Whalen's No. 13 retired, but Lynx fall to Sparks

There’s not a bigger name in women’s basketball in Minnesota than Lindsay Whalen.

A 15-year WNBA career, including nine seasons with the Minnesota Lynx, came full circle Saturday afternoon as Whalen watched her No. 13 jersey get unveiled in the Target Center rafters. The Hutchinson native led the Gophers women’s team its only Final Four appearance, a program she recently finished her first season with as head coach.

Whalen was traded to the Lynx from the Connecticut Sun in 2009. Four WNBA titles later, she will go down as one of the greatest players in Lynx and WNBA history. Now kids, just like the thousands that were wearing No. 13 Whalen jerseys at Target Center on Saturday, aspire to be the next Lindsay Whalen.

“It’s unbelievable in the state of Minnesota, both girls and boys. I have met so many people in my 10 years here that say they are following women’s basketball because of Lindsay Whalen,” Lynx coach Cheryl Reeve said before the Lynx faced the L.A. Sparks.

The only thing missing in the script was a win over the Sparks, one of their biggest rivals. The Lynx shot 43 percent from the field for the game after a slow start, and L.A. hit critical shots late to seal an 89-85 win over Minnesota.

It was the first home loss of the season for the Lynx.

"We couldn't pull it out for Whay," Reeve said.

But the day was about Whalen. It was about celebrating the end of one of the best basketball careers in Minnesota history. Her No. 13 Lynx jersey will never be worn again, and now sits next to the team’s 2017 championship banner. The Lynx beat the Sparks at Williams Arena, her college home.

“My favorite championship probably of all four because it was the last and the hardest, so it was great. To be up there with Malik Sealy and Flip, a coach that I grew up watching and Malik was on all those teams, pretty cool,” Whalen said.

Whalen was honored Saturday in a pregame ceremony, where the Lynx released a tribute video. Maya Moore, not with the team this season, was the narrator. Some of her teammates, her coaches and some of the biggest names in basketball took time to say a few words about Whalen.

Seimone Augustus described Whalen as a warrior.

“Look up the definition of a warrior, that was Lindsay through and through,” Augustus said.

Timberwolves analyst and former Lynx assistant coach Jim Petersen said in the video she “prepares to be a champion every single day.”

Reeve has always spoke glowingly of Whalen, her floor leader during a Lynx dynasty that featured four WNBA titles.

“Young girls in Minnesota in their backyards want to be Lindsay Whalen. She’s one of the best athletes ever, male or female, in the state of Minnesota,” Reeve said.

One of the most nationally-known coaches featured in the piece was UConn women’s coach Geno Auriemma. He worked with Whalen on the U.S. Women’s National Team for what ended up being two Olympic Gold medals.

“She made the game better, and the game was better because she was in it. You can’t ask for a much better legacy than that,” Auriemma said.

“That’s the two best coaches in women’s basketball right there, Cheryl and Geno talking. I want to be that for my players at the U,” Whalen said. “So to have those two get on there and say what they said was really great.”

When it came to the game on the court Saturday, the Lynx looked like they were pressing to get a win in Whalen’s honor. Instead, they struggled to make shots early and turned the ball over 21 times in the game.

A visibly frustrated Reeve spoke about the loss after the game.

“Younger players really don’t know Whay. There’s only two players on that team that know Whay. Was it distracting? I don’t know. That’s a good excuse. I doubt it,” Reeve said.

Whalen retired from the WNBA after last season, and took the microphone to say thank you after the Lynx’s final regular season home game. She did it again Saturday, but was much shorter with wanting to see her team take on the Sparks.

She departs professional basketball with four championship rings and five All-WNBA honors. She’s the all-time winningest player in WNBA history. She’s a six-time All-Star who is third all-time in the playoffs in career scoring, and is tops in assists.

Before starting the pregame ceremony, Whalen walked over to Lynx owner Glen Taylor and his wife. They embraced, and Whalen later said it was Taylor buying the Lynx franchise 20-some years ago that gave her a chance to come home.

“With my jersey retired, I needed an opportunity first. It wouldn’t have happened if he wouldn’t have bought the team and if he wouldn’t have believed in women’s basketball and the WNBA,” Whalen said. “It’s all about the opportunity and then it’s what you do with it. Thankful that I worked hard and did all that, but just overall thankful that it worked out for me to play here.”

The story behind Whalen’s No. 13 is well-chronicled. She was in seventh grade in Hutchinson, and the smallest player on her team. No. 13 was the smallest jersey, so she got it. Now the first choice for most high school girls, if they can get it, is No. 13.

Whalen set the bar for point guard play at the WNBA level. She thanked the fans who filled Target Center Saturday, and there were thousands of them, who showed their appreciation for her.

“Thanks for a great ride. It was a lot of fun. I always tried to represent on the court as much as I could as a player and do my best. It was great today to see them here and supporting as always. It was a lot of fun,” Whalen said.

A consummate competitor, it was unfortunate they couldn’t salute her with a victory.