You rooted for Lindsay Whalen because you couldn't help it

Mohegan — Very few of us truly know the athletes we admire personally. And still in our minds, we are quick to marry the mutually exclusive irrelevancies of success and character — as if one begets the other. They don’t.

Plus, it cheapens the narrative for the rare occasions we actually form friendships with athletes — or people in general — and one day happily realize they’re every bit as real as we could have hoped.

Lindsay Whalen was a ball of humor, humility and humanity in her days here as a guard for the Connecticut Sun. You rooted for her because you couldn’t help it. There were times she had this inimitable genius in making the sun move across the heavens out there on the court — and still crack you up in the locker room or out on the town after the game.

The franchise honored Whalen at halftime of Friday’s game, a night the old days became current events, even if for one night. Whalen returned to toast the past, all while one of the dramatis personae who made the past more fun, Bill Laimbeer, was coaching the other team, as he had many times in Neon Uncasville leading the nemesis known as the Detroit Shock.

Does Whalen still have a soft spot for her old digs? You decide:

“All my dad and I have been talking about is where we’re going to eat and drink when we got here,” she said before Friday’s game. “We have Saturday planned. The Spot (in Groton) for lobster bisque and then we have reservations in Mystic at night. My mom said to me ‘we’re never going to have time to go to all these places you want to go.’”

Whalen never played a game here for anyone other than Mike Thibault, the coach in Washington now, the man who led the Sun twice to the WNBA Finals. The Sun were a big family in those days. Maybe that’s why we always joked Whalen was the “fifth Thibault,” joining Mike, Nanci, Eric and Carly.

Nobody knew the blessings the universe had in mind the day Thibault traded Whalen to Minnesota. Eric has become his dad’s associate head coach, while Carly — Whalen’s de facto little sister growing up — has become Whalen’s top assistant at the University of Minnesota.

The fifth Thibault indeed.

“It was so many things about her,” Mike Thibault was saying Friday from Chicago, where the Mystics were playing. “Her sense of humor. There is no pretense about her. She competed every day. Didn’t care about stats. All she cared about was playing the right way and being a good teammate. She always knew what we needed.”

Thibault called her “one of three or four best point guards ever” in women’s basketball. She owns four WNBA titles and two Olympic Gold medals. But it always comes back to who she is and not what she’s done.

On the day she was traded, this is what they said about her:

Media relations manager Bill Tavares: “She's like a kid sister. Probably as good a human being as you could possibly get to know who is completely and totally unimpressed with her fame.”

Nanci Thibault, who held back tears describing Whalen's “sweaty postgame hugs” after big wins. Nanci said, “Lindsay is like one of my own kids.”

Sun president Mitchell Etess: “She was the guts of our franchise. She represented what the Connecticut Sun has been to people.”

John Altavilla of the Hartford Courant, who has covered the NHL and NFL in his many years doing this, wrote, "Listen, everyone associated with the Sun — the coaches, management, fans and media — love Lindsay Whalen to death because she's a great player, a wonderful ambassador for the league and a tremendous, fun-loving person. On a personal level, I have never enjoyed writing about a player as much in my career as Lindsay, as accommodating a pro athlete as can be.”

Among the reasons for the hosannas: She always made us laugh. Whalen has a Ph.D. in practical jokes and deadpans, often using Tavares, the media relations manager at the time, as her foil.

In 2004, Whalen was an intern for the University of Minnesota athletic communications office. She needed a women's basketball writer's phone number. But saw an opportunity. She called Tavares while still in Minnesota.

Whalen: “Hey, Bill. Lindsay. I'm here at the train station in New Haven for the press conference today. Anyone here to pick me up yet?”

Tavares: “Press conference?”

Whalen: “Now's not the day to mess with me, Bill. I just took a train from New York after a four-hour flight from Minnesota.”

Tavares yammered and stammered, barking to anyone in the Sun offices who'd listen. Picture the panicked soul, about to speed to New Haven, running like a tardy commuter chasing the local 7:07. Untucked shirt tail flapping, one arm in his coat ...

“Hey! Who told Lindsay we had a press conference?” he howled.

That's when he heard the giggling on the other end of the phone.

He'd been had.

“Just kidding,” Whalen said. “Do you have Mel Greenberg's number?”

Or there was the time in Houston when Whalen and teammate Jess Brungo were off to dinner. Whalen approached the concierge in the team hotel.

“I figured she was getting directions,” Brungo said.

Whalen: “Sir, there's a turtle in my room. It's huge! It takes up half the bed! It's ...

Concierge: “My gosh, ma'am, I'm so sorry ... I'm so sorry ... I'm ...”

He was flustered.

Finally, Whalen gave in.

Whalen: “Sorry, guy. How do you get to the California Pizza Kitchen?”

Maybe now you know why some of us miss Lindsay Marie Whalen Greve every single day here. But then, as Dr. Seuss said, “don’t cry because it’s over. Smile because it happened.”

This is the opinion of Day sports columnist Mike DiMauro

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