When Lindsay Whalen fell in love with basketball growing up in Hutchinson, she was motivated to put Minnesota on the map. Never did she imagine, though, where that would lead her.
Representing an entire state at the Naismith Hall of Fame on Saturday night, Whalen humbly accepted her place among the game’s all-time greats. She did it her way.
She’s a Minnesotan. She’s a Gopher. She’s a WNBA legend. She’s now a Hall of Famer.
And Whalen’s speech made the crowd chuckle from beginning to end, including her presenters Charles Barkley and Dawn Staley.
“I watched previous shows before and everyone was standing,” Whalen said smiling after walking to the podium. “Thank you for sitting with me here today. It’s a full circle moment.”
During her time on stage, Whalen thanked her parents, husband, former coaches and teammates but also fast food for getting her through her first basketball camp outside of her hometown.
“I was in tears, I did not want to get out of the car,” Whalen said Saturday. “We paid for camp, so I was going to camp. However, I did notice we passed the Burger King, so negotiations started.”
Whalen, 40, joined fellow Gophers great Lou Hudson in being inducted Saturday. Hudson, who was honored posthumously, was represented on stage by his daughter.
Whalen’s success leading the Gophers to the Final Four in 2004, leading the Minnesota Lynx to four WNBA titles and retiring as the league’s career leader in wins carves her a special place among the state’s sports icons.
“It’s kind of hard to put into words about the impact,” Whalen told the Star Tribune recently. “I’ve always wanted to represent the state in the right way, in a positive way.”
She was the Gophers all-time leading scorer when she finished her college career. Fittingly, Whalen won her last WNBA championship at the Barn in 2017 before taking over her alma mater.
A legacy already solidified before Saturday, Whalen inspired a generation of younger stars who followed the journey that led to her enshrinement in Springfield, Mass.
Barkley, an NBA legend and popular TNT analyst, was Whalen’s first favorite basketball player growing up, but she was bummed to never grow into “6-2, 6-3 power forward with a great turnaround jumper and rebounding machine.”
“I stopped growing at 5-8,” Whalen told Barkley on Saturday. “Plans changed a little bit. But thank you for being an inspiration to a young girl in Hutchinson, Minnesota.”
Staley paved a path for Whalen to follow as a former standout college and pro point guard turned successful NCAA head coach. Staley’s two national titles with the South Carolina motivates Whalen to turn the Gophers into a contender, especially watching the Gamecocks defeat UConn in the championship game at Target Center this year.
“I’m honored you’re here with me today,” Whalen said to Staley. “I’m going to do my very best to continue to follow in your footsteps from playing point guard in the WNBA right to head coach.”
Whalen’s No. 13 jersey was retired by the Gophers in 2005. The Minnesota Lynx and Connecticut Sun did the same in 2019, a year after she decided to transition into coaching.
Among the coaches Whalen gave credit to were Pam Borton (Gophers), Geno Auriemma (Team USA), and Cheryl Reeve (Lynx), who flew in from the U.S. World Cup team’s camp in Las Vegas.
The oldest of five children of Neil and Kathy, Whalen’s sports career actually started off playing youth hockey for her father. But her journey moved on quickly to basketball — eventually Gophers glory, Olympic gold medals and a WNBA dynasty with the Lynx.
“I carried a chip on my shoulder all the time because people thought it can’t be done in Minnesota,” Whalen said earlier. “I loved to prove people wrong and that’s how I played.”
Attempting to revive the Gophers program she once took within a couple wins from a national title might be her toughest challenge yet.
She’s still striving for her first NCAA tournament as a coach, but she signed the best recruiting class in program history last year. It’s a Minnesota-laden class loaded with talent.
And she expects them to be ready for practice next week, she told her players to end Saturday’s speech.
“I’ve got a really good group,” Whalen said. “I’m excited to be in the trenches with them and see what we can make out of it.”
The Star Tribune did not travel for this event. This article was written using the television broadcast and video interviews before and/or after the event.