I root for the underdogs. I always have. I don't like to lose any more than the next person, but there's something much more satisfying about having the deck stacked against you and finding a way to succeed when everyone else thinks it can't be done. If you like a good underdog story, too, then keep reading.
I was a sports reporter and weekend sports anchor for KEYC-TV in Mankato in 1998 and was covering the high school girls' basketball section finals. I was watching this skinny point guard for Hutchinson absolutely run the show. She was a good player in 10th grade, but to me, what stuck out was the way she congratulated some of her teammates and quietly ripped into others motivating them to play better without embarrassing them. I know leadership can be learned, but this kid was born with it and it was draped on thicker than the layer of salt on the popcorn in the gym. She couldn't shoot very well, but she didn't make mistakes with the ball and she drove to the basket, all 99 pounds of her, like a boxer recoiling to make the knockout haymaker punch.
During the game, I strolled over to then Mankato State Women's Basketball Head Coach Ann Walker to have some "chalk talk," as I knew her from numerous interviews throughout the previous two years. I think Ann liked me because we covered her women's team just as much as the men's team, so I think she had a soft spot for me and we joked around quite a bit.
I told Ann, "Coach you better get on that kid right now (referring to recruiting the 10th grade Hutchinson point guard). That kid is the walking definition of a point guard."
Coach Walker said, "Greg, that's why you're holding a microphone and I'm holding a clipboard. She's too little, that kid will get thrown around like a rag doll in D-2 (Division II level)."
That skinny 99-pound 10th grade kid was named Lindsay Whalen and she's won more basketball games than anyone in the history of the WNBA.
The Superdome in New Orleans had an ununiformed style of different colored seats throughout the entire facility in the early 1980's. Why? Because the Saints were so bad and their attendance was even worse. They wanted it to look less empty for TV, like there were people wearing different colored shirts in the stadium. In 2001, Lindsay's freshman year, Williams Arena could've used the same philosophy for women's basketball. The Gopher women's basketball team averaged 1,000 fans per game and they were bad. By the time Lindsay graduated, they averaged over 10,500 fans per night, tops in the country, and she helped lead the Gophers to their first ever women's Final Four. It cannot be overstated how much electricity Lindsay Whalen brought to female athletics in Minnesota in 2004. She had the innate ability to transform an entire state from support watching to need watching. Girls playing youth sports was cooler than it had ever been in 2004.
The Minnesota Lynx averaged last or second to last in attendance in 9 of their first 11 years in the WNBA. Since Lyndsay arrived in 2010, they've been a close second in attendance in 5 of the next 8 years, with the top spot mostly rotating between New York and Los Angeles, two cities almost seven times larger than the Twin Cities. Most of the WNBA franchises have actually seen a slight decrease in attendance in the last few years, but not the Lynx. They had a 12.3 percent increase last year, with the WNBA Final's games pushing close to 20,000 fans at each game.
Attendance numbers, though, are boring, unless you're an accountant or your name is Glen Taylor (Lynx owner). There's an eye-popping, much more meaningful, report recently released by the National Federation of State High School Associations. According to the NFHS, Minnesota ranked #1 in the country, per capita, in girls participating in high school sports in 2017 (60 percent more than Wisconsin by the way). An article by Bob Shaw on twincities.com discussed several factors for this, one being the inspiring effect of professional female athletes on young girls and, specifically, the Minnesota Lynx.
The positive correlation between girls playing sports and graduation rates isn't new; this info has been around for decades. However, Minnesota high school graduation rates ranking #2, nationally (according to bizjournals.com), is news hot off the press. Is some of this due to The Lindsay Whalen Effect from 2004 when those high school senior girls were in kindergarten and getting ready to play youth sports?
The River Falls Youth Girls' Basketball Board brought Whalen to River Falls to speak to the youth coaches and kids at a basketball camp in April. The board wanted that Lindsay Whalen Effect to be passed on to some of our kids and have the chance to hear her passion and inspiration. Lindsay, who brought her mom along for the ride over, told everyone there's a ton of things she's not good at, but she always has the confidence to know if she keeps at it long enough, it has a way of working itself out. River Falls was her last youth camp she visited as a member of the Minnesota Lynx.
About 80 members of the River Falls youth girls' basketball family went to the Lynx game this past Sunday night. It was Lindsay's last regular season game of her career (she'll be the head coach of the Gopher women's basketball team this year). There was a ceremony following the game and Lindsay thanked what seemed like everyone in the building and had a funny story relating to food for most.
Lindsay did manage a few "you better get your season tickets to Gopher Basketball next year" and a few of the speakers gave plugs as well. I've read a few news articles about Lindsay's next career, hinting great players don't always making the best coaches. Another said she's only 36, she'll be the youngest women's Division I basketball coach in the country and she's never coached before.
I've never bought season tickets for anything in my life, but I bought Gopher Women's Basketball season tickets today. Must've been The Lindsay Whalen Effect. Like I said, I like rooting for the underdog.