MINNEAPOLIS — Lindsay Whalen hobbled through the regular season last year. She hobbled through the playoffs. She even hobbled through the Minnesota Lynx championship celebration.
And so when it came time to head overseas for an 11th straight winter to go cash in on a can’t-miss opportunity to make the kind of money that just isn’t available to women’s basketball players in the United States, Whalen decided she had enough.
Her ankle, Achilles tendon and back were telling her to stay home. So were family members who had grown so accustomed to her being gone through the holidays. As her career enters the final few years, she decided to give her body a mental and physical break from the year-round grind she had been doing for so long. And it was one of the best decisions she’s ever made.
“It was hard sometimes. But about a week into training camp I was so thankful,” Whalen said. “I was so fresh. I felt great. I felt healthy. I felt I was really enjoying everything. Playing for years upon years straight, at times it will be a little much.”
A rejuvenated Whalen helped push the Lynx to the best record in the WNBA and homecourt advantage throughout the playoffs, which continue when they host the Phoenix Mercury in Game 1 of the semifinals on Wednesday.
Last year at this time, Whalen had missed four straight games in the regular season and was a question mark going into the postseason. She found a way to gut through the pain in her legs, which culminated with the franchise’s third championship. But at 34 years old, it was time to take a step back.
Whalen had played overseas for a decade, often earning $600,000 a year or more in Russia or Turkey. It’s life-changing money, and for players with finite careers, it can be difficult to pass up.
“I’ve been juggling this decision for about three years,” Lynx guard Seimone Augustus said. “More often than not, at the end of the year we start talking to teams overseas about new contracts, and the money is just so good, you’re like, ‘All right I was thinking about taking time off, but … .'”
It can actually go in reverse. Mercury star Diana Taurasi sat out the entire WNBA season last year at the behest of her team in Russia, which paid her nearly $1.5 million in 2015.
“They offered to pay me to rest and I’ve decided to take them up on it,” Taurasi wrote in a letter to Mercury fans at the time. “I want to be able to take care of myself and my family when I am done playing.”
Taurasi returned to the WNBA this season, and also teamed with Whalen, Augustus and Team USA to win gold at the Rio Games. And while the Mercury struggled to find their footing early in the season, they have taken off in the playoffs with wins over Indiana and New York in the first two single-elimination rounds of the tournament, setting up the five-game series with Minnesota that will feature 11 Olympians.
The WNBA is the more prestigious league for the players, but the maximum salaries stateside are $111,500. Good money, but not overseas money.
“She made a very tough decision because making money overseas, opportunities to earn that kind of money once these players are done playing isn’t going to be there,” Lynx coach Cheryl Reeve said of Whalen. “There is no job they’re going to transition into that is going to pay them $600-700,000. So you can’t blame them for wanting to earn that as long as they can.”
The 32-year-old Augustus said being home with family during the holidays, and seeing how well Whalen has played this year, have her thinking she will finally stay home this winter.
“Lindsay looks amazing,” Augustus said. “The quickness, the speed, the agility. That’s how I want to feel coming into next year.”
The way Whalen sees it, there was no decision to make.
“My body showed me last year when I wasn’t able to play,” Whalen said. “That’s what showed me when it was time to stop. Each player will have to make that decision when it’s time to go.”