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Whalen’s pro career got off to a great start in Connecticut with the Sun

Former Sun guard Lindsay Whalen, right, saw her number (13) retired by the Connecticut Sun at the Mohegan Sun Arena at halftime of Friday night’s game against the Las Vegas Aces. Whalen is standing with Bill Tavares, the former media relations manager with the Sun.

UNCASVILLE, August 23, 2019 – Some day in the future, Lindsay Whalen will probably be elected to the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield.

We have no advance knowledge of this, nor can we accurately see into the future.

But when you look at the resume that Whalen put together on the basketball court in high school, in college at the University of Minnesota, in the WNBA and on the international stage with the U.S. Olympic team, it makes sense that Whalen will eventually join those legendary men and women at the Hall of Fame.

Whalen’s career include four WNBA championships with the Minnesota Lynx (2011, 2013, 2015, 2017), two Olympic gold medals in 2012 and 2016 along with a pair of world championship gold medals, too, from 2010 and 2014.

Her professional career started here in Connecticut at the Mohegan Sun Arena. Drafted fourth overall in the 2004 WNBA draft, Whalen played for six years under head coach Mike Thibault, helping the Sun win back-to-back Eastern Conference championships in 2004 and 2005.

On Friday night, the Sun honored Whalen by retiring her No. 13 during halftime of the Sun’s game with the Las Vegas aces. Whalen is the fourth player to be honored by the Sun, joining the late Margo Dydek (12), Nykesha Sales (42) and Katie Douglas (23) in the rafters high above the hardwood floor.

Sales and Taj McWilliams-Franklin who played with Whalen during those years in Connecticut joined their teammate on the floor at halftime.

Lindsay Whalen is introduced at halftime where her No. 13 jersey was retired by the Connecticut Sun.

“I really grew up here,” Whalen said. “I learned how to be a pro (basketball player). It was really my first time away from home in Minnesota. I had to learn different life skills. In college, everything is scheduled for you and here it was not. But I had a lot of great mentors.”

Whalen was already a legend in her home state of Minnesota. A four-time All-State selection at Hutchinson High, about an hour west of Minneapolis, Whalen energized interest in the University of Minnesota women’s program. She was a three-time All-American with the Gophers and led the team to their only Final Four appearance in 2004.

When Whalen arrived in Connecticut, she joined a veteran group of players on the Sun that included Taj McWilliams-Franklin, Nykesha Sales, Katie Douglas and Debbie Black.

The Sun were playing in Uncasville for the second season after relocating from Orlando, Florida, in 2003 – the state’s first major league caliber franchise since the American Basketball League’s New England Blizzard disappeared when the ABL went bankrupt in 1999.

“She came in and had to learn to play with all of these veterans and a lot was expected of her,” Sales said. “She had some big shoes to fill. And she was a big part of our success.”

Whalen picked up some important aspects to her game here in Connecticut under Thibault and with the Sun.

Lindsay Whalen, left, sits with former Sun teammates Taj McWilliams-Franklin, center and Nykesha Sales Friday at the Mohegan Sun Arena. The Sun beat the Las Vegas Aces on Friday for their 20th win of the season.

“Toughness. Learning to be a leader,” McWilliams-Franklin said when asked what Whalen took from playing in Connecticut. “Some people think leadership is easy and it is a natural ability. But it is really something you learning in the trenches and with being with people all of the time.

“It is learning how to be assertive. Learn to know what your voice is and what you want to say,” McFranklin-Williams said. “You learn that as you grow into yourself.”

Fourteen years later, McFranklin-Williams is still amazing at the size of Whalen’s ankle during the 2005 WNBA finals against the Sacramento Monarchs.

In her second year in the WNBA, Whalen averaged 12.1 points and 5.1 assists per game during the regular season for Connecticut. The first two rounds of the WNBA playoffs – sweeps of the Detroit Shock and Indiana Fever – Whalen averaged 16.5 points.

She hurt her knee in game two of the Eastern Conference final with a fracture of her knee against Indiana but finished the game. In game one of the WNBA finals against Sacramento, she hurt her ankle. Whalen missed game two but played in game 3 and 4. The Monarchs won the best-of-five series, 3-1.

McFranklin-Williams remembers seeing the Whalen’s swollen ankle in the locker room during the 2005 WNBA finals. “It was really swollen,” she said. “It was enormous but (Lindsay) went out and played as well as she could. She toughed it out.”

She eventually had off-season surgery to repair the damage.

“They threw everything at her and she still kept going,” McFranklin-Williams said. “That was something I had never seen from a point guard. I played with Dawn Staley and she was tough. But she never tried to mix it up with a 6-6 girl the way Lindsay did. (Lindsay) was fearless.”

Broadcaster LaChina Robinson , left, interviews Lindsay Whalen at halftime of Friday’s WNBA game in Uncasville. The Sun retired Whalen’s No. 13 jersey.

Whalen didn’t recall specific games when she was with the Sun but said memorable games were against the hard-charging Detroit Shock, who played with the toughness and relentless attitude of their head coach Bill Laimbeer, Seattle in the 2004 WNBA finals and Sacramento in the 2005 WNBA finals.

Whalen did smile remembering that the Sun won both of their Eastern Conference titles on the Mohegan Sun Arena floor.

In her six seasons here in Connecticut, the Sun were 125-79 and qualified for the playoffs five times. Whalen scored 2,290 points in 197 with the Sun (12.3 ppg) and her 964 assists (4.6 apg) still remain the most career assists in team history. No one is yet within 200 assists of that mark.

Sales said that she saw that Whalen tried to take the championship attitude with her to Minnesota and beyond as Whalen’s career moved out of Connecticut following her trade to the Lynx.

“She tried to create atmosphere in other places, it was a winning atmosphere,” Sales said. “We all got along. We figured each other out. We had a great foundation, especially with (coach Thibault). Lindsay was a part of that. She was very humble and very quiet. But she was a beast on the court, leading the franchise.”

Whalen’s No. 13 jersey was retired by the Minnesota Lynx earlier this season. Now, it is retired here in Connecticut. Someday, it will be hanging at the Hall of Fame in Springfield.

The Connecticut Sun have retired the numbers of four players. They retired Lindsay Whalen’s No. 13 on Friday night.

Lindsay Whalen played her first six seasons in the WNBA in Connecticut, leading the Sun to WNBA finals in 2004 and 2005.

Gerry deSimas, Jr., is the editor and founder of The Collinsville Press. He is an award-winning writer and has been covering sports in Connecticut and New England for more than 40 years. He was inducted into the New England High School Wrestling Hall of Fame in 2018.

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