NEW ORLEANS -- So how popular is Minnesota senior guard Lindsay Whalen?
"She is Kevin Garnett in Minnesota," Gophers coach Pam Borton says. "She's just as popular, if not more popular, than a lot of the pro athletes there."
|Lindsay Whalen, the 'little gym rat that could,' has led Minnesota to its first Final Four.|
Put it this way: Big Ticket called the Gophers last week to invite Whalen and her teammates to a Beyonce concert.
Uh, accepting the offer would've been a flagrant rules violation, but you get the point. Lindsay Whalen is, in the Land of 10,000 Lakes, an oracle, a savior, an inspiration. Might as well start calling her Minnesota Phats.
"One example," says Borton. "We had 14,000 people at one of our last games, and we just made a big play and Lindsay just raised her hand, and 14,000 people stood to their feet."
Can we get a Hallelujah?
How many women's college basketball players have their own bobblehead dolls (now selling on eBay)? How many have 11-year-old boys proposing marriage? And you thought Connecticut residents were nutso about Diana Taurasi. (Well, they are.) Whalen's following is beyond even the ardor of Husky fans. Don't be surprised if the Minnesota Lynx trade their seventh draft pick along with the Mall of America to draft her.
Here's why: Whalen is not only a local -- growing up 60 miles due west from Minneapolis in the tiny manufacturing town of Hutchinson -- she constantly shows the three personality traits of true Minnesotans: hard-working, humble and just a little quirky.
First example: Whalen stayed home.
"A big reason I chose to come to Minnesota is that you hear of all the names that have left the state and you see them playing all over the country," Whalen said Saturday. "I think that [the school] just needed a couple of individuals to stay here and turn the program around."
Whalen did just that, leading the program from 8-20 four years ago (1-15 in the Big Ten) to this year's Final Four. She is her school's all-time leading scorer (at 5-feet-9) and Minnesota's first three-time All-American.
But it's also the way she does it, passing up easy points to feed teammates and saying things like "I try to stay grounded" and "We want to play like the underdog because the underdog is always scrappy." Whalen plays the way fans would play if they could play. She is the little gym rat that could.
"She doesn't think of herself as a superstar," says Hutchinson construction worker Keith Froemming, who is in New Orleans with his wife, Heidi, for the first time to see Whalen. "She's so unselfish."
Then there's the sharp but slightly nebulous sense of humor, which always seems to surface in those beloved by the state where Garrison Keillor made his name. Whalen loosens up freshmen by warning them not to trip on their way to the court. She makes baby noises and dances awkwardly around practice, calling herself "Corky." Even when she suffered a hand injury that caused her to miss five weeks earlier this season, she spent her down time fake-punching Janel McCarville with her "meat hook" cast, or winging half-court shots with her good hand.
"Oh my gosh," says freshman Jamie Broback, "she's someone you just want to be around."
And Whalen plays how she acts. She is streaky but not flashy. She is creative but not risky. And her game is as deceptively powerful as her aw-shucks persona. Just ask Duke's Alana Beard, perhaps the quickest defender in the nation, about how Whalen blew by her again and again in Minny's regional final win over Duke. UConn has come up against players as talented as Whalen over the years, but maybe not anyone as quietly self-assured as Whalen. She is a modern-day Jen Rizzotti.
Still not ready to drink the maroon and gold Kool-Aid? Then take it from Karen Erickson, a paralegal and Minnesota alum.
"I haven't always been a basketball fan -- I am one of the fans who came about because of Lindsay -- and don't know as much about basketball as I do hockey and baseball and even football," Erickson said. "But even I can appreciate how good she is when I watch her play.
"However, it is not just women who like her. I have even read that the whole Gopher phenomenon could have an effect on relationships between men and women, as men seem to be watching Lindsay and appreciating her ability, and that this will somehow lead to some men having more respect for women in general. It all seemed to start with Lindsay."
Maybe the Lynx should throw in the Metrodome.
Eric Adelson is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. E-mail him at email@example.com.