Yes, She Can: Lindsay Whalen Embraces the Challenge of Life on the Court and the Sideline
This story appears in the July 30, 2018, issue of Sports Illustrated. For more great storytelling and in-depth analysis, subscribe to the magazine—and get up to 94% off the cover price. Click here for more.
The most Minnesota thing in the history of Minnesota is Lindsay Whalen crossing the Mississippi River beneath the landmark GRAIN BELT beer sign that greets drivers on the Hennepin Avenue Bridge, and saying, in a flat-voweled Minnesota accent that rhymes roof with hoof, “Maybe I’ll have a Grain Belt tonight.” It’s her 36th birthday, and she’s wearing her Golden Gophers jacket.
In Minnesota, Grain Belt beer, the Mississippi River and the Golden Gophers roll on, as does Whalen, who crosses the bridge every day en route from practice with the Minnesota Lynx—the four-time WNBA champions, for whom she plays point guard—to the University of Minnesota, where she is the women’s basketball coach, all because Whalen cannot or will not say no.
When Whalen—the winningest player in league history, on its greatest dynasty—thought about retiring in March, Lynx coach Cheryl Reeve asked her to stay on. After four hours of conversation, Whalen told Reeve yes, she’d keep playing. Two weeks later Gophers coach Marlene Stollings left for Texas Tech and Whalen discussed that job offer with her husband, Ben Greve, who says, “Our conversation was, ‘How do you say no to that?’”
Does Whalen ever say no to anything? “Because of the way we were raised, I want to be nice,” says Whalen, the eldest of five children reared in Hutchinson, an hour west of the Twin Cities. “I’m not good at saying no. I need to get better.” And yet, when this reporter asked Whalen if he could tag along on her Journey to No, she failed the very first test, texting in reply: “Yes, of course!”
This is going to take some time.
The driver who delivered her dinner last night asked Whalen, who was wearing shower sandals and sweatpants, to come outside and pose for a selfie by his car. She didn’t say yes, exactly, but she didn’t say no, either, talking him down to a signed photo from a stack on her desk. “The guy was pretty amped up,” says Whalen. Indeed, Greve came home from work to find the driver “standing in our garage, looking like he wanted to hang out.” Greve has gotten used to this in 11 years of marriage to Minnesota’s most famous woman, a beloved member of 10,000 families she has never met.
“She’s Minnesota’s favorite daughter,” says Reeve. “Everyone knows Lindsay, and everyone knows what she’s done for basketball in the state of Minnesota. People who never watched basketball before became fans when she played at Minnesota, and she has carried that audience through her pro career.”
As a player at the U, Whalen was a funny, self-deprecating, assist-machine of a point guard. “DJ Whay, spinning rhymes and dropping dimes,” as she deadpanned to one reporter, while also wondering aloud why she and her teammates—“a group of girls”—had to run onto the court to “Who Let the Dogs Out?”
She led the Gophers to the NCAA tournament her sophomore year, the Sweet 16 her junior year and the Final Four in 2004, selling out 14,625-seat Williams Arena along the way. On the hip-hop continuum of her career, DJ Whay became Weezy to her Lynx teammates, possibly in homage to Lil Wayne, though she wonders if “it was because I was old and out of shape.”
She says this after enduring a postpractice spanking machine—“the paddlewheel”—from her Lynx teammates in honor of her birthday, and a week before leading them with 17 points and nine assists in their season-opening, last-second loss to the Los Angeles Sparks, their archnemesis and opponents in the last two WNBA finals. In that game, Whalen played lockdown D on Odyssey Sims after the whistle, impeding the Sparks guard as she tried to walk to the L.A. bench for a timeout and drawing roars from the Target Center crowd.
In these moments, it’s clear that Charles Barkley was her favorite player growing up. Whalen’s Inner Chuck reveals itself in competition. When Mike Thibault coached the Connecticut Sun, for whom Whalen played during her first six seasons, he ran a litany of isolation plays for her in their playoff series against the Detroit Shock. The 5' 9" Whalen kept scoring off these isos, then gazing in dismay at Shock coach Bill Laimbeer. “I couldn’t tell from my end if she was talking to Laimbeer,” says Thibault, now the coach of the Washington Mystics. “But her glare said, The way you’re defending this, you’re disrespecting me as a player.”
Greve was on the golf team when he met Whalen in college, and he is now the two-time defending champion of the Minnesota Open. Two Septembers ago Greve was playing at Minneapolis Golf Club with a former Gophers teammate when Whalen—who hadn’t swung a club all summer—joined them. On the 322-yard, par-4 14th, she drove the green and buried a 20-foot eagle putt. (“Walking it in,” Greve says with a sigh.) On the next hole, a par-5, Whalen reached in two and two-putted for birdie. “You guys do this every weekend?” she said to her husband and his buddy. “It’s not that hard.”
“When my kids were in high school,” Thibault says of his daughter, Carly, and son, Eric, the latter now his assistant with the Mystics, “Lindsay would be at our house playing Jenga with the high school kids, giving them all sorts of lip about losing. She took that seriously.”
In Game 4 of the 2017 finals, in L.A., Sims sprinted in for a layup but Whalen knocked her down, drawing a flagrant-one foul that set the Lynx alight and also ignited a 33–12 run that turned the game—and the series—around.
“I’ve seen that side of her,” says UConn women’s coach Geno Auriemma, who guided Whalen to Olympic gold medals in London and Rio, where she backed up Sue Bird, another smiling assassin. “You have to be careful around the ones who seem the kindest and the sweetest. They’re the ones who’ll rip your throat out.”
The throat-ripping coupled with the Minnesota Nice creates a cognitive dissonance. Modesty is a trait embraced by Minnesotans, who rounded down their 11,842 lakes for the 10,000 on their license plates. Whalen is a future Hall of Famer, but she metaphorically rounds down so as not to appear boastful. This isn’t shtick, more an effort to appear life-sized instead of larger than life. “Lindsay is an incredibly selfless person,” says Reeve. “She understands what she means to people, she never wants to take that for granted and she’s always willing to give of herself.”
It’s another reason why this whole notion of no is going to take some work and, truth be told, is unlikely to succeed on a large scale, in part because the Lynx have formed a family bond with fans that Whalen wants to establish with the Gophers. The players are accessible, switched-on to social issues and—the key to the whole enterprise—wildly successful.
Despite the Lynx’s 3–5 start, their lineup of Whalen, forward Maya Moore, center Sylvia Fowles, guard Seimone Augustus and forward Rebekkah Brunson has got it rolling again—they were 14–10 through July 21—and stand just four games behind the Storm, who are gunning for their third title. There have been 21 finals in WNBA history. Whalen has played in eight of them.
I always wanted a job that would allow me to travel the world,” Whalen says, “and I guess I got one.” Playing winters in Russia, Turkey and the Czech Republic, she followed her beloved and benighted Minnesota sports teams with the devotion of a KFAN caller, Weezy from Istanbul. “Sometimes it was just a purple haze,” says Greve, of trying to catch a live Vikings game in the early days of Slingbox from Eastern Europe, where the couple would order wings from a Prague joint called Pizza West and try to stay awake until 3 a.m. By the time she watched Brett Favre throw a fatal pick in the 2009 NFC title game, in the middle of a Czech night—having lobbied her coach to delay practice until the following afternoon—Whalen could be forgiven for thinking that she and her teammates would have to be the ones to seize Minnesota’s first championship since the 1991 World Series.
She played hockey until fifth grade, but became so good at basketball so quickly that her games at Hutchinson High sometimes tipped off after the boys’ games because they drew bigger crowds. At home, she played out the men’s NCAA basketball brackets by herself on a Nerf hoop in the basement, and pretended to be Vikings receiver Anthony Carter while playing catch with her dad, Neil, who recently retired from the 3M plant in Hutchinson where Whalen’s mother, Kathy, still works as an administrative assistant. She enjoyed elbowing her four younger siblings—Katie, Casey, Annie and Thomas—in roller hockey and engaging them in ping-pong battles royal. “I’ve apologized to them many times,” she says, “for all the things I did to them growing up.”
That list of atrocities includes hosting her own 1990s-style daytime talk show, modeled on those of Geraldo, Jerry Springer and—her personal favorite—Sally Jessy Raphael. Lindsay was Sally Jessy, and her siblings were the guests and crew for the videotaped proceedings, which always ended—like many of the actual shows—in cartoon violence, all the Whalen combatants sticking pillows under their shirts and sumo wrestling.
Annie, now 25, grew so tired of being dragged to every one of her big sister’s games as a kid that when Lindsay was named Gophers coach on April 12, she received a bouquet of flowers from her little sister with a card that read simply: Yay. More basketball.
Hours after her introductory press conference, Whalen was supposed to fly to Chicago for Casey’s surprise 30th birthday party. But the new coach was so tired that she decided to wait until the next day, which brought 12.9 inches of snow and shut down the Minneapolis–St. Paul airport. Grounded, she and Greve dragged two suitcases through the blizzard to decorate her new office at the U, and then she FaceTimed into the party, where Casey noted that both he and his wife were recently promoted at their respective jobs. How nice, Casey said, that Lindsay had finally gotten a bump in title, too. These are the greatest possible expressions of love and pride in the Gopher State, where souvenir T-shirts read: KEEP MINNESOTA PASSIVE-AGGRESSIVE.
After Lynx practice Whalen showers, ices, eats and changes into her Gophers gear. In the garage beneath the Mayo Clinic Center, she gets behind the wheel of her black Mercedes SUV, just retrieved from the dealership, and a perk of her new job. She apologizes for its sumptuous interior. “I’ve never driven a Mercedes before,” she says, searching for the gear selector. She finds it where one usually turns on the blinkers.
Whalen pulls out of the garage in front of First Avenue, the club made famous by Prince, who performed a three-hour concert for the Lynx at his Paisley Park compound the night they won their third championship, in 2015. Hers is a 15-minute drive, starting in downtown Minneapolis, with its Bob Dylan mural and Mary Tyler Moore (as Mary Richards) statue, all these Minnesota icons either dead, fictional or long absent from the state, save Whalen, who crosses the bridge and drives up University Avenue pointing out her favorite restaurants.
A cardboard HAPPY BIRTHDAY banner has been hung in her office, and two boxes of cookies are placed on her desk. She’ll celebrate tonight with Greve and her assistants at another Minneapolis landmark, Murray’s—“Home of the Butter Knife Steak”—where other patrons will call her “Coach,” even though she has never run a practice. Nobody seems to mind. “I’m in the honeymoon phase,” she says. “I’m undefeated.” She knows and expects fan reaction to change based on how the Gophers perform, but for now the reservoir of goodwill appears bottomless.
“In some ways it’s a gutsy move by [athletic director] Mark Coyle, because of the perceived lack of experience,” says Reeve. “But it’s absolutely the correct move, a no-brainer. What [the university] has gotten already, in a short time, is already worth the price of admission.”
“People talk about the It factor, and that is always difficult to define,” Coyle said in introducing Whalen. “But everyone who has ever spent time around Lindsay Whalen knows she has It.”
Dawn Staley and Jennifer Rizzotti both played in the WNBA while coaching—with great success—at Temple and Hartford, respectively. “They say really good players don’t make great coaches,” says Reeve, “because they’re instinctual, and that’s a beautiful thing to watch. The subtle difference is when you ask a player, ‘Do you know how you did what you just did?’ Lindsay can tell you the how, the what, the why of what she does, so she’ll be able to teach that.”
Her office in the brand-new, $166 million Athletes’ Village complex is a lob wedge from where she met Greve as a freshman in a business stats class that started at 8:30 a.m. on Tuesdays, when Whalen was always in sweats, having come straight from early-morning conditioning. “He kept sitting next to me,” she recalls. “That was a good sign, because I’m still in my sweats pretty much every day.”
They were married in 2007. Greve works long hours as a partner at an insurance brokerage while still playing competitive golf, having just returned from the USGA four-ball championship at Jupiter Hills in Tequesta, Fla. Even in beautiful settings competitive golf can be grueling, but he’s smart enough never to say so, “especially when my wife has two jobs.” Three if you count running Henry, the couple’s neurotic goldendoodle, to his canine orthodontist appointments.
“I have a long to-do list,” Whalen agrees. “And it never gets any shorter.” Today, she was supposed to get her U Card, allowing her to thumbprint into her new office, which will be a relief, as she’s locked herself out three times already after leaving her keys on her desk. “I’ve never had office doors that locked behind me automatically,” she says, and then, after a short pause: “I’ve never had an office before.”
The inside of that office, which overlooks the Gophers’ practice court, resembles Citizen Kane’s warehouse, containing the bounty of Whalen’s basketball travels. Three of her four WNBA rings are here, in their velvet cases. So is the ball commemorating her 295th win, setting the WNBA record for individual victories; a photograph with Michelle Obama at the White House; four commemorative Wheaties boxes featuring the Lynx; and, on an end table next to the sofa, her gold medals from the 2012 and ’16 Olympics. These are the spoils of her heroics, and she hopes to return all of them to their storage locker soon.
She’d like the blank wall behind her desk to display a large mural of the sold-out Williams Arena from the night her Gophers played Penn State in 2004, or the opening tip of the ’04 Final Four game in New Orleans, where Minnesota lost to Auriemma’s Huskies. “My goal is to have all this eventually be pictures of Gopher women’s basketball,” says Whalen.
When Reeve came to Minnesota, having won two WNBA titles in four years as a Shock assistant, her Lynx office was festooned with photos and mementoes of those Shock celebrations. Whalen now tells her own players what Reeve told her then: Help us redecorate.
Part of this requires saying no. When Lynx teammates ask if they’ll be on the Gophers pass list, she says, “No, buy season tickets.” Whalen wants to fill 14,625-seat Williams Arena again but knows it will take time, which is in scarce supply. Thibault had dinner with her after the Lynx played at Washington in May. “She said she’s getting better at turning off the phone,” Thibault reports. Says Reeve, with confidence: “She’s going to learn to delegate some things.”
In that pursuit, Whalen has hired assistants Kelly Roysland, a Gophers teammate and the former coach at Macalester College, as well as Carly Thibault-DuDonis, who peeks her head into the office now, noting that a prized recruit will be announced today. (Mercedes Staples, a 5' 10" point guard from Salt Lake City who is ranked in the top 75 players in the nation, is the second Mercedes to enter Whalen’s life in the past 24 hours.) Thibault-DuDonis was an assistant on the Mississippi State team that played in the last two NCAA title games, and the high school girl with whom Whalen played cut-throat Jenga as a member of the Sun, then coached by Carly’s father, Mike. When Whalen was drafted by Connecticut in ’04, Carly was an eighth-grader and one of the team’s ballgirls. Now, here are the two of them, in this huge new office, marveling at life’s turns.
Whalen is on a couch, in sweats, thinking about the qualities that have made the Lynx great and how she can bring them to the U. In other words: What does she want to carry across the Hennepin Avenue Bridge?
“You have to focus on being a good person first and enjoy building relationships,” she says. “Those are what it’s all about. Every time the Lynx have won a championship, Coach [Reeve] always says, looking back, that our training camp was so good that year. And it starts on Day One with the way we treat each other.”
Be a good person. Treat one another well. Whalen will ask recruits if they’re willing to do those things, and try to sign the ones who say yes. She picks up a box made from sustainably sourced Brazilian hardwood, and opens it to reveal her Rio gold medal, which has—one can’t help but notice—silver graffiti on its face. How? When Whalen was asked if she’d be willing to bring the medal to an event, she told the organizers yes, and when fans there asked to hold it, she said yes again, at which time the medal was accidentally but irreversibly defaced by someone’s uncapped silver paint pen. She doesn’t seem to mind. Whalen leaves the box open: gold flecked with a nervous fan’s graffiti, token of a champion who feels duty-bound to share.