball, of course, then maybe she could play for the University of Minnesota, but that was pretty much it for athletics. The only way she could go pro in sports was in arenas like tennis or golf. Whalen wanted to play basketball.
As Whalen grew, though, so did the organizations and infrastructures around her. The WNBA was founded during her freshman year of high school, and the U.S. women’s basketball team started its current run of Olympic domination that same year; the team has now won six straight gold medals. That year also saw Pat Summitt and the Tennessee women’s program begin a three-year run of titles, and, the season before, Geno Auriemma led UConn to a national championship and a 35-0 record.
Still, even as women’s basketball became more mainstream, Whalen had a hard time imagining her place in it. In high school her only goal was making it onto a college team. She played basketball for four years at Hutchinson High School and was an All-Missota Conference selection each season. She eventually joined her hometown Gophers, but it wasn’t until after her sophomore college season that she even entertained the idea of the WNBA. That year she’d won Big Ten Player of the Year, was named to her first of three All-America teams, and led the Gophers in points per game as Minnesota reached the second round of the NCAA tournament. But even after all that, she never assumed a future in the WNBA was automatic.
“One of my friends was like, ‘You’re gonna play in the WNBA,’” Whalen said. “One of my teammates was like, ‘You’re gonna play in the WNBA.’ I was like, ‘You think?’”
She made her first USA basketball team that summer, a U-20 squad that went 4-0 and earned a gold medal in Brazil, and the next year she won a second gold medal as part of the U-21 team, and it started to click. “Everybody on that team was probably headed for the WNBA,” Whalen said. “At that point I was like, ‘Yeah, I think I could play in the WNBA.’”
Over her final two seasons in Minnesota, under the tutelage of Pam Borton, who was named head coach ahead of Whalen’s junior year, she and the program reached new heights. The Gophers made the NCAA tournament’s Sweet 16 that first year, and Whalen received her second-straight All-America selection. Her senior year, though, was her crowning achievement with the Gophers. She led the team to the Final Four—the furthest Minnesota has gotten in the women’s tournament in program history—and in the process caught the attention of Auriemma, whose Huskies were facing off against the Gophers in the semifinals.
“I remember watching film leading up to that game, and that was the first time I was like, ‘Wow,’” Auriemma said. “I became aware of who she was, what she was capable of doing.”
The Gophers lost that game 67-58, and the Huskies went on to win the title. But Whalen had become a household name in Minnesota. She finished her career as Minnesota’s all-time leading point scorer, second all-time in assists, and third in steals. The Minneapolis Star Tribune named her sportsperson of the year in 2004, picking her over Kevin Garnett in his lone NBA MVP season, and Whalen’s jersey was retired in Williams Arena almost immediately after she left, in January 2005.
Whalen was drafted fourth overall by the Connecticut Sun in 2004, and she led the team to back-to-back finals appearances in her rookie and sophomore seasons. In 2010, she was traded to the Minnesota Lynx, and there she helped build a dynasty.
Her return to the state was heralded as a homecoming, and almost immediately she found success. She arrived the same year that head coach Cheryl Reeve took over the team, and in Whalen’s second season back in her home state, playing with Maya Moore, Seimone Augustus, and Rebekkah Brunson, the Lynx won their first title. Whalen went on to win four total championships with the Lynx, and last summer she became the winningest player in WNBA history—more so than Swin Cash, or Diana Taurasi, or Candace Parker, or Lisa Leslie, or any of her teammates.
Whalen’s mark on the league is large and assuming but somehow still understated. She never got the Jordan brand sponsorships like Moore, or the nation-wide cachet of Parker, or the tenacious reputation of Taurasi. She led her teams with a ferocity that was infectious, slashing through the lane and putting her body on the line game after game. Her preparation and drive are legendary, and she was the ultimate link between coaching staff and team.
Dawn Staley says that’s the kind of leadership expected from a point guard—but that there have been few that embodied that role like Whalen. “She’s legendary, you know?” Staley said. “The mark she’s left on the league, the mark she’s left on fans, the mark she’s left on her community. That’s what you want.”
When Whalen announced her retirement from the league this summer, she received a flood of congratulatory messages on social media. Players around the NBA reached out, from Dwyane Wade to Karl-Anthony Towns to the King himself.
“That was pretty unbelievable when he tweeted at me,” Whalen said about James. “LeBron and me came into the league around the same year. He got drafted in ’03 … and then that summer was my first year in ’04. So … he’s been one of my favorite players to watch.”
Staley, who was one of Whalen’s coaches on the U.S. national team, says Whalen’s greatness as a player came from the curiosity she played with, that she was always trying to find a new wrinkle to the game or a way to improve the team. “She would come up to me when I was working with the national team and ask me questions, or she would just share kind of what she saw out there on the floor,” Staley said. “She was already coaching before she had the title. And I know her teammates can attest to the type of information that she shared with them and the type of teammate she’s been over the years. That’s what makes a great coach. That adds order to their life. It’s to serve others first.”
Auriemma also worked with Whalen on the U.S. national team, and eventually when Minnesota athletic director Mark Coyle was searching for the next head coach of the Gophers women’s basketball team, Auriemma became one of Whalen’s references. “I [told Coyle] … ‘I can’t speak for her as a coach because I’ve never seen her coach,’” Auriemma said. “‘I have no idea if she’s gonna be a good coach, bad coach, I have no idea. [But] I’ve always felt, no. 1 thing you wanna get is you wanna get good people on your program. You wanna get people that represent the same values that you have and understand what it is that you’re trying to do and what that particular school stands for and what it means to have somebody like that coaching there.’”
Sure enough Coyle agreed, and Whalen was officially announced as Minnesota’s next women’s basketball coach on April 12. Now that she has the job, she’s hoping to bring the Minnesota program back to where she left it 14 years ago, and Borton, her former Gophers head coach, thinks she’ll do just that. “When one of your former players takes over a program that you built, it’s like your daughter taking over the program,” Borton said. “There’s nobody else that I would ever want in that position than Lindsay.”
Whalen already has an incredible legacy of winning—within Minnesota, nationally, and internationally. And on Friday night, her Gophers squad blew out New Hampshire 70-47. After the game she took a mic, stood at center court and addressed the crowd that had come to see her debut—a crowd that also included former Lynx teammates like Augustus, Brunson, Sylvia Fowles, and Danielle Robinson.
“Hey, that was pretty fun, huh?” Whalen began, nodding as if reassuring herself that she did it, that the first bout was over. She turned her head in every direction, looking around at each section of the Barn, the fans, and the members of her team that gathered arm in arm behind her as she spoke.
Whalen entered this role without any coaching experience of her own. But while other programs are often criticized for hiring an inexperienced former player or a program alumnus just for the name value, Minnesota’s hiring of Whalen is different. None of Whalen’s former coaches view the hire as a risk for the program—most of them actually believe the opposite. “She’s ingrained in that community,” Staley said. “She has been a favorite for all of her life. And for her to give back in the way of championships and to give back in the way of community service, and now giving back by coaching the University of Minnesota, you know, she’s a part of the fabric of that entire state.” Auriemma said that Whalen’s hiring “moves the needle” for the program, and Borton emphasized Whalen’s past with the program. “She helped build a winning culture, so she knows what it feels like, what it takes.”
Culture is exactly what Whalen is hoping to create. Her long-term goals center on taking her team to heights even she never reached in college. “We’ve never won a Big Ten title in women’s basketball in Minnesota. That for me—because I grew up watching the Big Ten … I just think that would be amazing,” Whalen said. “A Big Ten championship, everybody wants to go to Final Fours and the national championship. I know what that feels like, [but] I’ve never won a national championship, so that would be, of course, amazing.”
After Friday’s win, Whalen’s tenure is already off to an auspicious start. On Monday morning, the Gophers were voted into the Top 25 of the AP Poll, marking the first time the Minnesota women’s team has been nationally ranked since 2015.
Whalen’s legacy isn’t one that needs solidifying with a coaching championship, a national ranking, or even a nice run through the tournament. She is the most decorated basketball player in Minnesota history and more beloved than just about any athlete who has ever stepped foot in the state. But finding success as a head coach would vault her into a rare pantheon of women’s basketball history: If she were to reach the Final Four in this role, she’d join Staley and Baylor head coach Kim Mulkey as the only women to ever reach that point in the NCAA tournament as both a player and a coach—and Whalen would be the only person to do it with the same school.
Even with that opportunity on the horizon, Whalen is much more concerned with the impact her career has on the people who are influenced by her. She acknowledges that, without the women who built up the WNBA, without the teammates and coaches who pushed her to strive for the league, and without all of the people who helped her reach the ultimate heights during her college and 15-year professional career, she would not have the legacy that she does.
“We had some ups and downs [during my WNBA career] but have gotten to a place now where we’ve had a full generation of women who have watched the WNBA and have grown up with that being their goal—to be in the WNBA,” Whalen said. “When you’re 8 years old and 12 years old and you’re watching Maya Moore and you can say, ‘Oh, I can be in the WNBA,’ then you’re only gonna work harder and play better. So I feel like I’ve been in that group that’s really worked hard to get [the league] to where it’s at, and I just hope that it’ll really take off now. I feel good about that.”
Now Whalen is in a position to directly influence the next generation—to show them just how impactful they can be, both as players and as overall stewards of the game. In many ways, it feels like her career has been leading up to this moment. And given her history, she’s likely more than up to the task.
“In Minnesota, I feel like I’ve been ... the face of girls basketball and women’s basketball,” Whalen said. “And that’s a big responsibility. Obviously [now] I’m a coach, but I feel like some of my players and some of the players who are maybe in high school right now or even younger will take that over in some point … [which is] pretty cool.”
An earlier version of this story misstated the name of Whalen’s high school athletic conference. It was the Missota Conference, not the Minnesota Conference.