MINNEAPOLIS -- Lindsay Whalen stood at the podium, her fingers drumming against the sides, waiting for the standing ovation to subside so she could speak. Minnesota Lynx honored the retiring Whalen in a postgame ceremony Sunday at the Target Center, after the struggling Lynx closed the regular season by beating Washington Mystics 88-83.
Starting Sunday after coming off the bench the previous three games, Whalen contributed a typical Whalen effort: 10 points, six assists, five rebounds and four steals in about 26 minutes. And she saved equally good stuff for the postgame.
Whalen announced her retirement last Monday at a news conference heavy on jokes and wisecracks and light on tears -- as in, Whalen never shed one. Anyone expecting Whalen to get all weepy and emotional Sunday left the Target Center disappointed. Whalen spoke for nearly 20 minutes, thanking everyone she could think of, from her family to the fans and from Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton to Washington's Mike Thibault, her first WNBA coach in Connecticut.
She commanded the room like an actor in an intimate theater, unhurried, without a care in the world. And the announced crowd of 13,013 -- a number perhaps massaged to reflect her uniform No. 13 -- relished every word.
"How much time do I have?" Whalen asked about halfway through her remarks, as if anyone would dare tell Minnesota's favorite daughter to wrap it up.
Only once did Whalen scrunch up her face like she might cry, while Rebekkah Brunson spoke on behalf of the players. Then the moment passed, and Brunson joked about them sharing frothy beverages -- "cappuccinos and lattes," she said, cracking Whalen up. Whalen answered with a story about "ladies lunches" with Brunson on the road, then saluted her as the "heart and soul" of the team, a phrase often used to describe Whalen.
"We enjoyed the show," said Lynx guard Seimone Augustus, who contributed 10 points and five assists to the victory. "What you saw today, and what you saw at the press conference, that's what we saw over the last eight or nine years of her being her. It was only right the way she went out the way she wanted to."
The players wore white T-shirts honoring Whalen in warmups, and Minnesota coach Cheryl Reeve and most of the support staff donned them on the bench.
The Lynx chose to honor Whalen on Sunday, rather than waiting for a playoff game that might not happen.
As the No. 7 seed, the 18-16 Lynx need to win two single-elimination playoff games -- at Los Angeles on Tuesday (ESPN2, 10:30 p.m. ET), then at Connecticut or Washington on Thursday -- to gain another home game in the semifinals, an unlikely scenario given their up-and-down season. Before winning Sunday the Lynx had allowed 91 and 96 points in back-to-back losses to Chicago and Connecticut. Since winning seven straight in midseason, the Lynx are 8-10.
And Sunday's victory came with an asterisk. Washington needed a victory and an Atlanta loss to pass the Dream for the No. 2 seed and a double-bye in the playoffs. By halftime the Mystics learned Atlanta had beaten Las Vegas 93-78, rendering their game meaningless. So Thibault kept All-Stars Elena Delle Donne, Kristi Toliver and the rest of his starters on the bench in the fourth quarter, allowing Minnesota to rally from a 67-65 deficit.
"We couldn't afford to take a chance on somebody getting hurt," Thibault said.
That was fine with Reeve.
"I really didn't care how the W came," she said. "I wanted the W, and for Lindsay, and for our fans. It's Fan Appreciation Day. It went about as well as it could."
Dayton declared Sunday "Lindsay Whalen Day" in Minnesota, an honor her teammates shortened to "Whay Day." They responded with balanced offense, putting six players in double figures, led by Sylvia Fowles' 26 points plus 14 rebounds. Fowles, in particular, wanted to win this for her friend Whalen. That's all Fowles wanted to talk about, though her final rebound gave her the WNBA single-season record of 404, one more than Jonquel Jones grabbed last season.
"Talk to me about it tomorrow," Fowles said of the record. "Today is all about Wheezy [Whalen]. I'm just happy that I had the performance I had, knowing it was all about her. I dedicate everything to Wheezy."
The postgame ceremony featured remarks from Becky Taylor, wife of Lynx and Timberwolves owner Glen Taylor; Brunson; Thibault; and Reeve. Thibault and Whalen are close. When Whalen accepted the head coaching job at the University of Minnesota last spring, she hired Thibault's daughter, Carly Thibault-DuDonis, as an assistant. Thibault, born in St. Paul, coached Sunday in a maroon U of Minnesota tie, and had some fun addressing the crowd. He asked Lynx fans to cut him some slack because he traded Whalen here in 2010, six years after the Sun drafted her fourth overall.
"A lot of people are really sad today," Thibault said. "I'm not sad. Hell no. She's done playing against us."
Then he told fans to go buy Gophers women's basketball season tickets.
"I'm excited to see her this winter," Thibault said after the ceremony. "This would be a whole different feeling if she was retiring from the game. But she has an opportunity in front of her for this to go on for years. It's not as sad as it might have been otherwise."
"I'm excited to see her (coaching Minnesota) this winter. This would be a whole different feeling if she was retiring from the game. But she has an opportunity in front of her for this to go on for years." Mystics coach Mike Thibault on Lindsay Whalen
That, more than anything, explained Whalen's jocular mood. She thanked her parents, Neil and Kathy, and kidded her mother for not wearing a Whalen No. 13 jersey like so many people in the crowd.
"My mom was like, 'I've never worn a jersey to a game and I'm not going to start now,' " Whalen said as the crowd laughed along. "Doesn't she look cute?"
There were shout-outs to Taco John's (a family favorite) and the basketball hoop at her grandparents' lake cabin, namechecks of her four brothers and sisters and husband, Ben Greve, salutes to Reeve, Maya Moore, Augustus ("Without your sacrifices and unselfishness, none of this would have been possible") and Fowles ("One of the nicest people on the planet"). And, finally the fans.
"I feel like we've built this together," she said. "We've built it on rock and roll, and heart and soul. ... Thank you, guys. Keep cheering us on, and hopefully we'll see you back here in a week or so."
Could it happen? Not if the Lynx permit the 50.7 percent shooting the Mystics put up.
Reeve said Whalen struggled emotionally Friday when she returned to Connecticut, where her WNBA career started. But Reeve saw a much more relaxed and effective Whalen on Sunday, which she found encouraging.
"I think you saw a player out there who just wanted to have fun," Reeve said. "Her minutes were good minutes, more valuable minutes. If we're going to do anything in the playoffs, Lindsay is going to be a part of it. I really believe that."