Even in announcing her retirement, classic Minnesotan Lindsay Whalen never falters

Lindsay Whalen starred at the University of Minnesota from 2000-04, leading the Golden Gophers to their first Final Four, then helped the Minnesota Lynx win four WNBA titles. Aaron Lavinsky/Star Tribune via AP

MINNEAPOLIS -- The word leaked out shortly after breakfast, on a hot and steamy day in the Twin Cities. Not that anyone was surprised. Lindsay Whalen hasn't been The Great Lindsay Whalen for a while now, and most Minnesota Lynx fans expected a retirement announcement since the afternoon in April when Whalen accepted the head-coaching job at her alma mater, the University of Minnesota.

The twin responsibilities of getting a college program organized amid the rigors of a condensed WNBA schedule proved monumental. But long before that opportunity came along, Whalen thought about retirement. She considered walking away after last season, after she put the Lynx on her shoulders and willed them past the Los Angeles Sparks in Games 4 and 5 of the WNBA Finals, securing Minnesota's fourth WNBA title in seven years.

But Lynx coach Cheryl Reeve wanted her back, and Whalen wanted one more season with Seimone Augustus and Rebekkah Brunson and Maya Moore and Sylvia Fowles, one more pursuit of a championship with the teammates she had grown to love and cherish.

It hasn't gone well. It didn't take long for Whalen -- the best point guard the state of Minnesota ever produced, regardless of gender -- to realize it was time. Whalen kept it quiet until Monday morning, when the Lynx issued a retirement announcement on her behalf. A few hours later, Whalen, 36, took questions at a news conference alongside Reeve, her coach, general manager and close friend.

It was classic both of them. An emotional Reeve cried start to finish and left the Mayo Clinic Square practice site with tear stains on her gray, Lynx golf shirt. Whalen, meanwhile, never faltered, cracking wise and name-checking virtually every teammate, coach, Lynx staffer and relative in attendance. Whalen also gave a sardonic and laugh-out-loud shout-out to her absent husband, Ben Greve, who is off in California competing in the U.S. Amateur golf championship.

Most of all, Whalen thanked the Lynx for trading for her in 2010, bringing her back to her home state to win the WNBA titles that eluded her in two Finals appearances with the Connecticut Sun.

"I hope it worked out," said Whalen, in a plain, navy dress. "I can't thank you guys enough. I couldn't have scripted it any better."

Minnesota is a state notoriously cool to outsiders and fiercely protective of its own. When Minnesotans call someone who grew up here "one of us," it's the highest possible compliment. It means that person embodies the qualities Minnesotans like most about themselves: hard-working and tough but modest -- successful without being showy.

The last part is essential: It's OK to be great, but don't you dare act like you're better than the rest of us. Garrison Keillor irritated many Minnesotans when he moved to New York City; they felt like he abandoned his roots. Whalen, the kid from Hutchinson, left to play for the Sun but longed to return and finally made it happen. Minnesotans love that, and love her for it.

"I mean this: I'll bet she could run for governor and be successful," Reeve said. "To be the state's favorite daughter, one of the all-time greatest sports figures in the history of the state ... she transcends the male/female thing. Lindsay, bar none, male or female, is one of the best basketball players ever [from Minnesota]. Maybe the best. That's pretty incredible. And doing all that, she's become this iconic figure."

Reeve urged Whalen to announce her retirement plans now to take advantage of fortuitous scheduling. The Lynx wrap up the regular season with two games meaningful for Whalen: Thursday night at Connecticut, where Whalen's WNBA career began, and Sunday at home against Washington, coached by Mike Thibault, Whalen's first WNBA coach. (Whalen hired Thibault's daughter, Carly Thibault-DuDonis, as an assistant coach on her Gophers staff.)

And Reeve felt Lynx fans deserved to salute their favorite player. The 17-14 Lynx, seventh in the WNBA standings, have already clinched a playoff spot but might not host a playoff game; that's why the Lynx plan to honor Whalen postgame on Sunday.

Whalen leaves a remarkable legacy. No one has more career wins in the WNBA -- 322 in the regular season -- and only Brunson has been a part of more postseason victories (57) than Whalen's 54. From 2010 to 2017, Whalen won a WNBA title, Olympic gold medal or world championship gold medal every year, a run of success matched only by Moore. The first WNBA player to amass 5,000 points, 2,000 assists and 1,500 rebounds, Whalen's 336 postseason assists is a league record.

She doesn't regret coming back to pursue back-to-back WNBA championships, the only milestone that eluded her. The aging Lynx have struggled, none more than Whalen, who is on track to average the fewest minutes (19.4) and points (5.5) of her 15-year career.

Sunday night against Seattle, Whalen came off the bench for the first time in the WNBA since her first game her rookie year with Connecticut, a move Reeve attributed to Whalen's inability to play extended minutes. Whalen dodged a possible season-ending injury in that loss to Seattle, catching the middle and ring fingers of her left hand in Jordin Canada's jersey. X-rays Monday morning showed nothing broken.

Meanwhile, accolades poured in. LeBron James took to Twitter to congratulate Whalen. WNBA president Lisa Borders called her "one of the greatest players and winners in the history of our league."

An entire generation of Minnesota girls grew up wanting to be Whalen, among them Connecticut's Rachel Banham, who broke Whalen's career scoring record at Minnesota. Via Twitter, Banham saluted Whalen as "the greatest role model" and jokingly asked for a sixth year of college eligibility to play for her.

"I don't think she understands the impact," Reeve said. "I don't think I go anywhere without one, people knowing who the Lynx are, and two, people telling me why they started watching women's basketball, and what she's meant to their interest and maybe their child. Lindsay has had a direct impact on the Minnesota Lynx -- the growth, the rise of the franchise and the impact that it's had, not just on girls, but on boys, as well."

Local sports affiliate Fox Sports North televised the news conference. Afterward, Whalen dragged Augustus and Fowles with her for a live TV interview. Asked what Whalen meant to them, they both started to cry.

"It's hard," Moore said. "I don't want to think about the end of anything. I'm just trying to focus on the celebration of who she is, what she's meant to us and what she continues to be for us. I'm just so thankful we've had such sweet memories together, and I've been blessed to be drafted to a team that had her as the point guard for my whole career. It's not fair to have so many great teammates. She's the heart and soul of this state, and so much the heart and soul of this team."

Minnesotans flocked to Williams Arena to watch Whalen star for the Gophers in the early 2000s. Whalen reprised those days in last year's WNBA Finals against rival Los Angeles, when circumstances forced the Lynx to relocate to Williams for the postseason. (The Target Center was being renovated, and the NHL's Minnesota Wild needed Xcel Energy Center, where the Lynx moved to, for training camp.) In the deciding Game 5, Whalen contributed 17 points and eight assists in the 85-76 victory, eight points and three assists in the fourth quarter. Reeve left her on the floor the full 10 minutes to finish it off. That eased the hurt from the last-second, Game 5 Finals loss to the Sparks the year before.

Earlier in the playoffs, Whalen's role as everyone's big sister came into play. The Lynx were scrimmaging their male practice players at Williams when one of them knocked the rugged Plenette Pierson hard to the floor. The arena fell silent. Whalen helped Pierson up, then weaved through the players on the floor, chilling everyone out, making sure nothing escalated. Then practice proceeded.

"When I was traded back here," Whalen said, "I just wanted to do what I could for the state, represent where I'm from in the greatest manner possible."

That she has.