Women’s basketball thrives in Minnesota, home of the Final Four

Update: South Carolina beat UConn win their second national championship.

MINNEAPOLIS. Visitors leaving the baggage claim area at Minneapolis Street Airport. Paul International Airport was greeted by a local celebrity this weekend. “Welcome to Minneapolis,” Lindsey Whalen said in a recorded message broadcast over a loudspeaker. Whalen is a Minnesota native who helped lead the University of Minnesota women’s basketball team to a single Final Four in 2004 and was a key member of the Minnesota Lynx dynasty that won four championships. Today, she is the head coach of the University of Minnesota Golden Gophers and is in the 2022 Naismith Hall of Fame class.

Whalen’s story is just one of many explaining how Minneapolis, host to the 2022 Women’s Final Four, has become one of the most vibrant women’s basketball communities in the country. Connecticut, Phoenix, and Columbia, South Carolina are also hotbeds of women’s football, but Minneapolis is distinguished by the breadth of the women’s basketball ecosystem, as well as the fact that the city also has representation from every major men’s professional league, meaning enthusiasm for the women’s game cannot be condescendingly dismissed as a downside. options.

“Lindsey Whalen told me, ‘Hey, build this thing and win, people will come,'” Lynx coach Cheryl Reeve said of her and Whalen’s first season on the team in 2010. “Lindsey was right. People didn’t let go.”

The last time the Final Four was held in Minneapolis in 1995, the WNBA didn’t exist yet. Twenty-seven years later, the nation’s top women’s college basketball teams will compete at the same venue where the Minnesota Lynx has averaged over 9,000 fans per game since 2012, consistently placing the team among the top WNBA teams in attendance.

No NCAA women’s tournament game has ever been played on a WNBA court, so the city is lucky to have a prominent local player in the Final Four. UC Connecticut sophomore quarterback Paige Buckers first became a star at Hopkins High School in Minnetonka, a Minneapolis suburb, helping solidify the school’s reputation as a place where girls play basketball.

“Suddenly you have this phenomenon, this kid that everyone has seen on social media with all these freaky passes and freaky moves,” Tara Starks, Hopkins head coach and former Amateur Athletic Union coach, said of Bookers. ‘ Career in high school.

Her homecoming was one of the highlights of the tournament, adding another chapter to the history of Minnesota women’s basketball. Starks is busy writing the next one, and Hopkins players are targeting Stanford, Arizona and, of course, Minnesota.

According to recent Associated Press analysisMinnesota has the most high school female basketball players per capita in the nation. Thanks in part to local high school and junior basketball courts, Whalen was able to score Minnesota’s 10th best class of 2022 in the nation. according to ESPN – a class completely filled with players from twin cities.

“From the Lynx to the Gophers to high school basketball and then investment in youth basketball, the support for women’s basketball here is one of the best I’ve ever seen, and I lived in Connecticut,” said Minnesota assistant Carly Thiebaud-DuDonis. , whose father, Mike Thiebaud, coached the Connecticut Sun and currently coaches the Washington Mystics, both from the WNBA. “I see the level of talent here is very high,” she added.

Part of the motivation for young players, according to their coaches, is that the closeness and success of the Lynx makes playing in the WNBA tangible and desirable. “They talk about it all the time,” Starks said. “I want to get into the league. I want to play in the WNBA'”

However, the Lynx did not always seem desirable. They are one of five of the league’s 12 franchises that share owners and arenas with NBA teams, but it was still a battle to get training facilities and promotions that were close to what their male counterparts got. Rebecca Brunson, who played on the team for nine years and is now an assistant coach, remembers training on a small court in the basement of the Target Center.

“Winning came first,” Brunson said. “And then, eventually, we got to the point where you saw a little more of that equal footprint. But it took some time.”

This weekend, the Final Four contestants walked past a team shop that sold Lynx and Timberwolves gear and had a plethora of Lynx and Timberwolves logos on display. This parity is the result of a concerted effort towards what Reeve calls “double branding”.

“Often when you come to a city where there are professional men’s teams, the women’s sport is silenced,” Reeve said. “But you will notice that if you are in our training center, wherever you see a wolf head, you will see a lynx head. It’s a messaging that doesn’t cost very much, but it’s priceless.”

To achieve this kind of change, the Lynx had to have fans. Some of the most diehard fans are identified as part of the LGBTQ community.

It took the WNBA a while to reach out to LGBTQ fans and players. Pride Night has only been part of the Lynx schedule since 2012. As Reeve put it, the Lynx and the rest of the WNBA teams had a feeling in the early years that “if they think we’re too gay, they can take it away from us.”

But when the surge in corporate interest in the WNBA subsided around 2002, the presence of the LGBT community at games in Minneapolis and elsewhere often remained constant.

“I am grateful that this base never left us,” Reeve said. “Because that’s how it was in the beginning, that would be understandable.”

Erica Mauter moved to Minneapolis in 2004 and began attending Lynx games almost immediately.

“When you exist as a minority in relation to the general population, you learn to look for other people who can be your people,” said Mauter, who is gay. “That’s true wherever you go. This is true when you enter the Target Center. At some level, you think, “I can see my people are here.”

Mauter said she feels team and league discomfort with LGBTQ fans. “It’s an erasure,” she said. “How do you guys know we are here and we keep this team afloat by buying tickets. The least you could do is acknowledge that we exist.”

Seimone Augustus, who led the Lynx to their first title in 2011, has helped the team and the league operate. when she went public in 2012 with the idea of ​​using his influence to defend equality in marriage.

“The athletes showed courage,” Reeve said. “And that often happens.”

August set a precedent for activity within the Lynx team, whose players became the first professional athletes join the Black Lives Matter protests in 2016. “Samon stands out as an individual, the team as a group stands up for their defense and their willingness to come out and speak their minds – I’m really proud of the fact that this is our team, the Minnesota Lynx,” Mauter said.

Since then, the team and league have been hard at work on the inclusion. “I think they really reached out to LGBTQ people in a lot of meaningful and authentic ways,” said Monica Meyer, who stepped down last year after leading OutFront Minnesota, the state’s largest LGBTQ rights organization, for more than a decade. +. “They tried to make the space feel really welcoming and positive.”

The Lynx’s basketball success and the off-court evolution of the team helped build on what Whalen had already accomplished at the University of Minnesota.

“I hope that everyone who comes to town for the Final Four can feel how much Minneapolis really appreciates female athletes,” Brunson said. “To make everyone feel respected and valued.”