Minnesota, the mecca of women’s basketball, is having its moment

Update: South Carolina Beat UConn To win the second championship of the country

MINNEAPOLIS – Visitors arriving from the pickup area at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport was welcomed by a local celebrity this weekend. “Welcome to Minneapolis,” Lindsay Whalen said in a recorded message played over the loudspeaker. Whalen is a Minnesota native who helped the University of Minnesota women’s basketball team reach the Final Four in 2004 and was a key member of the Minnesota Lynx dynasty that won four championships. Today, he 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 will host the Women’s Final Four in 2022, became one of the most passionate women’s basketball communities in the country. Connecticut, Phoenix and Columbia, S.C., are also hotbeds of the women’s game, but Minneapolis stands out because of the breadth of its women’s basketball ecosystem — and because all the major men’s professional leagues are also in the city, meaning enthusiasm for The women’s game cannot be patronizingly attributed to a lack of options.

Lynx coach Cheryl Reeve said of her and Whelan’s first season with the team in 2010: “Lindsey Whelan told me, ‘Hey, you build this thing and win, people will come.'” People haven’t let up. “

The last time the Final Four was held in Minneapolis, in 1995, there was no WNBA. Twenty-seven years later, the best women’s college basketball teams in the nation will be competing on the same court where the Minnesota Lynx have averaged more than 9,000 fans per game since 2012, making the team consistently among the WNBA’s top picks this year. Presence.

No NCAA Women’s Tournament game has ever been played on a WNBA court, so it’s just a stroke of luck for the city to have a prominent local player in the Final Four. UConn sophomore guard Paige Bookers first became a star at Hopkins High School in the Minneapolis suburb of Minnetonka, helping to cement the school’s reputation as a girls’ basketball destination.

“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,” Tara Starks, a former head coach at Hopkins and former Bookers Alumni Association coach, said of Bookers’ performance. ” school job

Her homecoming has been one of the biggest stories of the tournament so far, adding another chapter to Minnesota women’s basketball lore. Starks is writing the next installment, and Hopkins players are committed to Stanford, Arizona and, of course, Minnesota.

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

“From the Lynx to the Gophers to high school basketball and then investing 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,” Minnesota assistant Carly Thibault said. Dodonis, whose father, Mike Thibault, coached the Connecticut Sun and currently coaches the Washington Mystics, both in the WNBA.

According to their coaches, part of the motivation for the younger players 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 go to the league. I want to play in the WNBA.

The lynx didn’t always seem wishy-washy, though. They are one of only five of the league’s 12 franchises to share owners and arenas with NBA teams, but it was still a battle to get practice facilities and promotions close to what their male counterparts received. Rebecca Branson, who played for the team for nine years and is now an assistant coach, remembers when practices were held on the small basement floor of the Target Center.

“Winning came first,” Branson said. And then finally, we got to the point where you saw a little bit more of that equal footing. But it took a while.”

This weekend, Final Four attendees walked past a team store that sold Lynx and Timberwolves gear, displaying some of the Lynx and Timberwolves logos. This parity is the result of a concerted effort at what Rio calls “dual branding.”

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

To gain the leverage for those kinds of changes, Lynx would have to have fans. Some of the most die-hard fans identify as part of the LGBTQ community.

It took time for the WNBA to embrace LGBTQ fans and players. Pride night has only been part of the Lyngush program since 2012. As Reeve put it, there was a sense for the Lynx and the rest of the WNBA in the early years that “if they think we’re too gay, they might as well take it away from us.”

But when the initial surge of corporate interest in the WNBA waned around 2002, the presence of the LGBTQ community at games in Minneapolis and elsewhere often remained flat.

“I’m thankful that base never left us,” Reeve said. “For as it was at first, it was understood.”

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

“When you exist as a minority relative to the general population, you learn to look for other people who might be your people,” says Mauter, who is queer. This is true wherever you go. This is true when you enter the target center. On one level, you say, “I can see that my people are here.”

Mauter said he feels the team’s and the league’s frustration with its LGBTQ fans. “It’s a wipe,” he said. “Like you know we’re here and we keep this team going by buying tickets. The least you can do is acknowledge that we exist.”

Simon Augustus, who led the Lynx to their first championship in 2011, helped the team and the league when he went public in 2012 with the idea of ​​using his influence to support marriage equality.

“The athletes showed their courage,” Rio said. “And it happens a lot.”

Augustus set a record for the Lynx, whose players became the first professional athletes to join Black Lives Matter protests in 2016. Mauter said.

Since then, the team and the league have worked harder to get into the lineup. “I think they’ve really reached out to LGBTQ people in meaningful and authentic ways,” said Monica Meyer, who stepped down last year after leading OutFront Minnesota, the largest LGBTQ+ advocacy organization, for more than a decade. “They’ve tried to make sure the atmosphere is really welcoming and affirming.”

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

“I hope everyone who comes to town for the Final Four can feel how much Minneapolis really values ​​female athletes,” Branson said. “That everyone feels respected and appreciated.”

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