MINNEAPOLIS -- Kenisha Bell cannot wait to hear the Williams Arena roar Friday night, Nov. 9, when the Minnesota Gophers women’s basketball team plays its first game under the tutelage of former star player Lindsay Whalen.
But the senior point guard from Minneapolis had bad news for family and friends hitting her up for tickets. The game against New Hampshire is sold out. The Gophers women are prepared to play host to the first crowd of 14,000-plus fans since Whalen transformed the program from an afterthought into a powerhouse in the mid-2000s.
“I think it’s going to be crazy,” Bell said Thursday. “I’ve been thinking about it since we first found out it’s sold out. I’m just excited.”
Williams Arena is poised to become a big tent again under Whalen, who retired from the WNBA’s Minnesota Lynx this summer as the most decorated women’s basketball player in Minnesota history.
“I always hoped at some point I would work my way back here,” Whalen said. “I’m just really thankful and really appreciative of the opportunity and the timing for it all to work out because this is where I’ve had so many great memories and it feels like home.”
At risk of falling is the all-time Minnesota women’s basketball attendance record of 14,363, set during Whalen’s senior year against Penn State. There have only been two games in program history to crest the 14,000 mark, and both were during Whalen’s tenure.
“It’s just something special about this building, that when it’s full and people are in to it, that there’s just a certain energy that when you’re the home team it gives you a distinct advantage,” Whalen said.
The Gophers are coming off a 24-9 season under former coach Marlene Stollings in which they finished 11-5 in the Big Ten and advanced to the second round of the NCAA tournament before losing 101-73 to Oregon.
Four of their top five scorers return, including Bell and forward Destiny Pitts. Both were named to the media’s preseason all-Big Ten team. The Gophers were picked to finish third in the conference behind front-runner Maryland and Iowa.
Whalen has been fielding texts and phone calls from former coaches and teammates. Lynx players Sylvia Fowles and Seimone Augustus are expected to be in attendance for the opener.
“I didn’t know that Syl and Seimone were going to fly in for the game,” Whalen said. “The fact they’re doing that just shows how when you do something special together you really become family, where you’re willing to take a weekend and fly up here for a game.”
Whalen was, according to her former Gophers coach, Pam Borton, a “once-in-a-lifetime player,” who transcended gender while elevating the program to national prominence in the early 2000s.
The slashing playmaker was the first Gophers athlete to have a bobblehead doll, which quickly sold out. Her No. 13 jersey was the most popular at the school store and eventually was retired.
Whalen led Minnesota to its only women’s Final Four in 2004, when gross ticket sales soared past $1 million and almost matched the program’s operating budget of $1.5 million. Only football, men’s basketball and men’s hockey could boast that.
Whalen’s first Big Ten home game on Jan. 4, 2001 was a 79-76 loss to Indiana. There were 1,107 fans at the tiny Sports Pavilion. When she graduated three years later, the Gophers regularly were filling up Williams Arena.
The Hutchinson, Minn., native was a three-time All-American, an Academic All-American and 2002 Big Ten Player of the Year. Whalen finished her career with 2,285 points, more than any male or female Gophers basketball player before Rachel Banham surpassed her in 2015-16.
Those are the cold, hard facts. But Whalen’s impact is measured in the emotional connection she forged with the campus and fans captivated by her on-court combination of hard-nosed play and pure joy as a creative and productive guard.
She paired with center Janel McCarville to form a potent scoring tandem that in 2002 sparked Minnesota to its first NCAA tournament appearance in a decade. A year later they won 25 games for the first time in school history and advanced to the Sweet 16.
Whalen was drafted fourth overall in the 2004 WNBA draft by Connecticut and helped lead the Sun to the WNBA Finals her first two seasons, finishing runner-up to league MVP Candace Parker in 2008.
In 2010 the Lynx traded for Whalen, bringing the prodigal daughter back to the state, where she helped transform a mediocre franchise into a dynasty.
Three WNBA championships in five years highlighted a Lynx career that also saw her reunite with McCarville in 2015. One is hard-pressed to identify a more mutually fulfilling bond between a community and professional athlete than that of Whalen with Minnesota basketball fans.
“When I played I was never going to be the fastest one or have the best jump shot but I knew I was always going to be one of the toughest players in the gym no matter what,” she said. “I was going to do everything for my team to win. So I want us to have that edge and toughness where we’re all in this together and are going to figure out a way to get this done.”