The girl is back in town

Dan Miller

Readers of the Twin Cities’ City Pages recently chose Lindsay Whalen as the 2004 “Best Local Girl Made Good.”

More than 14,000 fans will file into Target Center today to see just how “good” she has made.

The University’s all-time leading basketball scorer will make her home-state professional debut as her Connecticut Sun take on the Minnesota Lynx at noon.

Target Center officials said they expect more than 14,000 fans for today’s game. The largest crowd to see the Lynx at the Target Center was 14,171 in 1999.

“It’s been a zoo down here,” Lynx ticket sales manager Bryant Pfeiffer said. “We can’t say it all has to do with Lindsay, but she has made an impact.”

Whalen has already made an impact in her short WNBA career.

Sunday night, in a 65-61 win over the Indiana Fever, she led the Connecticut Sun in scoring and helped the team to its seventh win in eight games. The Sun (11-8) are tied for first place in the WNBA’s eastern conference.

Whalen is averaging 8.5 points per game and is second in the league in assists per game with 5.7.

With her success as point guard, Whalen has made friends quickly.

“She has been well adopted,” Sun coach Mike Thibault said. “After the NCAA tournament, many Connecticut fans got to know her.”

Only three months ago, the Hutchinson, Minn. native had the entire state buzzing during the Gophers’ NCAA Tournament run. Fans filled Williams Arena to the brim and local apparel stores couldn’t stock enough maroon and gold Whalen jerseys.

After the tournament and a trip to the Final Four in New Orleans, Whalen’s market value exploded.

The Sun selected Whalen with the fourth overall pick in the draft on April 17.

Lynx officials said at the time they wanted to keep Whalen in Minnesota and it was rumored that trade talks had taken place between the Lynx and the Sun.

But Thibault said Tuesday the rumors were just rumors.

“There was never anything concrete ever offered,” he said. “(To draft Whalen) was our focus in our off-season … we thought about doing it from the day our season ended. It was important.”

With the Lynx drawing what could be a record crowd today at Target Center, the question inevitably arises whether acquiring Whalen could have sold more tickets to every Lynx home game.

The Lynx have only averaged 5,790 fans in their first 11 games this season. They averaged 7,024 fans per game last season. Lynx officials did say that attendance numbers tend to rise as the season progresses.

The Sun said they have already felt Whalen’s impact.

Bill Tavarus, public relations director for the Sun, said that WNBA teams have policies not to talk about season ticket sales. But he added there was a “real good rush” on ticket sales after the team drafted Whalen in April.

“Even the day of the draft, the hour after we took (Whalen), our phones were ringing for season tickets,” Thibault said.

With her picture now dominating the right side of the Sun’s website, marketing Whalen appears to have already begun.

Tavarus said the organization has focused on marketing the entire team, not just Whalen. But he did say that she is a visible player on the team and she will likely be an advertising focus in the future.

“Obviously she is the center of attention at point guard and has done a lot of good things for us,” Tavarus said. “We haven’t centered any marketing campaign around her yet, I mean, that will probably come.”

Monday, Whalen took some promotion into her own hands. Her agent Chris Murray organized an autograph session at Mall of America where her signature ran at $20 a pop.

Whalen said that type of experience was new for her but said she has been involved in community service activities in Connecticut.

On July 1, she was invited to speak to girls at a local basketball camp in Waltham, Mass.

“It feels good to get out and see the kids and get involved with the community,” Whalen said.

Whether it is season ticket sales, autographs or community activities, Minnesota coach Pam Borton said people have always responded positively toward Whalen.

“Lindsay has always been very down-to-earth,” Borton said.

Borton said that people have always responded to her humble attitude. With the number of people making their way to Target Center in the middle of a workday, it appears Borton is on to something.

But the girl who made good just wants to play.

“It’s been nice to be back and I’ve seen a lot of friends, family and fans,” she said. “But obviously (today) we have the game and that is my first priority.”