Can Whalen lead Lynx back to playoffs?
'Coming home' trade finally brings Whalen back to her native state
The trade that so many Minnesota Gophers women's hoops fans were dying to see took only six years to happen. Wow, time flies, huh? Not exactly.
It was in the spring of 2004 when Lindsay Whalen cemented her Bunyon-esque status in Minnesota by coming back from a wrist injury to lead the Gophers to the Final Four.
Soon, some Gophers fans would come to feel the entire state of Connecticut was pure evil. Because after the UConn Huskies ended Whalen's college career in the national semifinals, the Connecticut Sun took her with the fourth pick of the WNBA draft.
There were those in Minnesota who thought the Lynx should have secured the rights to Whalen in 2004 no matter the cost. Some were willing to trade away the Mary Tyler Moore statue, a cherished old Fran Tarkenton jersey, a complete set of 1991 Twins baseball cards and even several of the 10,000 lakes -- plus the entire Lynx starting five, of course -- to the Sun for Whalen.
Despite the high cost of such a deal, the Lynx considered pulling the trigger while the Sun's Mike Thibault grinned like Snidely Whiplash but apparently, it's harder to move lakes than you might think, plus it turned out the wise-cracking Rhoda was more popular than Mary in the Northeast anyway. Alas, "our Lindsay" became "their Lindsay" and relocated to a casino.
Instead, the Lynx took Kansas State's Nicole Ohlde ("Didn't we kill her team in the tournament this year?" disgruntled Whalen fans asked) and Florida's Vanessa Hayden ("Won't she get frostbite during Minnesota summers?" snorted grumpy Whalen backers) with the sixth and seventh picks of that draft.
And that Lynx team went to the playoffs for the second year in a row in 2004. Of course, the franchise hasn't been back in the postseason since. (Ohlde is in Phoenix now, with Hayden in L.A.) Meanwhile, Whalen helped the Sun make the WNBA finals her first two seasons, and that franchise made the playoffs each subsequent year of her career until last season.
Now we'll watch this summer to see if the ardor that Gophers/Lynx fans have for their state legend brings the WNBA team a boost in the turnstiles and an extension of Minnesota's season.
Do they still adore Whalen with the same undying devotion as Jamal had for Latika in "Slumdog Millionaire"? Will that reflect in attendance?
And will the experience and leadership of a point guard like Whalen -- not that there are many like her in the WNBA -- be the things that get the Lynx back into the playoffs?
We don't mean to short-change the other side to this deal, in which Whalen and the Sun's No. 2 pick head to Minneapolis, while last year's No. 4 selection, Renee Montgomery, and the Lynx's No. 1 pick go to Connecticut. Call this the "coming home" trade; Whalen goes to her native state, while Montgomery returns to the state where she played college basketball and won an NCAA title for UConn.
It seems pretty certain that Montgomery's former Huskies teammate Tina Charles will be the overall top pick in April and reunite with her.
When the draft lottery took place in November, the Lynx got the No. 1 selection that would have been New York's had the Liberty not traded it away before last season in a three-way deal for a player we won't even name again because she has already been disparaged way too much for something that wasn't her fault. Pat Summitt thanks us.
Liberty fans lamented -- with the creative use of multiple curse words -- the loss of a chance to get New Yorker Charles. At that time, Lynx fans probably didn't anticipate how all this would equal Whalen's homecoming.
But that's what's going to happen, and the deal might be exactly what both the Lynx and the Sun need.
In Connecticut, Thibault will see if Montgomery and Charles (provided she is the top pick as expected) can help the Sun do what those two players did for UConn in 2008-09: win it all.
The Sun traded Katie Douglas per her request in 2008 so she could go home to Indiana, and that has worked well for her. Will such a move back to her roots be as good for Whalen? Probably so.
The upside to struggling is that Minnesota has been stockpiling talent the past few years through the draft, including the likes of Seimone Augustus, Candice Wiggins, Nicky Anosike and Charde Houston. Still, there has been a missing element. Hard to imagine there would be a better way to fill that than with Whalen, especially as Augustus returns this summer after sitting out most of last season with a knee injury.
Talking with Whalen last year, you could tell some frustration was seeping into her normally unflappable personality. But that was mostly because she thought the Sun's offense never completely felt right to her last season.
Now she'll be surrounded by young talent and she'll have a new coach, Cheryl Reeve, eager to make it all blend together. The Lynx have the second and third picks in the draft, and it's too early to have much certainty about what they'll do with them. Because, unfortunately, injuries can happen. Plus, players react differently to the stretch runs of their senior seasons, and that can influence draft decisions.
While there was a sentiment before this season that Stanford center Jayne Appel might be the No. 2 selection, there are other players -- such as Virginia guard Monica Wright -- who now might be more favored for the second pick.
The Lynx have plenty of time to mull through their options. Whalen and her husband, Ben Greve, can think of Minnesota as home base again. And the Gophers fans get what they wanted a long time ago, with no lakes moved in the process.
Mechelle Voepel, a regular contributor to ESPN.com, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read her blog at http://voepel.wordpress.com.