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Women’s Basketball Is Flourishing in Minnesota, Home of the Final 4

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Update: South Carolina beat UConn to win its second national championship.

MINNEAPOLIS — Visitors walking out of the bags claim area on the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport this weekend were greeted by an area celebrity. “Welcome to Minneapolis,” said Lindsay Whalen, in a recorded message broadcast over the loudspeaker. Whalen is a Minnesota native who helped lift the University of Minnesota women’s basketball team to its only Final 4 in 2004 and who was a core piece of the Minnesota Lynx’s dynasty that won 4 championships. Today, she is the pinnacle coach of the University of Minnesota Golden Gophers and a part of the 2022 Naismith Hall of Fame class.

Whalen’s story is just certainly one of many that specify how Minneapolis, which is hosting the 2022 women’s Final 4, became certainly one of the country’s most fervent women’s basketball communities. Connecticut, Phoenix and Columbia, S.C., are also hotbeds of the ladies’s game, but Minneapolis is distinctive due to breadth of its women’s basketball ecosystem — and since all of the main men’s skilled leagues are also represented in town, meaning enthusiasm for the ladies’s game can’t be patronizingly attributed to a dearth of options.

“Lindsay Whalen told me, ‘Hey, you construct this thing and win, people will come,’” Lynx Coach Cheryl Reeve said of her and Whalen’s first season with the team in 2010. “Lindsay was right. People haven’t let go.”

The last time the Final 4 was in Minneapolis, in 1995, the W.N.B.A. didn’t exist. Twenty-seven years later, the most effective women’s college basketball teams within the country will compete on the identical court where the Minnesota Lynx have drawn a mean of over 9,000 fans a game since 2012, placing the team consistently among the many top squads within the W.N.B.A. in attendance.

No N.C.A.A. women’s tournament game has ever been played on a W.N.B.A. court, so it’s just town’s good luck that an impressive local player is featured within the Final 4. The UConn sophomore guard Paige Bueckers first became a star at Hopkins High School within the Minneapolis suburb of Minnetonka, helping cement that faculty’s status as a girls’ basketball destination.

“Unexpectedly, you had this phenom, this kid that everyone had seen on social media with all these fancy passes and fancy moves,” Tara Starks, the pinnacle coach at Hopkins and Bueckers’s former Amateur Athletic Union coach, said of Bueckers’s highschool profession.

Her homecoming has been certainly one of the most important stories of the tournament thus far, adding one other chapter to Minnesota women’s basketball lore. Starks is busy writing the subsequent one, with Hopkins players committed to Stanford, Arizona and, naturally, Minnesota.

In response to a recent Associated Press evaluation, Minnesota has essentially the most girls’ highschool basketball players per capita within the country. Thanks partially to the world’s highschool and youth basketball scenes, Whalen was capable of recruit to Minnesota the tenth best 2022 class within the nation, in line with ESPN — a category filled entirely with players from across the Twin Cities.

“From the Lynx to the Gophers to highschool basketball after which the investment in youth basketball, the support for ladies’s basketball here is a few of the most effective I’ve ever seen — and I lived in Connecticut,” said the Minnesota assistant Carly Thibault-DuDonis, whose father, Mike Thibault, coached the Connecticut Sun and currently coaches the Washington Mystics, each of the W.N.B.A. “I can see as we recruit that the talent level is so strong here,” she added.

A part of the motivation for younger players, in line with their coaches, is that the proximity and success of the Lynx make playing within the W.N.B.A. seem each tangible and desirable. “They discuss it on a regular basis,” Starks said. “‘I need to get to the league. I need to play within the W.N.B.A.’”

The Lynx didn’t at all times seem aspirational, though. They’re certainly one of only five of the league’s 12 franchises that share owners and arenas with N.B.A. teams, nevertheless it was still a battle to get practice facilities and promotion that got here near what their male counterparts received. Rebekkah Brunson, who played on the team for nine years and is now an assistant coach, remembers when practice was held within the small court within the basement of the Goal Center.

“Winning got here first,” Brunson said. “After which eventually, we got to some extent where you saw a little bit bit more of that equal footprint. However it took some time.”

This weekend, Final 4 attendees walked by a team store that sold Lynx and Timberwolves gear and displayed a slew of Lynx and Timberwolves logos. That parity is a results of a concerted effort toward what Reeve calls “dual branding.”

“A number of times if you go to a city that has skilled men’s teams, the ladies’s sports get drowned out,” Reeve said. “But you’ll notice that when you’re in our practice facility, anywhere you see a Wolves head, you’ll see a Lynx head. It’s messaging that doesn’t cost very much, nevertheless it’s priceless.”

To get the leverage to push for those sorts of changes, the Lynx needed to have fans. Among the most steadfast of those fans identified as a part of the L.G.B.T.Q. community.

It took time for the W.N.B.A. to embrace L.G.B.T.Q. fans and players. Pride Night has been a part of the Lynx’s schedule only since 2012. As Reeve put it, for the Lynx and the remaining of the W.N.B.A.’s teams there was the sense through the early years that, “in the event that they think we’re too gay, they may take this away from us.”

But when the early surge of corporate interest within the W.N.B.A. receded around 2002, the presence of the L.G.B.T.Q. community at games in Minneapolis and elsewhere often remained constant.

“I’m thankful that that base never left us,” Reeve said. “Because the best way that it was initially, that will have been comprehensible.”

Erica Mauter moved to Minneapolis in 2004, and commenced attending Lynx games almost immediately.

“While you exist as a minority relative to the overall population, you learn to search for other individuals who is likely to be your people,” said Mauter, who’s queer. “That’s true in every single place you go. That’s true if you walk into Goal Center. On some level, you’re like, ‘I can see that my persons are here.’”

Mauter said she felt the team’s and league’s discomfort with its L.G.B.T.Q. fan base. “That is erasure,” she said. “Such as you guys know we’re here and we’re keeping this team afloat by buying tickets. The least you can do is acknowledge that we exist.”

Seimone Augustus, who led the Lynx to their first title in 2011, helped push the team and league into motion when she got here out to the general public in 2012 with the thought of using her influence to advocate marriage equality.

“The athletes showed the courage,” Reeve said. “And that happens loads.”

Augustus set a precedent for activism throughout the Lynx, whose players became the primary skilled athletes to join the Black Lives Matter protests in 2016. “Seimone coming out as an individual, the team as a gaggle coming into their advocacy and their willingness to get on the market and speak their mind — I’m really happy with the proven fact that it’s our team, the Minnesota Lynx,” Mauter said.

Since then, the team and the league have worked harder on inclusion. “I feel that they’ve really reached out to L.G.B.T.Q. people in numerous meaningful and authentic ways,” said Monica Meyer, who stepped down last 12 months after leading OutFront Minnesota, the state’s largest L.G.B.T.Q.+ advocacy organization, for over a decade. “They’ve tried to ensure that that the space is absolutely welcoming and affirming.”

The Lynx’s basketball success and the team’s evolution off the court helped construct on what Whalen had already achieved on the University of Minnesota.

“I hope that everyone who comes into town for the Final 4 can feel how much Minneapolis really values female athletes,” Brunson said. “That everyone feels respected and appreciated.”

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