Minneapolis, MN - Wednesday night, the Minnesota Lynx defeated the Indiana Fever 69-52 in Game 5 of the WNBA Finals in front of a packed crowd at Target Center in Minneapolis. This marks Minnesota's third championship in the past five years, but this one is a little "extra" special.
This time, Minnesota got to raise the championship trophy on their home court.
Of course, that's an exciting moment for all of the players, coaches and fans. However, it's even more fitting for one Lynx player—Lindsay Whalen.
Whalen is by no means a new name on the scene. A Hutchinson, Minnesota, native and former Golden Gopher, Whalen has been entertaining Minnesota crowds since playing varsity minutes during her eight-grade year. Let it be known that the population of Hutchinson isn't huge—just under 14,000—but when Whalen was playing, you could find a good portion of that population at the high school gym.
And the crowds kept growing—especially after Whalen set foot on the campus of the University of Minnesota in 2000. In her four-year career, the 5'9" combo guard helped build the Gopher women's basketball program into a national name.
She earned All-American honors in three different seasons (first Gopher to do so) and also guided Minnesota to its first ever Final Four appearance during her senior year. The Gophers made NCAA tournament appearances during her sophomore and junior campaigns, as well—something the program had only accomplished once before the Whalen years.
And the crowds? The average attendance at women's basketball games when Whalen arrived at Minnesota was 1,087. The average attendance during her senior year—9,866.
I was lucky enough to be one of those 9,866, making the hour trip from my hometown of Amery, Wisconsin, to "The Barn" to watch Whalen play a few times during her senior season. I'll never forget when my 10-year-old self was able to get her autograph on my #13 replica jersey after one of the games. Hands shaking and completely star-struck, I barely choked out a "thank you" as she hustled to the locker room.
From the U of M, it was onto the WNBA, and it's no secret that Whalen has made her mark in the league. Just completing her 12th season, Whalen's list of professional accomplishments is extensive, to say the least.
During her first two years at the professional level, she led the Connecticut Sun to back-to-back WNBA Finals appearances. In 2008, Whalen finished second in league MVP voting, averaging 5.4 assists (league leader) and 14.0 points per game that season.
After getting traded to the Lynx in 2010, the "hometown hero" continued to excel. She helped lead Minnesota to its first WNBA Championship in 2011, raising the championship trophy down in Atlanta after sweeping the Dream in the series.
The next title came in 2013, when again, Minnesota swept Atlanta, and again, they raised the trophy on the Dream's home court.
However, this time, it was different. With 18,933 fans packed into Target Center, Whalen and her team raised the championship trophy in Minneapolis. Fans finally got to see their hometown hero celebrate what she's been working for since her years at Hutchinson High. Even after battling through injuries and not being 100% at the most crucial time of the season, there Whalen was, holding that trophy with her fellow Lynx.
Teammate, Maya Moore, said it best when asked about Whalen and Seimone Augustus battling to overcome injuries and accept the title trophy.
"What Lindsay Whalen and Seimone Augustus did was so hard. You can't imagine how hard it is to come back from injury at the most important time of the season, when everyone is playing well and hard and desperate.
"You have to find a way to be effective when your body isn't maybe even 80 percent, and staying on your rehab and not getting frustrated that you have to spend an extra hour every day to rehab and ice and stretch and get treatment because your body needs it, and they did it," Moore stated.
I remember sitting back in our last regular season game and watching them run up and down the court rehabbing, trying to get their wind, attempting to get their condition, so they could be ready to help this team when playoffs came around, and it all paid off."
Five years, three titles. And finally, Minnesotans got to see that familiar face cut down championship nets yet again.