- Mechelle Voepel, espnW.com
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HUTCHINSON, Minn. -- This town is big enough to have three Subway sandwich stores, but small enough that an energetic kid could explore its entirety by bike. Lindsay Whalen used to pedal around here a lot, including to elementary school.
She kept on biking when she went an hour east to college in 2000, at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis.
"I didn't lock up my bike a couple of times at U of M, and of course it got stolen every time. I lost three bikes," Whalen recalled recently at Minneapolis' Target Center, where she plays for the WNBA's Lynx. "Even if you did lock them up, you'd lose them. That's probably true on any campus."
Never happened in Hutch, though.
"Nope, I kept the same bike there," she said.
Of course, this is not to say there has never been a bike theft in Hutchinson, which now has a population of just more than 14,000. There are surely problems in this city, just like anywhere else.
And many of those in high school here now likely see Hutch through their teenaged lenses as relentlessly dull. But to the bifocal view of middle-aged high school reunion-goers, Hutch is surely seen as achingly sweet.
Whalen is between those two extremes; at 29, she's at the height of her basketball skills and has had an MVP-type year in the WNBA. Regardless of how this season ends, she has helped breathe life into the Lynx -- and women's basketball -- in a way that hadn't happened in this state since the last time she did it, with the Minnesota Gophers in a captivating run to the Women's Final Four in 2004.
Talk about aching that's how a lot of folks in Hutch and throughout Minnesota felt when Whalen was drafted by Connecticut in '04 and began her WNBA career so far away from the place where she was loved most.
People here could not fathom it. Why, they wondered, would a team and league that needed all the fan support it could get not find a way to keep the home-state hero at home?
Didn't the Lynx and the WNBA understand some things maybe are once-in-a-lifetime? Didn't they realize that, contrary to the popular saying, most of the time distance makes the heart grow fainter? That the time to cultivate the affection of little girls and tweens -- so many of them wild for Whalen in 2004 -- is at the peak of their passion? Since in six months, let alone six years, their focus might have drifted?
If this seems like crying over spilled milk -- which the practical people of Minnesota would tell you is a waste of time -- we're actually not going to dwell too much on missed opportunities. Besides, who's to say that Whalen would have had the 2011 season she did if things had gone differently in 2004? There's no way to be sure how an only imagined path really would have turned out.
As it is, here's what really happened: Whalen became a statewide folk hero for her Gophers success in 2004, played in two WNBA finals during her Connecticut Sun career from '04-'09, then came back to Minnesota via trade in 2010. The Lynx showed some vigor last summer, but missed the postseason.
This season, the Lynx had the WNBA's best record, 27-7, and made the playoffs for the first time since the year Whalen went to Connecticut.
"I think Lindsay's growth came from actually leaving Minnesota," said Taj McWilliams-Franklin, who played alongside Whalen with the Sun and does again now with the Lynx. "When you come out of your comfort zone, you have to grow as a player and as a person."
Recalled Whalen's mother, Kathy: "A part of us was devastated that she was going to be so far away from home. But in retrospect, I think it was the best thing for her to experience life out there. The spotlight she was in here after college was a little overwhelming. I think she was able to be more herself in Connecticut."
And Whalen says, "It ended up working out well. I got to experience a whole new team, a new part of the country, and I played with a great group of veterans."
All that said, though, there's a reason that the enduring movie line is, "There's no place like home."
Pure, athletic talent
Speaking of films mid-summer releases are still playing at the State Theater just off Main Street in Hutch. Whalen grew up not too far from Main, but when she was in eighth grade, her family made a big move.
"From one side of town to the other," Whalen said. "When I was a kid, there was this group of other kids who would play every sport you could think of. We'd get home from school around 2:45, have a snack and then meet at 3:15 and play until dinner. Whether it was snowing or nice.
"We'd play soccer, basketball, baseball, football, capture the flag, all kinds of stuff. It's a great hometown, good people. There's always a lot of familiar faces. I will go back and have breakfast with my mom and dad at McCormick's, and I'll see people who've worked there since I was in school. It's neat."
One of the main employers in Hutchinson is 3M, and that's where Whalen's parents work. Kathy and Neil are both originally from Grand Forks, N.D. They met in third grade. But Neil didn't propose quite that early.
"He went to a different school for a while, then we re-met in eighth grade," Kathy said. "We were high school sweethearts. So we've been together a lot of years."
Lindsay is the oldest of their five children, the youngest of whom -- Thomas -- is a high school junior now, 12 years behind big sis.
"Lindsay has got a side of her that she doesn't let a whole lot of people see, but she's very funny," Kathy said. "When she used to have to babysit the younger ones, they'd make home movies. Lindsay was the director, and she'd have one of them running the camera. She'd have the others in sumo costumes or something. Sumo wrestling apparently was a big theme of these movies.
"But she's always been very dependable, very mature. I needed her to be, because after Thomas was born, I went back to work and she had to be responsible for babysitting and helping out a lot."
Yep, this sounds like a case of someone who became a point guard because of both nature and nurture. Whalen takes care of things on the court so well perhaps in part by having helped care for -- and be the ringleader for -- her four younger siblings.
Her pure athletic talent was evident to Andy Rostberg, her coach at Hutchinson High, from the time he first saw her in middle school.
"You could tell that she was very competitive, and that she had great court vision," Rostberg said. "She had great agility with the ball out of her hands. And she was very much the kind of kid who wanted to win."
Rostberg was coach of the varsity football team and girls' basketball team at Hutchinson back then. Now, with two young children of his own, he's "just" coaching football. The girls' basketball coach now is Bill Carlson, who was the boys' head coach when Whalen was at the school.
On a chilly September night last week, Carlson was in the Hutchinson gym -- the one Whalen used to pack years ago for her games -- as a group of girls shot baskets. One of them, Nichole Wittman, is a 17-year-old senior and native of Hutchinson who will be going to Northern Illinois to play basketball next year. She's too young to have memories of watching Whalen play here. But Whalen's influence on her is still profound.
"When I was in elementary school, I knew who she was, but didn't really think that much about it," Wittman said. "But then once I started to play, it was like, 'Oh my gosh, she's from here, she went to college to play basketball, she's now in the WNBA.' That's when I really began to think it's possible to come from a smaller town and accomplish whatever you want to.
"And that's when I started working hard on everything, playing all year around. I knew I wanted to play in college. I've gone to see her play for the Lynx quite a few times, and I always think, 'Wow, she's from my hometown.' It makes everyone's dream in Hutch more realistic."
To make this picture of Hutch realistic, though, we must say that even Whalen's presence in Minneapolis doesn't guarantee rapt attention to the Lynx from all during the WNBA season.
This is Minnesota, where there are really only two seasons: winter, and whatever Isn't winter. On the warmest days of the latter, everyone wants to grab the precious opportunity to be outdoors. This is the Land of 10,000 Lakes, after all, and those are especially pleasant when they're not iced over.
Furthermore, Rostberg and Carlson still do lament that Whalen didn't get to play for the Lynx right out of college, to capitalize on the attention she had brought the women's game. So does John Mons, station manager at KDUZ-AM/KARP-FM, who started doing a radio show with Whalen while she was with the Gophers. They wish she had been with the Lynx her whole career. But they're glad she's in Minnesota now.
Mons is a native of Hutchinson who jokes he's been in the area, "about 250 years." He acknowledges that his initial shows with Whalen in her Gophers days were "pretty tough going." Whalen has that laconic, humble, Minnesotan side that was her dominant public personality back then and sometimes still is. The hilarious, dead-pan, one-liner Whalen was always there inside, she just had to feel more comfortable to let it out.
"I told her then, 'You've got to get used to this, because you're going to be talking to a lot of people,'" Mons recalled, smiling. "She's the nicest person in the world and, when you know her, she has a sense of humor that won't quit. She's kind, and she goes out of her way for people, especially with the younger kids."
Mons relishes talking about Whalen's impact on Hutchinson and on girls' and women's athletics in Minnesota and on everyone who gets to know her.
But Whalen speaks with the same praise about the folks in Hutch, a place where some still refer to calling people on the phone as "giving them a jingle."
"In the summer when I was in high school there, I'd go play for four hours in the morning, and Coach Rostberg was always there to help," Whalen said. "We have a great relationship. People like that who just put so much time into your development -- you're so thankful for it.
"I still go back now, and I can call Mr. Carlson at Christmas and say, 'I want to work out.' And he'll open the gym and bring in girls from the team, and they'll rebound for me. I'll shoot for an hour, and we'll talk. It's so cool to have people like that where you know anytime you need anything, they'll be there."
The comforts of being home
Hutchinson is the kind of city that "Twilight Zone" creator Rod Serling kept revisiting in his stories and scripts. His "Hutch" was Binghampton, N.Y., the hometown that in his memory became idyllic.
In the episode "Walking Distance," the Serling-esque lead character is a man in his mid-30s, already world-weary. He magically returns to the town of his childhood and encounters himself as a youngster in what seems an endless, carefree summer. Then his father gently tells the man that he has to return to the present, but to approach it with a new attitude: "Is it so bad there? You've been looking behind you. Try looking ahead."
To her credit, Lindsay Whalen has never been caught up in real or imagined nostalgia. She wasn't bogged down by what did happen and what didn't after her Gophers' career, during which she weathered three coaches. As soon as she was drafted by the Sun, her mind went straight to Connecticut. She enjoyed her time there and competed well for that franchise. She developed into the player she is now.
Yet Whalen and all those in Minnesota who are, in varying degrees, close to her truly appreciate that she's back now. She and her college boyfriend, Gophers golf standout Ben Greve, were married in Hutch in 2008. Minneapolis is where Whalen will spend the rest of her WNBA career.
"It's so nice that we're able to see her play in person as a family," Kathy said. "We have a lot of relatives in the metro area, and it just gives us an opportunity to all get together and watch her. She's still loving the game, and we love it. We just feel really fortunate that she's here."
And Hutchinson will always be there for Whalen.
"Like when I go play overseas, and it seems like I haven't been home forever," Whalen said. "I can't wait to get into Hutch and get to my mom and dad's house. Because it's so familiar, and I have so many memories.
"My favorite time every year is going home and seeing how my mom has decorated our house for Christmas. That's a huge highlight of the whole year. Because you come back, and it's so comforting."
Mechelle Voepel, a regular contributor to ESPN.com, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read her blog at mechellevoepelblog.com.
Lindsay Whalen is at the height of her basketball skills and has had an MVP-type of year in the WNBA. And after returning home to Minnesota in 2010, she again breathed life into the state -- and women's basketball.