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

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

Whalen’s story is just one of many that explain how Minneapolis, home of the 2022 Women’s Final Four, has become one of the nation’s most fervent women’s basketball communities. Connecticut, Phoenix and Columbia, SC are also hotbeds of the women’s game, but Minneapolis stands out for the breadth of its women’s basketball ecosystem – and because every major men’s professional league is also represented in the city. meaning an enthusiasm for the women’s game can’t be condescendingly attributed to a lack of options.

“Lindsay Whalen said to me, ‘Hey, you build this thing and win, people will come,’ Lynx coach Cheryl Reeve said of her and Whalen’s first season with the team in 2010. “Lindsay was right. People didn’t let go. »

The last time the Final Four was in Minneapolis, in 1995, the WNBA didn’t exist. Twenty-seven years later, the nation’s top women’s college basketball teams will face off on the same field where the Minnesota Lynx have averaged more than 9,000 fans per game since 2012, placing the team consistently among top WNBA teams in attendance.

No NCAA Women’s Tournament game has ever been played on a WNBA field, so it’s the city’s good fortune to have a standout homegrown player in the Final Four. UConn sophomore guard Paige Bueckers first became a star at Hopkins High School in the Minneapolis suburb of Minnetonka, helping cement that school’s reputation as a destination for girls’ basketball.

“All of a sudden you had this phenomenon, this kid that everyone had seen on social media with all these fancy passes and fancy moves,” said Hopkins head coach Tara Starks and the former coach of the Bueckers Amateur Athletic Union. school career.

Her homecoming was one of the biggest tournament stories so far, adding another chapter to Minnesota women’s basketball lore. Starks is busy writing the next one, with Hopkins players signed to Stanford, Arizona and, naturally, Minnesota.

According to a recent Associated Press analysis, Minnesota has the most female high school basketball players per capita in the nation. Thanks in part to the area’s high school and youth basketball scenes, Whalen was able to recruit Minnesota’s 10th-best class of 2022 in the nation, according to ESPN — a class filled entirely with players from around the Twin Cities.

“From the Lynxes 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 ‘ve lived in Connecticut,” said Minnesota assistant Carly Thibault-DuDonis, whose father, Mike Thibault, coached the Connecticut Sun and currently coaches the Washington Mystics, both of the WNBA. “I can see that we recruiting that the level of talent is so strong here,” she added.

Part of the motivation for young players, according to their coaches, is that the proximity and success of the Lynx makes playing in the WNBA seem both 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 ambitious. They are one of only five franchises in the league to share owners and arenas with NBA teams, but it was always a battle to get practice facilities and promotion that came close to what their male counterparts received. Rebekkah Brunson, who played on the team for nine years and is now an assistant coach, remembers when practice was held in the small basement yard at Target Center.

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

This weekend, Final Four attendees passed a team store that sold Lynx and Timberwolves gear and displayed a slew of Lynx and Timberwolves logos. This parity is the result of a concerted effort toward what Reeve calls “double branding.”

“A lot of times when you go to a city that has professional men’s teams, the women’s sports are drowned out,” Reeve said. “But you will notice that if you are in our training center, wherever you see a wolf’s head, you will see a lynx’s head. It’s a messenger that doesn’t cost very much, but it’s priceless.

To get the leverage to push these kinds of changes, the Lynx had to have fans. Some of the most loyal fans identify as part of the LGBTQ community.

It’s taken the WNBA a long time to embrace LGBTQ fans and players. Pride Night has only been on the Lynx schedule since 2012. As Reeve said, for the Lynx and the rest of the WNBA teams, there was a feeling in the early years that “if they think we are too gay, they could take that away from us.

But when the onset of corporate interest in the WNBA faded around 2002, the presence of the LGBTQ community at games in Minneapolis and elsewhere often remained constant.

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

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

“When you exist as a minority compared to the general population, you learn to seek out other people who might be your people,” said Mauter, who is queer. “That’s true wherever you go. This is true when you enter Target Center. On some level, you say to yourself, ‘I can see that my people are here.’ »

Mauter said she felt the team’s and the league’s discomfort with its LGBTQ fan base. “It’s erasure,” she said. “As you know, we’re here and we’re keeping this team afloat by buying tickets. The least you can do is acknowledge that we exist.

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

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

Augustus set a precedent for activism within the Lynx, whose players became the first professional athletes to join Black Lives Matter protests in 2016. there and voice their opinion – I’m really proud of the fact that it’s our team, the Minnesota Lynx,” Mauter said.

Since then, the team and the league have worked harder on inclusion. “I think they’ve really reached out to LGBTQ people in a lot of meaningful and genuine ways,” said Monica Meyer, who stepped down last year after leading OutFront Minnesota, the largest LGBTQ+ advocacy organization in state for more than a decade. “They tried to make sure the space is really welcoming and assertive.”

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

“I hope anyone who comes to town for the Final Four can feel how much Minneapolis truly appreciates female athletes,” Brunson said. “Let everyone feel respected and appreciated.”

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