basketball

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

Update: South Carolina schloen UConn to win his second national championship.

MINNEAPOLIS – Visitors coming from the baggage claim area at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport this weekend were greeted by a local celebrity. “Welcome to Minneapolis,” Lindsay Whalen said, in a recorded message transmitted over the speakers. Whalen is a Minnesota native who helped lift the University of Minnesota women’s basketball team to its only Final Four in 2004 and who was a core piece of the Minnesota Lynx dynasty that won the four championships. Today, she is the head coach of the University of Minnesota Golden Gophers and part of the 2022 Naismith Hall of Fame class.

Whalen’s story is just one of many that explain how Minneapolis, which hosted the 2022 Women’s Final Four, became one of the most endearing women’s basketball communities in the country. Connecticut, Phoenix and Columbia, SC, are also hotbeds of women’s play, but Minneapolis is distinctive because of the breadth of its women’s basketball ecosystem – and because all the great men’s professional leagues are also represented in the city, that means enthusiasm for women’s play can not patronizingly attributed to a lack of options.

Lindsay Whalen told me, “Hey, you build this thing and win, people will come,” Lynx coach Cheryl Reeve said about her and Whalen’s first season with the team in 2010. “Lindsay was right. The people did not let go. “

The last time was the Final Four in Minneapolis, in 1995, the WNBA did not exist. Twenty-seven years later, the best women’s college basketball teams in the country will compete on the same court where the Minnesota Lynx has drawn an average of over 9,000 fans a game since 2012, placing the team consistently among the top cadres in the WNBA. Presence.

No NCAA Women’s Tournament game has ever been played on a WNBA court, so it’s just city luck that an excellent local player can be seen in the Final Four. UConn sophomore guard Paige Bueckers first became a star at Hopkins High School in the Minneapolis suburb of Minnetonka, and helped cement the school’s reputation as a girls’ basketball destination.

“Suddenly you have this phenomenon, this kid that everyone has seen on social media with all those great passes and great moves,” said Tara Starks, head coach of Hopkins and Bueckers former amateur athletic union coach, about Bueckers’ climax . Career School.

Her home was one of the tournament’s biggest stories to date, adding another chapter to Minnesota’s women’s basketball lore. Starks is busy writing the next one, with Hopkins players engaged for Stanford, Arizona and of course Minnesota.

According to a recent Associated Press analysis, Minnesota has the most girls high school basketball players per capita in the country. Thanks in part to the region’s high school and youth basketball scenes, Whalen was able to make the top 10 in Minnesota.

“From the Lynx to the Gophers to high school basketball and then the investment in youth basketball, the support for women’s basketball here is some of the best I’ve ever seen – and I have lived in Connecticut,” said Minnesota assistant Carly Thibault- DuDonis, whose father, Mike Thibault, trained the Connecticut Sun and currently trains the Washington Mystics, both of the WNBA “I can see how we recruit that talent level here is so strong “, she added.

Part of the motivation for younger players, according to their coaches, is that the proximity and success of the Lynx make the game in the WNBA both concrete and desirable. “They always talk about it,” Starks said. “‘I want to get in the league. I want to play in the WNBA'”

Lynx, however, did not always look aspirational. They are one of only five of the league’s 12 franchises that owners and arenas share with NBA teams, but it was still a battle to get practice facilities and promotion that came close to what their male counterparts got. Rebekkah Brunson, who played for the team for nine years and is now an assistant coach, recalls how the practice was held in the small court in the basement of the Target Center.

“Winning is first,” Brunson said. “And then we finally got to a point where you saw a little bit more of that same footprint. But it took a while.”

This weekend, Final Four participants went through a team business that sold Lynx and Timberwolves equipment and displayed a whole bunch of Lynx and Timberwolves logos. This parity is the result of a consistent effort for what Reeve calls “dual branding”.

“A lot of times, when you go to a city that has professional men’s teams, women’s sports are drowned,” Reeve said. “But you will notice that when you are in our practice facility, wherever you see a Wolves head, you see a Lynx head. It is messaging that does not cost much, but it is invaluable.

To get Heber to push these kinds of changes, Lynx fans had to. Some of the strongest of these fans identified as part of the LGBTQ community.

It took time for the WNBA to engage LGBTQ fans and players. Pride Night has been part of the Lynx schedule only since 2012. As Reeve said, for Lynx and the rest of the WNBA teams, it made sense in the early years that “if they think we’re gay, they could take that away from us. “

But when the early flow of corporate interest in the WNBA went back around 2002, the presence of the LGBTQ community at games in Minneapolis and elsewhere often remained constant.

“I’m thankful that this base never left us,” Reeve said. “Because as it was in the beginning, that would have been understandable.”

Erica Mauter moved to Minneapolis in 2004, and started playing Lynx almost immediately.

“When you exist as a minority relative to the general population, you learn to look for other people who can be your people,” said Mauter, who is queer. “That’s true everywhere you go. That’s true when you go to Target Center. On one level, you’re like, ‘I can see my people here.’

Mauter said she felt the team in the league was uncomfortable with its LGBTQ fan base. “This is clearing up,” she said. “As you know, we are here and we will keep this team afloat by buying tickets. The least you can do is recognize that we exist.

Seimone Augustus, who led Lynx to her first title in 2011, helped push the team into the league in action when she came out to the public in 2012 with the idea of ​​using her influence to To plead marital equality.

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

Augustus placed a predecessor to activism within the Lynx, whose players became the first professional athletes to participate in the Black Lives Matter protests in 2016. there and speak their minds – I’m really proud of the fact that it’s our team, the Minnesota Lynx, “said Mauter.

Since then, the team and the league have worked harder on inclusion. “I think they have really reached out to LGBTQ people in many meaningful and authentic ways,” said Monica Meyer, who resigned last year after leading OutFront Minnesota, the state’s largest LGBTQ + advocacy organization, for over a decade. have got. “They tried to make sure the space was really welcoming and affirming.”

Lynx’s basketball success and the court team’s evolution helped build what Whales had already achieved at the University of Minnesota.

“I hope everyone who comes to town for the final four will feel how much Minneapolis really appreciates female athletes,” Brunson said. “That everyone feels respected and valued.”

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