In a league of her own, former Lynx star Rebekkah Brunson’s number 32 retired

There’s a succinctness to Rebekkah Brunson – the newest Minnesota Lynx to see her number raised to the Target Center rafters – that endears her to people around her. When Brunson, now a Lynx assistant coach, has something to say, she doesn’t filibuster or talk at you until you stop listening. She’s in and out in a couple of thoughtful sentences. No wasted words. No wasted effort.

Lynx Coach Cheryl Reeve remembers early one morning in 2010, her first season with the Lynx, when the club had some of its championship pieces (Brunson, Seimone Augustus, Lindsay Whalen) but none of its resilience. Coming off another loss in a 13-21 slog, Reeve gathered her captains at the airport before a flight, asking for ways to improve the club.

As Reeve tells it, when she turned to Brunson, she got a dose of unvarnished truth. Something like, “Coach, I just don’t think we’re good enough. We’re trying to do this and trying to do that, we’re doing all those things and we’re still not winning.”

Brunson, of course, was right. They needed a veteran like Taj McWilliams-Franklin, who arrived in 2011, to teach them how to win. And they needed Maya Moore, the ultimate winner, who arrived the same year as the No. 1 pick in the draft. Brunson realized what was lacking before Reeve did.

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“That was real eye-opener,” Reeve said. “Sometimes (it takes) having that perspective of, sometimes the other team’s got better players than you do. I always counted on her from that point forward.”

Brunson has always been this way. There was a steadiness to her play and demeanor that Reeve and everyone else could count on, traits that serve her well today as she tries to help young Lynx post players navigate a league that’s much more talented and physical than even the final seasons of her long career (2004-18).

The only WNBA player to win five championships – one in Sacramento before that club disbanded, then four with the Lynx – Brunson succeeded because of her willingness to do the gritty, non-glamorous stuff that doesn’t make ESPN highlights but wins games. She retired as the league’s career rebounding leader (Sylvia Fowles and Tina Charles have since passed her) and still holds the record for career offensive rebounds (1,166).

“Hard work. That was one of the things that separated me,” Brunson said. “At the end of the day, it’s about … the way you approach the game and (being) selfless in the way you play it. I was always there for my teammates, and that allowed us to have all those things that are up there (in the rafters) right now.”

Brunson meant, of course, the four championship banners – tied for the most of any WNBA franchise, and four more than the Target Center’s more well-known tenant managed over three-plus decades.

“She was so much a part of our will,” Reeve said. “Her determination to defend the team’s best post player, finish plays with rebounds, get us extra possessions on the glass … she would put herself physically out there in ways you could always count on. Shoot-around, game, didn’t matter when it was. She had that will. It was internal. It was innate to her. That’s why every team she was on had success.”

Listed at 6-foot-2, we now know Brunson is actually an inch shorter. Brunson didn’t always grab a dozen rebounds or hold the opposing team’s star forward below her average. But you always knew she was out there, playing hard, making it difficult for whoever she tried to defend or battle for a rebound. On game nights, Lynx public address announcers introduced her as “The Machine.”

It fit.

“Relentless comes to mind,” said Las Vegas Aces Coach Becky Hammon, the WNBA great who competed against Brunson for years in New York and San Antonio.

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“She was such an elite rebounder, especially for her size. She was very unique, obviously very athletic. She did a lot of stuff that never shows up on a stat sheet to help her team win, which is probably why she has five championships,” said Hammon. “She knows how to win and she knows how to play the right way. When you have an elite rebounder like her, you’re always going to be in the mix for championships.”

A wider audience caught a glimpse of Brunson’s leadership in July 2016, when she and Moore spoke out at a press conference following the deaths of Alton Sterling, Philando Castile and five Dallas police officers. Their “Change Starts With Us – Justice and Accountability” T-shirts and the conversations they started helped open an era of WNBA social awareness that continues to this day.

A week before Sunday night’s July 3 ceremony to retire Brunson’s No. 32, the Lynx shifted the timing from pre- to postgame, learning a lesson from Augustus’s May 29 pregame ceremony that seemed hurried. There’s always a danger in doing these things postgame, especially this season, when the Lynx owned one of the league’s worst record. What if a wrenching loss wrecked the vibe? With league co-leader Las Vegas still in town after beating the Lynx Friday night, 91-85, the possibility certainly existed.

From left: Seimone Augustus, Maya Moore, Rebekkah Brunson and Sylvia Fowles react after a foul called against the Los Angeles Sparks during the first half in Game 4 of the WNBA Finals at Staples Center in 2017.

Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

From left: Seimone Augustus, Maya Moore, Rebekkah Brunson and Sylvia Fowles react after a foul called against the Los Angeles Sparks during the first half in Game 4 of the WNBA Finals at Staples Center in 2017.

Reeve claims the players call Brunson “The Bishop,” because when she speaks, they listen. (Not sure how that might play with the Jesuits who taught Brunson at Georgetown University, but you get the point.) The Lynx have been better lately, and for one night they put together an almost Brunson-like effort, routing the Aces (15-6) so badly, 102-71, that Hammon pulled her starters after three quarters.

The Lynx (7-15) held the Aces, the league’s highest-scoring team, to 71 points, about 19 below their average, on 36.8 percent shooting. The notoriously inconsistent Aerial Powers, after promising Brunson a big game, poured in a career-high 32 points, matching Brunson’s number. “Isn’t that crazy?” Powers said. The Lynx tied a club record for rebounds while crushing the Aces on the glass, 53-25 overall and 15-1 offensive.

“Obviously, you want to do whatever you can to inspire the group to go out there and play hard, right?” Brunson said. “So I’m like, `Yeah. Win this one for me. C’mon, this is about me tonight. So what are y’all gonna to do? Are y’all gonna show up or not?’ And they went out there and played so well and so hard. I was so happy for them. To hit 32 on the nose (Powers), there had to be a reason, right?”

Powers loves pumping up the crowd. In the midst of a 14-point first quarter, she waved her arms, imploring the fans to cheer louder. She flexed her muscles after big baskets and even high-fived a little kid — all this after scoring only five points in the loss to the Vegas two nights earlier.

Then she sat with everyone else postgame and watched Brunson, her position coach, coolly rise after an impressive Lynx-produced video and give a three-minute speech without notes, thanking four rows of family, friends, former teammates and coaches and current Lynx players. Brunson and her wife Bobbi Jo took turns holding their son Graham, not quite 4.

“(Brunson) gets her point across, but she’s so chill about it,” Powers said. “Sometimes in the game, when everything’s hectic, (she’s like), `I know. You’ve got to do this.’ I wonder how she was to play with as a teammate, because she’s so awesome as a coach.”

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It’s well known that Brunson the player had no interest in going into coaching. This happens a lot, in all sports. Brunson changed her mind after a stint as a Timberwolves television analyst for Fox Sports North.

“Maybe it surprised her, but I’m not surprised because she’s somebody who really cares about people,” Hammon said. “She’s one of the highest quality people you’ll ever meet. The fact that she wants to give back to the game and invest in young women is not surprising to me at all.”

Now all three of the Lynx with retired numbers – Brunson, Augustus and Whalen – are coaching somewhere. Fowles, due to retire after this season, is up next. Though she’s long planned for a career in mortuary science, last week, for the first time, she said she might be open to coaching.

“We’ll see what happens with Syl. Bring her over to the dark side,” Brunson said.

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