The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Lindsay Whalen and Mike Thibault are like family. The Lynx-Mystics finale will be a reunion.

Lindsay Whalen has won 322 games, more than any player in WNBA history. (Jerry Holt/Star Tribune via Associated Press)

In the winter of 2006, far from her parents and siblings in Minnesota, farther from her teammates who were scattered across Europe and Asia, and laid up in Connecticut under strict doctor’s orders to nurse her left ankle that had just been surgically repaired, Lindsay Whalen needed a family.

Someone had to make sure the 23-year-old was remembering to take her meds on time, so Nanci Thibault, the wife of Mike Thibault, Whalen’s coach with the Connecticut Sun, stepped up. Then there was the void left by Whalen’s younger siblings back home — someone had to help her scratch her competitive itch, so the Thibaults’ teenage children, Eric and Carly, sat around the kitchen table and trash-talked with Whalen through heated games of Jenga. Watching NBA games wasn’t much fun alone, so Whalen made herself at home and talked through them with Mike after dinner.

“She had her own apartment, but you would have sworn she lived at our house,” Mike Thibault said.

That winter, Whalen became something like the fifth member of the Thibault family.

How serendipitous, then, that the Minnesota Lynx point guard will play against Thibault and his current team, the Washington Mystics, on Sunday evening in Minneapolis for the final regular season game of her professional career.

Whalen announced Monday that she will retire at the end of this WNBA season to focus on leading the women’s basketball program at her alma mater, Minnesota. She will face off one last time against the man who drafted her fourth overall in 2004, built a franchise around her in Connecticut and coached her for the first six seasons of what has become one of the most outstanding careers in WNBA history.

“Right from the start we had a great connection,” Whalen said Saturday afternoon in a phone interview. “He taught me how to be a pro.”

'She's the greatest winner'

In her 15th season, Whalen, 36, has become one of the standard bearers for the WNBA. She has won 322 regular season games, more than any player in league history, and four championships. She was the first player in WNBA history to reach 5,000 career points, 2,000 assists and 1,500 rebounds. She won two Olympic gold medals with Team USA.

Beyond that, Whalen got a hockey state invested in women’s basketball. She took the Golden Gophers to the Final Four her senior year, during which the average attendance at Williams Arena was 9,866 — about 2,000 more than WNBA games averaged last season. The first time Whalen returned to play in Minnesota with the Sun, a crowd of 16,227 came out to see her, setting a franchise attendance record at the time.

“I think her and Sue Bird and Ticha Penicheiro as of right now are going down as the three greatest point guards in the history of the league,” Thibault said, noting the only two players with more career assists than Whalen’s 2,339. “She’s the greatest winner in the league. She’s won the most games. She’s won championships. She’ll go straight to the Hall of Fame. What she’s done is galvanized a state around a basketball program. It’s wonderful.”

That power to lead is what Thibault noticed most when he started scouting Whalen during her junior year in college, which was also his first year in the WNBA. Thibault, who also hails from Minnesota, saw a good ballhandler and reliable scorer who changed directions on the basketball court like she was a hockey player, which Whalen was growing up.

“Part of me wanted to stay home, but I knew that it was going to be best to go out and learn a new area and really grow up,” Whalen said. “He and his family have become a second family to me. That’s how he is. He’s family-oriented. He’s all about making sure people are happy and doing well off the court and doing well on the court.”

Thibault wanted Whalen as the centerpiece of his franchise, just as she had been in college at Minnesota. But the role in the pros was different. Though she found her voice early on as a young point guard, she was humbled her rookie year in the WNBA finals when Seattle picked her out as her team’s defensive weakness. She learned how to take care of her body in the offseason and weather the highs and lows of professional basketball.

The winter she was recovering from surgery, after her second season, she started watching Eric Thibault at his high school basketball games. She became a role model for Carly, who grew up with her father’s Sun team.

Whalen fit right in with the family, who look back fondly on that time in Connecticut, when the kids were around and big, boisterous dinners with players were a regular occurrence.

“This was 15 years ago. We were all younger,” Nanci Thibault said. “We were all just growing up, doing it, raising each other up.”

“Lindsay would go to Eric’s games and get just as mad at the refs as I would,” Mike Thibault added. “It was just that relationship, and she became kind of an older sister role model for Carly. She just fit. I don’t know anything else to say about it. Some people do and some people don’t. She just did.”

A fitting send-off

During her career in Connecticut, Whalen spoke frankly with her coach about her desire to finish her career in Minnesota if they could ever find the right time for a trade.

That moment arrived in 2010. Thibault needed to rebuild in Connecticut and Minnesota needed a point guard capable of taking it to the next level, so the Lynx traded the No. 1 overall pick in that year’s draft and Renee Montgomery for Whalen and the No. 2 pick.

“It was the perfect storm,” Thibault said.

Whalen didn’t lose touch with the Thibaults after heading back to Minnesota. She is still in regular communication with the family and she makes time for dinner with them whenever their paths cross. Mike Thibault wasn’t surprised when Whalen decided to retire, but he was pleased she sent him a text before making her official announcement.

Whalen also hired Carly, now Carly Thibault-DuDonis, away from her assistant coaching position at Mississippi State to join her staff with the Golden Gophers. (Eric Thibault is an assistant coach with the Mystics.)

“Just having that trust and familiarity with her and knowing how hard she works,” Whalen said, “it’s another reason I wanted to bring her up here.”

The Thibaults will all be in town Sunday in what is expected to be a packed Target Center. There are postseason stakes for the Mystics (22-11), who would earn the second seed and a double bye into the playoff semifinals if they win and Atlanta loses at Las Vegas on Sunday. The defending champion Lynx (17-16) are headed to the postseason, but they are locked into the seventh seed and will play a single-elimination first-round game, meaning there is no guarantee Whalen will have another home game.

Thibault knows the night will be special no matter the outcome. Whalen has asked him to speak at the game.

“The best part is I don’t have to be as sad as everybody else,” Thibault said. “All those people in Minnesota are going to be sad, until they go to Gophers games. Then they’ll be all right.”

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