The Lynx are everything a sports team is supposed to be -- including, for the first time, winners.
The squeal pierces the din of the basketball court -- young lungs on full blast emit a deafening stream of sound. It comes in two modes: terror and glee.
The WNBA's San Antonio Stars begin to close the gap on the youngsters' beloved Minnesota Lynx, and their "terror" siren goes full blast. Then star Lynx guard Katie Smith misses a basket, and a girl with fishbowl glasses lifts her head from her caregiver's lap to say, "It's okay, Katie."
Seconds later, a shot by Lynx center Svetlana Abrosimova is good, and the girl is on her feet, delighted and screaming with ear-splitting glee.
It's a special Wednesday noon game, free for kids from day camps. The stands are full of bright blue, green and orange T-shirts, one color per daycare clan. While it's unlike the Lynx to play before as many as 10,000 people, they're used to being around children. The team claims it leads the WNBA in appearances and volunteer work -- helping out in children's hospitals, soup kitchens, and shelters for battered women and children.
The kids transform the game. As one attendee put it, "This is great -- this place is usually a mausoleum." The Lynx never fell behind, winning 85-78. The still-buzzing children head to their buses; maybe later, they'll convince their parents to take them to another game.
If people really meant their complaints about professional sports -- haughty, out-of-touch players make too much money; it's too violent; there's not enough diversity; it's too expensive; teams try to boss the public around instead of having a spirit of service -- these stands would be full.
But this season, there are fewer season ticketholders -- 2,100, down from 6,600 in 1999. An obvious reason: the Lynx have had a losing record each of their first four seasons, their record getting worse each year.
Yet despite decreased attendance, this year, the Lynx's game is up. They have a winning record and are on track to make the playoffs. Exquisite moments of intricate teamwork bring fans to their feet during a 69-58 victory against the Seattle Storm on July 20. The ball darts through portals between legs and arms barely detectable to the average eye.
Maybe the synergy comes from center Michelle Van Gorp's psychology degree or Tamika Williams' interpersonal communications degree or the on-court mentoring of 39-year-old Theresa Edwards, who glows with love for the game and everyone involved in it -- from the teammates she pats on the hips to the waterboy she shoots hoops with and whose hair she tousles before a game. Or maybe, it's the gaurd Katie Smith, as one fan put it, no longer has to look at ex-coach and "control freak" Brian Agler before making a move.
Whatever it is, the chemistry is being whipped up. Each time the team's collective synapses fire, the teammates smile, whether or not points are scored. The players are more likely to grin during a futile seesaw off the rim than when one of them jets down the court, nails a shot and the crowd goes wild. They also smile when an intricate play is executed, fooling the other team with misleading eye contact, or when a player escapes being trapped, as when Smith breaks free of the triangle of opponents who often surround her.
These connections spark brilliance on the floor and maintain a downright noble sportsmanship. Other than the occasional foul word mouthed silently by forward Sheri Sam as she puts her hands on her hips and glares at the floor, the team is more likely to laugh and look heavenward at bum ref calls than get bent out of shape.
Fans don't get nasty either; they make a little noise when the opposing team shoots free throws or when they disagree with the ref, but they don't seem to be making up for their routine lives by going ape in the stands.
Don't assume this is a gender thing.
Opponents grimace, sneer and seem freer with their sharp elbows. Other head coaches spit and get thrown out while the Lynx's composed Susie McConnell Serio, at most, bites her nails. Even fans from other teams aren't so respectful: "Get that gorilla," yells a young Seattle fan in jeans and a belly T-shirt.
Oddly enough, this respectful, family-friendly atmosphere may be a factor in the low Lynx numbers. Bartender Katie Chartrand, 23, has worked at Timberwolves and Lynx games for nine years. She's watched Lynx crowds plateau rather than rise. "Maybe it's the family atmosphere," she says. "People don't want to be around kids."
Other bartenders try not to work the Lynx games, says Chartrand, but she prefers them. The fans are friendly, and they tip better.
Most of Lynx players make about $30,000 for a four-month schedule. The WNBA caps salaries at $85,000. NBA players make millions per season.
It's scrimmage time in the Timberwolves/Lynx practice court in Target Center's Northwest Athletic Club. Tarp-like curtains keep club members, working out on the second floor, from peeping in.
On one end, Lynx Assistant Coach Nancy Darsch works with Van Gorp, Williams and other players. With over 20 years under her belt, Darsch doesn't say "um." Her angular figure and arresting voice slice through any confusion, alternately focusing, correcting and inspiring the group.
Williams, the star guard, uses her legs and hips to anchor herself to the floor and immobilize her opponent. Another player doesn't hold her ground so well. Darsch breaks up the group, nabs a guinea pig and moves in to show the players how to pen in their opponents: "You put that leg here and that cheek here and they ain't going nowhere," she says.
On the other end, Coach Serio works with Smith, Edwards, Shawnzinski Gortman and others. Assistant Coach Carolyn Jenkins stands close at the sideline, surveying the scene. Behind her, on the other side of the glass in the adjoining exercise room, Kevin Garnett lopes along on a treadmill moving his hands to the beat of his headset. Nobody seems to notice him.
In the middle of Serio's instructions, Katie Smith steps into the middle of the group to discuss her coach's comments. The lanky Smith gestures at Serio's eye-level, but the coach neither flinches nor tells Smith to buzz off -- she listens. An agreement is reached and practice plays out.
Afterwards, a couple players touch base with reporters. "Does anybody need me?" Smith yells.
In the absence of a response, she announces that she is "outta here." But the U.S. Olympian some regard as the WNBA's best player sticks around to shoot baskets with Jenkins, and ends up the last player to leave the court.
Smith exits through the exercise room, exchanges a few words with Garnett, then makes the victory sign, arms straight in the air, as she leaves.
A few players linger in the locker room before the Storm game. For people who cycle between practicing, flying, playing and volunteering, this seems to pass as alone time. Few make eye contact.
Georgia Schweitzer sits a few feet down from Katie Smith, whom she traveled to see when she was in high school while Smith made her name at Ohio State. Now Schweitzer has her own fan mail to answer, and, she says she "takes it very seriously."
Other than the Ohio trio -- Smith, Schweitzer and Williams -- the players come from very different places (none from Minnesota) and have very different interests.
South Carolina's Shawnzinski Gortman says she writes poetry when she's "bored, usually late at night." Across from Schweitzer sits Williams, absorbed in her chapel reading. She looks up to greet Svetlana Abrosimova from St. Petersburg, Russia and Kristi Harrower from Bendigo, Australia as they enter the locker room. "Look at you!" she exclaims to the injured pair who will sit on the sidelines this evening. Harrower wears a black suit and Abrosimova is decked out in a long leather skirt and a dark flowered shirt trimmed with black lace.
Williams does this a lot, smiling and saying something nice. She never curses or grimaces. She gets her disposition, she says, from the team's visits to cancer patients, homeless people and others in distress. "Life is not about basketball," says the WNBA star.
On the other end of the room, Sheri Sam bobs her blonde dreaded hair to the music coming from a silver stereo. She lip-synchs and gestures along, her tattoos darting here and there, but her eyes are glued to the previous Lynx game showing on the TV above the stereo.
Assistant Coach Jenkins watches the game while watching the players. The UC-Berkeley economics graduate says the players' differences in interest and style makes this a strong team.
This is the first Lynx season for many of the players as well as the coaches. One of Serio's stated goals is to improve the "chemistry" of the team. "It can be challenging to balance the relationships," says Jenkins.
Darsch steps in to gather the team and conversation ends.
Perhaps after three losing seasons, the Lynx need more time to reestablish their fan base. But, perversely, the drop could also be due to fans' benevolent motives.
Delane Rowles, a childcare worker from Prior Lake, has missed just one game since the Lynx' inception. She often brings a young woman along with her and meets up with other Lynx ticketholders. According to Rowles, clad in a Lynx jersey and cap, many ticketholders purchase them out of principle, as she does. "It's a women's athletic event, you've got to support it," she said, explaining that girls need positive role models.
But duty, rather than passion, may make a Lynx ticket more of a donation than a must-have. And as any charity can tell you, donations fall in tough times.
After the victory over Seattle, fans head to 6th Street between Hennepin and 1st Avenue North for the fifth annual Great Basketball Dribble. Approximately 750 people gathered at the fundraiser for breast cancer research, although in years past, the benefit has attracted as many as 1,500.
After a rousing "we're doing great but we can do even better" speech from Serio, Georgia Schweitzer meets up with Lynx mascot Prowl to help lead the dribbling march.
On the run back, she has lost Prowl but picked up Stephanie LaVictor, 11. Stephanie beams as she runs along Schweitzer, then drops back to fall in with her mom, Trish LaVictor.
Before the San Antonio game, Stephanie could be seen hanging out on the bleachers by where the team enters the court. Many team members made the stop to high-five the mainstay.
"I know them all," says LaVictor, herself a star on her Eagan middle school team. "We've even stayed in the same hotel."
How did she find out where the team was staying? "We called them up ahead of time and asked," shrugs Mom, a travel agent who is savvy about frequent flyer miles. "They know us."
They've also flown on the same plane (the Lynx fly coach). "Katie was eating Triscuits," says Stephanie.
She's also eaten breakfast with them. "Janelle [Burse, center] had pancakes," recalls Stephanie.
Mom, of course, thinks the team makes great role models. The teens and preteens, geeky as it may be to admit it, couldn't agree more.
Ashley Ewing, 15, has traveled 62 miles from Waterville to catch the game and meet her hero, Tamika Williams. Her friend Sarah Collins, a 16-year-old cheerleader, drove the pair.
After the dribble, Ewing can barely contain herself. The long winding line of mostly young women -- but also quite a few boys -- slowly approaches the table where Williams is signing autographs and chatting with fans.
"She's my inspiration. She never gets mad on the court, she smiles, she keeps things in perspective. And she's beautiful!!" gushes Ewing, the star point guard on her own team.
Ewing is quick to point out that she's not just here for Williams. "I'll go to a Lynx game over a Timberwolves game any day -- they really play, they're running around, not just standing there waiting for their turn with the ball."
She likes how Serio rotates players in and out of the game. Ewing said she asks her own coach back in Waterville to do the same and rely on her less. She knows that life is about more than basketball. After completing her professional athletic career, she says, "You're going to laugh, but I'd like to be president some day."
Ewing doesn't say "women's basketball," just "basketball." And it's not "first woman President," just "president."
The line has moved forward and the future president is tongue-tied, face-to-face with her hero.
"She loves you," bursts out Collins, on her tearing friend's behalf.
"Oh, hey, that's a good thing, right?" asks Williams as she gets up to hug Ewing. Composure is regained, pictures are taken and the girls are glowing and must now find their way out of Downtown and back to Waterville.
After the last of the signings, Williams joins Janelle Burse, Shawnzinski Gortman and others have gathered on the empty northwest corner of Block E. As they talk with a pair of young women and play with two young children, they do not stand out from the meandering summer crowd, only above it slightly. A couple of guys give them the up-and-down look, but the women seem not to notice them. In turn, most don't seem to notice them, either. At least, not yet.