In the final days leading up to last April's WNBA draft, Connecticut Sun coach Mike Thibault held a conference call with Lindsay Whalen, the University of Minnesota point guard whose iconic stature in the Gopher State had earned her the honor of being the first athlete in school history to have her own bobblehead doll. Thibault knew that Whalen wanted to play professionally for the Lynx in Minneapolis, and who could really blame her? A small-town kid from Hutchinson, Minn. (pop. 13,000), she had concluded her fairy-tale college run by leading the Golden Gophers to a 25--9 record and their first Final Four appearance. Her number 13 jersey was worn by little girls all over the Twin Cities area, and the Gophers' average attendance had increased from 1,087 a game in her freshman year to 9,866 in 2003--04. Local newspapers had a name for the increase: the Whalen Effect.
The trouble was, the Lynx held the sixth pick in the draft--two spots behind the Sun--and couldn't coax Connecticut into making a deal. Still, Whalen wasn't shy about letting Thibault know she was very amenable to a trade. For his part, says Thibault, "I didn't want to hear what she was saying. I thought it would be better for her professionally to be away from there. I think the expectations placed on her would have been enormous. It would have been the same as if Diana Taurasi had stayed in Connecticut."
Thibault held firm. His team needed a point guard, having dealt veteran Shannon Johnson in the off-season. So the Sun, which is owned by the Mohegan tribe and plays its games at the Mohegan Sun casino in Uncasville, Conn., drafted Whalen. The house has been winning ever since.
After a satisfying regular season in which she averaged 8.9 points, Whalen has turned up the heat for Connecticut in the playoffs, nearly doubling her scoring to 15.4 points per game. She contributed nine of her 11 points in the second half of Sunday's 60--57 victory over the New York Liberty in the Eastern Conference finals as the Sun advanced for the first time to the WNBA Finals, which begin on Friday. "Connecticut is well coached, they execute and they guard you," says Liberty interim coach Pat Coyle. "I wouldn't be surprised if they won it all."
Expect Whalen, with her darting, penetrating style, to be in the middle of things if that happens. In the Sun's Round 1 matchup against Washington, she made 28 of 30 free throws in three games, including 15 of 16 in Game 2. She has also led the team in assists during the playoffs, with 4.6 per game.
Whalen calls herself "a work in progress," and it's clear she has progressed nicely. "If I had stayed in Minnesota, who knows what would have happened," she says. "There might have been a lot of pressure on me. I've just really enjoyed the opportunity to get to know a different area and different people. And they have great seafood here. I mean, you can't get that kind of lobster in Minnesota."
BOB CHILD/AP (WHALEN)
Thanks to her ability to penetrate, Whalen leads the Sun in assists and free throws made in the playoffs.