Originally posted on Fox Sports North  |  By PHIL ERVIN  |  Last updated 10/4/13
MINNEAPOLIS -- A few scrolls through Janel McCarville's Twitter timeline tell the story best. There's Lindsay Whalen sitting on an airplane, the seat next to her occupied by a snoozing, full-figured male stranger. There's Seimone Augustus' locker, covered in pale yellow sticky notes. And there's a screen grab of the Minnesota Lynx's four representatives at the 2013 WNBA All-Star Game, lounging and laughing next to each other on the bench in Connecticut. On the hardwood, they're currently a flooded sports market's most successful organization. Off it, they're like a high school team preparing for the Class AAAA championship. Not in terms of maturity. Just connectivity. "We're good friends," said McCarville, who was traded to the Lynx before this season but knew Whalen from their college days at the University of Minnesota. "We have a good time, we hang out, we play video games, we go shopping, we go to dinners. It's definitely a fun situation for everybody." It's not an environment exclusive to the three-time defending Western Conference champions. The WNBA and women's athletics in general are conducive to an atmosphere that promotes intimate emotional as well as occupational bonds. But it is a huge reason the Target Center will host at least two more Lynx games this year with a league championship up for grabs. And no one does chemistry quite like these ladies. Loose leadership Cheryl Reeve calls it "the valley." The Lynx coach watched in disappointment as her team endured a stretch of losing four out of five games which culminated in an 88-75 defeat Aug. 20 at Atlanta -- the same opponent Minnesota faces in the WNBA Finals, which begin Sunday at the Target Center. Whalen, the team's 10-year veteran point guard and pacemaker, had a particularly rough outing, scoring just four points. The Minnesota lifer wasn't afraid to place heavy blame when Reeve called her, Augustus and fellow captain Rebekkah Brunson into a private meeting directly after the setback. The four talked long and hard, skipping the team's postgame media session and drawing a league fine. This was more important, and it allowed the often closed-off Whalen to vent her frustrations. They all were aimed at herself. "It was very like she kind of stripped all of her Lindsay Whalen stuff and was just very personal for her and just kind of opened up, just kind of said what she was going through," Reeve said. "It was Seimone and B and she just kind of turned to them and was like, 'I'm sorry. I let you guys down.' Said Whalen: "I was in a tough stretch." Minnesota's problems during that low point were various -- lack of late-game execution, nagging injuries, few bench contributions -- yet Augustus, Brunson and later the rest of their teammates listened intently as Whalen took full responsibility. Something changed that night, deep within the bowels of Philips Arena. "It makes everybody kind of look at yourself," Augustus said. "She wasn't pointing the finger saying 'it's your fault, your fault.' It was a respect issue. She was like, 'It starts with me. I wasn't playing well.' So everybody else naturally looked at themselves, what I did or didn't do in this game or throughout the season that could've made this team better." The aftermath speaks for itself: Minnesota went 9-1 the rest of the way to clinch the WNBA's best record for the third straight season then swept Seattle and Phoenix in the playoffs, and Whalen returned to form and garnered first-team all-league recognition. Whalen, 31, largely keeps her emotions out of the public sphere. She's got coachspeak down pat during media sessions, and fans rarely see her fired up or frustrated during games. But behind the scenes, Augustus said, she deftly navigates the tightrope between stoicism and openness -- whether it's spilling her guts or just horsing around. "She always like to keep that tough demeanor when she's out in public," Augustus said. "But here, she's probably one of the silliest players we have here. She knows how to switch it off and on. It's a great mix." So great, it's contagious. A team doesn't reach the pinnacle of professional success without strict attention to detail, vigorous workouts and a roster full of disciplined athletes. But without a movie night or some group retail therapy, as examples, to counterbalance that lifestyle, they'd go nuts. So Whalen and Augustus, primarily, take it upon themselves to whip butts in shape and get them seated for team gatherings, too. "Seimone and Lindsay, I'll call them out: They are the two culprits that keep most of us laughing," third-year phenom Maya Moore said. "It's just a blast to be able to have a good balance of working hard and being serious when it's time to get things done, but also enjoying it and goofing off and playing and being silly and loose when we can." No more Mama It sometimes takes a conscious effort to keep Moore along for the ride. So dedicated to her craft and interior life is the WNBA MVP runner-up that she sometimes needs extra urging or impetus to run around with her teammates away from the gym. Her first two years in the league, she had Taj McWilliams-Franklin, the regal veteran power forward with whom Moore could share in spiritual, nutritional and elite-basketball-IQ exchanges that kept her in a firm comfort zone. But "Mama Taj," as folks around her call her, retired after last season. Moore's potential reaction concerned Reeve at first, especially when she showed up a few days early for training camp. "When Maya got here, she looked around, 'I'm the only veteran,'" Reeve said. "'Where's my cushion, my people that have protected me? Where are they?' Then everybody kind of got here, it was kind of like 'this is a different vibe. This is weird. This is weird without Taj.'" But as the team has formed its own identity, its senior members and Moore have both made an effort to ensure she's a central facet therein. When it comes to hoops, it's easy; all she did this year was score 18.5 points per game, make more than half her field goals and knock down a career-best 45.3 percent of her 3s on the way to first-team all-WNBA honors and a near miss in the MVP voting. Through four postseason games, she's averaging 21.5 points and playing equally effective matchup defense on the wing and, when necessary, in the post. When practice ends, some of the time she used to spend alone contemplating scripture or talking life with McWilliams-Franklin is spent getting to know her comrades. They, in turn, have made a point to incorporate her into their plans and put together social activities they know she'll enjoy. "We've got to find a happy medium with Maya," Augustus said. "Everything that we do is not really her gig, but we try to find things that would bring her comfort level up a little bit where she would feel more secure about coming out." Almost like dorm life It's not like the Lynx can easily get rid of each other, anyway. The WNBA's collective bargaining agreement requires teams to provide players lodging unless they choose to live elsewhere during the season. Only Whalen, who grew up in Hutchinson, Minn. and owns a house with her husband, exercised that option this year. So there's an apartment complex near St. Louis Park's West End full of fun-loving, world-class basketball players that take pleasure in each other's company and are at longest an elevator ride away. It's not so different from rookie point guard Lindsey Moore's senior year at Nebraska, she said. "It's been a really nice transition for me to be in the pros but have it feel like college," Moore said. "It's nice to have everyone there, because if you're like, 'Oh, I need someone to hang out with,' then you can just say, 'Hey, what are you doing? Let's hang out. Let's do something.'" During the Lynx's two days off following their Game 2 victory at Phoenix last Sunday, it was a "Grand Theft Auto V" and "NBA 2K14" marathon. Earlier this month, they convened at the Whalens to watch Floyd Mayweather dominate Canelo Alvarez. At the workplace, there's an ongoing feud between Augustus and another player - who would appear to be McCarville, though the latter claims no wrongdoing in plastering the shooting guard's locker with sticky notes. "I was picking sticky notes out of my shoes for about three weeks," McCarville said. At one point, someone stuck a large whiteboard in the corner of their weight training facility and dubbed it "the rumor board," where players could post anonymous factoids about their teammates that may or may not have been true. The giant easel now sits on the other side of the team's Lifetime Fitness practice facility, away from the reaches of any Lynx wiseacre with an Expo marker. It's all in good fun, and it's not contrived, either, Augustus would tell you. "We genuinely care about each other and we enjoy being around each other," the 2011 WNBA Finals MVP said. "It makes life a lot easier on and off the court." It's a girl thing The dynamic within the inner Lynx circle isn't unlike what's found in many other WNBA cities. Brunson, for example, played on a similarly tight-knit Sacramento Monarchs team that went all the way in 2005. But it's not like that everywhere. "I don't think every team has that type of chemistry," Brunson said. "When I was in Sacramento, we definitely had that type of chemistry, and we were successful because of that." It's been more of the same since Minnesota picked her up in the 2009 Dispersal Draft after the Monarchs folded.Especially this year. "When you have players that you care about, you really care about their interests, you really want to do great things for them on the floor," said Brunson, who's averaging a double-double during the playoffs. "You want to help them any way that you can. You want to be there for them." Dream coach Fred Williams says the same thing about his bunch, which is playing in its third Finals in the past four years. But McCarville has seen the other side of it. A dispute with team management in New York led to her sitting out the 2011 and 2012 seasons, and the Charlotte teams she played for in the mid-2000s weren't quite as unified, either, she said. "I prefer here so far," the 30-year-old center from Stevens Point, Wis., said. "I think it's just a better atmosphere." But the WNBA as a whole has become, among other things, a breeding ground for mutual admiration without the big-money stigma that accompanies the NBA, NFL, Major League Baseball and the NHL. Per the league's CBA -- which just expired and is in the infancy of renegotiations -- players didn't earn more than 107,500 this year. Overseas play during the league's offseason is a whole different story. The top athletes can rake in substantially more playing in Europe or Asia than they do here. Yet an air of camaraderie prevails, within teams and throughout the league. "You get the money you get, and I guess with us, that's your business, you put it in the bank account and you don't really flaunt it," McCarville said. "You see a couple people with nice cars and everything, but in no way is it a flaunt or saying 'I'm better than you' or things like that." When opponents roll into Minneapolis, Minnesota's players will wine and dine with those they know from playing internationally or national AAU tournaments during their younger years. Reeve hates it. "That drives me crazy," the fiery coach said tongue-in-cheek. "But it's something you grow accustomed to because everybody knows everybody." But 24 years in the business and 47 of them on this planet have taught Reeve there's something deeper at work here. Money and ability are only parts of the equation. "I think women are different," the coach said. "I think we're wired differently. "Women have that, 'We want to feel good.' We don't want to walk into a gym and have tension there." So while Moore's transcendent talent, Whalen's awareness and feistiness, Brunson's ferocity in the post and on the boards, Augustus' clutch scoring and several other visible factors have the Lynx in line for their second championship in three seasons starting at 7:30 p.m. Sunday, it's this group's unmistakable yet oft-unseen unity that binds it all together. From the raw honesty of its leader to a simple couple-hours session on the Xbox. "That's been a big key for us," Whalen said. "I think that's what kind of sometimes separates us as being able to get through tough times, is that you have that chemistry and you have that ability to lean on one another. I feel like we've been able to do that. "It takes everybody." Follow Phil Ervin on Twitter
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