There was no way Lindsay Whalen was going to last to the No. 6 pick. That's the harsh reality the Lynx and their fans faced in the 2004 WNBA draft after Whalen had helped electrify an entire state by leading Minnesota to the Women's Final Four.
The Lynx were entering just their sixth season in the league and were selecting sixth in the draft with little hope of trading up. The idea of getting the native Minnesotan at the very time she'd just converted so many to the women's game? It was tantalizing. Yet also agonizing. Because it was close, but not close enough.
Whalen went at No. 4 to Connecticut, even more irritating to Minnesotans because the UConn Huskies had defeated Whalen's Gophers in the national semifinals.
Yet here we are 14 years later, nearing the conclusion of Whalen's WNBA career, with the knowledge that everything worked out after all. Whalen returned to Minnesota, joining the Lynx for the 2010 season, and the best was yet to come.
How often does something like this happen? Not very often in any sport. Whalen is the type of player who would have been beloved anywhere; she was in Connecticut, in fact. But that she found her greatest professional success in the same city where she played collegiately, and just an hour from where she grew up, makes this one of the best sports stories ever.
Whalen enters this weekend with just two regular-season games left, plus however long the defending champion Lynx are in the playoffs. She didn't have a long farewell tour -- you knew she wouldn't -- but it's just long enough to let fans from both WNBA teams she played for have the chance to show her appreciation.
Friday, the Lynx play at Connecticut, where she spent her first six WNBA seasons. Sunday, in what certainly will be at least a three-hankie tear-jerker, the Lynx will honor her at Target Center as they take on the Mystics (ESPN2, 7 p.m. ET).
Whalen being Whalen, she'll attempt to stay as focused as possible on the business at hand: trying to win these games. It hasn't been the easiest of seasons for her or the Lynx, who've been the league's premier team the last seven years, reaching the WNBA Finals six times and winning four of titles.
Age, injuries and other teams improving have contributed to Minnesota's 17-15 record. Whalen, having finished 2017 winning a title on her college home court of Williams Arena, has acknowledged she was considering retirement even before she was named the Gophers' head coach for women's basketball in April.
However this season ends, Whalen is one of those lucky athletes who can walk away regret-free. Considering what she has achieved, with WNBA titles and Olympic gold medals, her career has been a dream come true.
But not just for her -- for all Minnesotans who adored how she embodied the best of what they take pride in: hard work, discipline, commitment, humility and wry humor.
As an outsider, I confess I see Minnesota as having a more distinct and well-known "personality" than many other states do. Maybe it's because media personalities like Garrison Keillor have reinforced that. And the Minnesota accents that we outsiders mimic (badly). And from me watching "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" (set in Minneapolis), "The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle" (cartoon characters from fictional "Frostbite Falls") and "The Golden Girls" (with Rose's constant references to St. Olaf), along with "Juno" and "Fargo" countless times.
Yes, that all leads to a kind of Minnesota stereotype, but in a nice way. And Whalen, to a large degree, just sort of fits it.
If you go to her hometown of Hutchinson, you can imagine her riding her bike all over and taking part in whatever pick-up games of basketball, hockey, football, baseball, etc. that she came across. You can imagine her sitting in her house with her parents and siblings, with the snow hip-deep outside, optimistically watching her beloved Vikings no matter how often they break her heart.
And you can marvel that this is the case in average towns in states all across the country: Somebody special really can grow up there, and be an inspiration to kids that greatness can come from anywhere.
Whalen's greatness has been multi-faceted. An ability as a point guard to see the whole floor and anticipate what's going to happen. A fearless ability to get to the rim and finish. An understanding of playing the angles on individual defense and being an effective cog for team defense. A competitiveness that doesn't turn off, and yet doesn't grate on her teammates. And a natural athleticism that has always been underestimated because Whalen doesn't stand out, at a glance, as being an elite athlete. But she is.
You take all that and then add all the best aspects of the "Minnesota personality," and you get a character that almost seemed too good to be true. Yet she's the real deal. And when a trade was finally worked out late in 2010 for her to come home, it was the necessary plot device to turn a good movie into an epic blockbuster.
Whalen delivered even more than the Lynx and their fans could have hoped. Sure, it wouldn't have happened the same way without 2006 top pick Seimone Augustus' loyalty to the franchise in lean years, or the great luck of also drafting Maya Moore at No. 1, or getting Rebekkah Brunson in a dispersal draft, or getting Sylvia Fowles when she insisted on a trade from Chicago. It was the perfect compilation of committed and talented teammates, and we can't be sure we'll ever see a run quite like what the Lynx have had.
The linchpin of it all has been the Whalen, so loved and respected by her teammates. Her poker face made them feel confidence and her opponents feel trepidation. Whalen was always strategizing on how to win, and most of the time she did.
When the emotion broke through her surface with a yell here or a fist pump there, it was all the more powerful. That, in essence, sums up Whalen: Just by being herself, she was so powerful in inspiring teammates, coaches and fans.
Whalen is part of the great draft class of 2004 that also includes Brunson, Phoenix's Diana Taurasi and Los Angeles' Alana Beard. Whalen has been a significant contributor to the WNBA's history, and her not playing anymore is going to take some getting used to for everyone who follows the league.
The good news is that we'll still get to see her compete, just in a different way. She'll soon be on the sidelines, directing the Gophers and trying to win about the only thing she didn't as a player: an NCAA championship.
She'll be doing that at home, and that's where her heart always has been. In the end, it all happened just like it was supposed to.