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Courtney Huot, age 14 (left), and Kristen Lee, age 12, consider No. 13 Lindsay Whalen a role model.
She's got game--and she turned us on to the game
By Ann Freeman
If you play basketball and have "mad" skills and talent, someone might pay you the ultimate compliment by saying, "You've got game." Well, Lindsay Whalen's got major game, and so does the rest of her team. On March 23, the Gopher women's basketball team upset Kansas State 80-61, and after another victory over Boston College on Sunday (March 28), the team is headed to the NCAA Elite Eight for the first time. The Gophers beat K-State at home in The Barn (as Minnesotans affectionately call Williams Arena), which was packed to near capacity with 13,425 screaming fans.
As fans, we came to watch great basketball. But we were also called--in some collective way--to witness, to pay tribute, to be a part of something special--a night that would be remembered forever... a defining moment in women's athletics at the U.
There was the mom who brought her young daughter to watch Whalen play her last game at home as a Golden Gopher; the dad who brought his son and wife, wanting to share with them his love of women's basketball, his love of this special team. And there was the threesome of giggling teenaged girls with faces painted in maroon and gold and another pair of teens in #13 jerseys (Lindsay Whalen's number) who came simply because Whalen is their hero. This is a story that is becoming legend. In 2000-01, when Whalen was a freshman, the team was 8-20 and played in front of very sparse crowds of about 1,000. The next year, with a new coach and more seasoned players, the team shocked the collegiate basketball world--and Minnesota--by transforming itself into a winning team and a Big Ten contender. The Gophers drew bigger and bigger crowds and moved from the Sports Pavilion into The Barn--forever changing the landscape of that hallowed ground of men's basketball. They played their way to a berth and one victory in the NCAA tournament. Then the coach left and folks worried what would happen to the team, and if the season tickets they just bought were all for naught.
Oh we of little faith!
The next season, with a new coach at the helm, the team rocketed to the next level. They converted thousands more Minnesotans into die-hard fans. They reached the Sweet Sixteen for the first time in the history of Gopher women's basketball. And Lindsay Whalen, melting record after record, was on her way to becoming a household name.
"Five years ago, I couldn't have told you the difference between a point guard and a mouth guard," says fan Ro Anne Elliott. "... Now I am right on the line between fan and fanatic--and it's all because the Gopher women's basketball team captured my heart four short years ago!"Now a senior, Whalen is the all-time leading scorer in the history of Gopher basketball (note no gender modifier), and one of the University's finest basketball players ever (ditto on the gender modifier). Her name is one of the most recognizable of any athlete in Minnesota--right up there with Randy Moss and Kevin Garnett. Even her bobblehead is a fairly hot commodity on eBay (see related link on right).
"Whalen's popularity is first and foremost because she is a phenomenal basketball player with an enormous amount of talent," says Mary Jo Kane, a University of Minnesota professor of sports sociology and director of the Tucker Center for Research on Girls and Women in Sport. "She is a great champion who, like all great athletes, shows up 'big' in big games. She refuses to lose. She is also seemingly an unselfish player. It's clear everyone on the team respects her, which is a tough thing to accomplish. They've been to battle with her and know she has their backs."
Kane says an example of Whalen's ferocity came in the Gopher's first-round NCAA tournament game against UCLA last Sunday, when, returning after a five-and-a-half-week absence due to a hand injury, she scored 31 points in the 37 minutes she was in the game.
But if the UCLA game was Whalen's, the win against Kansas State belonged to the whole team. Janel McCarville reigned over her highly touted counterpart, Nicole Ohlde, with 15 points and 18 rebounds. Shannon Schonrock built momentum with 14 first-half points, and Shannon Bolden's defense helped shut down the Wildcat offense.
In other words, there was some great team basketball going on. And that's the real revolution in women's sports since Title IX (the landmark 1972 federal legislation requiring gender equity in education and athletics), according to Kane.
"The untold story about why women's sports has exploded is that these are phenomenal athletes," she says. "This is the first Title IX generation to come of age. There have always been great female athletes, but due to Title IX we now have a critical mass of females playing sports. Prior to Title IX we lost generations of Lindsay Whalens. Girls today are exposed to better coaching, training, facilities, and opportunities to play. Title IX created the environment that allowed Lindsay Whalen to flourish."
For Kane, who has been in the trenches championing women's sports for two decades, Tuesday's game was electrifying. "I was very moved," she says. "It was something I never thought I'd see. It was a watershed moment in women's sports at the University."
Judith James and Ro Anne Elliott have been season ticket holders for four seasons. James, a pre-Title IX athlete, watches in awe at the player that Lindsay Whalen is and all that Gopher women's basketball has become.
"What has been most exciting for me is to see the team become a legitimate contender," James says. "One of the sweetest aspects of the Gopher women's rise to competency and winning is the fact that the basketball team is on the way to paying for themselves because people now see how exciting women's basketball can be. Whalen was the catalyst, but she always knew she was no more important than her team and she wanted her team to look as spectacular as she did. That kind of humility is really honorable in a player who is as good as Lindsay. It makes her game extend far beyond the court."
Elliott is one of the thousands of fans that caught Gopher fever during the last four years.
"Five years ago, I couldn't have told you the difference between a point guard and a mouth guard," she says. "If you had told me then that today I would be able to hold my own in a conversation about the top women's basketball NCAA programs, have strong opinions on sports writers, recognize and care about coaching styles, or get seriously irritated with people who don't realize what a big deal the Gopher women's basketball program is, I would have thought you were nuts! Now I am right on the line between fan and fanatic--and it's all because the Gopher women's basketball team captured my heart four short years ago!"