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Minnesota Lynx, a model WNBA franchise, eye another title

  • STAR TRIBUNE VIA AP

    Minnesota Lynx guard Lindsay Whalen scored on a layup and was fouled by Los Angeles Sparks forward Candace Parker, left, during the second half of Game 2 of the WNBA finals on Sept. 26 in Minneapolis.

MINNEAPOLIS >> An 18A city bus stops downtown, flashing “GO LYNX” from its destination sign. An Acura driving outside Williams Arena at the University of Minnesota turns heads with its blue and green panels and a giant Minnesota Lynx logo on the hood. Before a recreational women’s hockey practice in suburban Richfield, players discuss the Lynx, calling them the only local professional sports franchise worth investing their emotions into.

For the sixth time in seven years, the Lynx are in the WNBA finals, where they are tied, 2-2, with the Los Angeles Sparks heading into a decisive Game 5 on Wednesday here. Minnesota hopes to claim its fourth championship trophy since 2011 for a city that is unrivaled in its embrace of women’s professional basketball.

Followers of the league, and even the Lynx’s foes, acknowledge that an engaged ownership and fan base — not to mention the competitive advantage of having a core of Maya Moore, Sylvia Fowles, Lindsay Whalen, Rebekkah Brunson, Seimone Augustus and Renee Montgomery — have made Minnesota the envy of the WNBA.

“I have seen people tend toward saying, ‘We want what you have,’” Lynx coach Cheryl Reeve said. “We understand on the business side probably more than anything that we have a model franchise for others to follow.”

Motioning with her right hand, Reeve added, “If we’re up here and we can pull up the rest of the league and they’re shooting for us from a business standpoint, it’s really, really good.”

When Reeve was hired before the 2010 season, the Lynx had missed the playoffs for five consecutive years. Since their 1999 inaugural season, they had two playoff appearances, never having won a series.

Lackadaisical results equaled dwindling attendance and rumors of relocation. In 2006, the Lynx drew an average attendance under 6,500. They were embodying the worst stereotypes about the business of women’s pro basketball.

Reeve won two WNBA titles as an assistant under Bill Laimbeer with the Detroit Shock, but all that success could not keep the franchise in Michigan. The Shock relocated to Tulsa, Oklahoma, and are now the Dallas Wings.

The Lynx missed the playoffs again in Reeve’s first year, but an organizational cleansing had begun. Carley Knox, who also worked with the Shock, arrived with Reeve in 2010 and is the Lynx’s director of business operations.

The team fostered new relationships with community groups throughout the Twin Cities, while targeting new audiences. It was not uncommon to see fraternity brothers sitting next to fathers and sons for Games 1 and 2 of the finals in Minnesota.

Players like Whalen, who grew up in Hutchinson, 60 miles west of Minneapolis, and starred in college at Minnesota, held dinners at her home for season-ticket holders.

As fan devotion grew, Reeve emphasized strong, pointed relationships with her players. Veterans had input on the team’s construction. Emotion was openly encouraged.

“This is certainly not all rosy,” Reeve said. “Seimone eye-rolling or Syl getting frustrated and sucking her teeth looking the other way, it’s not personal, it’s not about me. This is their career.”

She added: “For me to accept mediocrity in any way, in anything that we do, would be so far below them. They would want to go somewhere else.”

Basketball superteams often fail without a careful balance of personalities. After acquiring Whalen and Brunson before the 2010 season, the Lynx drafted Moore, a Connecticut star, first overall in April 2011. Reeve believed she had the personas fit for a rebuild.

Six months later, the Lynx were WNBA champions.

As accolades piled up, other teams and players took notice. The Lynx created an aura similar to what Gregg Popovich and R.C. Buford have developed around the San Antonio Spurs. In 2015, Fowles forced a trade to Minnesota from the Chicago Sky. She was named Most Valuable Player last month.

“I was here when there weren’t many fans in the stands,” said Augustus, whom the Lynx selected first overall in the 2006 draft, “but now I’ve seen us grow into something people want to be a part of — a family, a culture that people appreciate.”

Joining fan support and team chemistry in Minnesota’s Venn diagram of success is financial investment. The WNBA has often been hesitant to recognize its relationship with the NBA, wanting to stand as its own entity. Since Lisa M. Borders became WNBA president in 2016, the correlation between the two leagues has become more fluid, with her often referring to the NBA as “big brother.”

The Lynx have been beneficiaries of equitable support from Glen Taylor, who owns the Lynx and the NBA’s Timberwolves. In 2012, the Lynx began turning a profit and have been near the top of league in attendance since. This season, the Lynx had their highest average attendance (10,407) since their inaugural year, a 12.3 percent increase from 2016, according to the league.

Taylor has provided new practice homes for both of his teams, which NBA Commissioner Adam Silver called “the gold standard” of training facilities. When summer renovations at the Target Center moved the Lynx to Williams Arena, Taylor paid a reported $1 million to install a new air conditioning system in the building.

“They treat us like queens around here,” Augustus said. “Anything that we need, anything that we want.”

Taylor, 76, who has a net worth of $2.3 billion, according to Forbes, sits courtside at almost every home game. Before a 70-68 victory over the Sparks in Game 2, Taylor blew kisses to Reeve and her staff. He pounded his fist on a table in frustration after the Lynx committed an early turnover. After each quarter, he scanned the official scorer’s reports, analyzing the stats of the game.

Other owners, particularly those who also own NBA teams, sometimes sparsely attend WNBA events. Williams Arena was not at capacity for Games 1 and 2, but the crowd reverberated through the 89-year-old barn. The Lynx led the league this season in merchandise sales. Television ratings for Game 1 in Minnesota were nearly three times those in Los Angeles, a market about three times larger.

Such an environment has led other teams to contact Reeve and members of her front office asking for advice.

“We’re all in this together,” Knox said. “We’re only as strong as our weakest WNBA team. I will share anything that we’re doing, anything we practice.”

Creating a sense of loyalty or attachment to a franchise over a five-month season can be difficult for WNBA players, a majority of whom spend the winters overseas playing in international leagues for much higher salaries.

For Fowles, other incentives loom large. In early September, when Hurricane Irma was headed for Miami, the Lynx allowed her to leave to secure her home and check on her family.

Privately, Borders has acknowledged the blueprint Minnesota has created. At an event with Lynx fans before last season, Chris Wright, the former Lynx president who last month became chief executive of Minnesota United FC of Major League Soccer, relayed an anecdote to the room, a conversation with Borders in which she challenged the Lynx to “lead the WNBA to places where as such it really hasn’t been to this point.”

Knox said: “I never want to go through seeing another WNBA team folding. We’re never going to rest on our laurels. We’re going to try to lift the entire league up with everything that we do, so we’re not just better as a franchise, but as a league as a whole.”

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