Professional Basketball

Heart of a Champion: Minnesota Lynx Players Remember Fallen Fan

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During the WNBA off-season, the Minnesota Lynx lost one of their most die-hard and beloved fans when Justin Eckblad passed away Jan. 17 at the age of 37 of heart failure. A rare physical disability confined Eckblad to a wheelchair for most of his life and made it difficult for him to speak, but he communicated regularly through Facebook messenger and was an active contributor to the “Lynx Fans” Facebook group.

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Justin Eckblad, at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport early in the morning of Sept. 26, 2011, waiting to greet the Minnesota Lynx on their return from Phoenix after winning the Western Conference championship. Photo by Jeffrey Williams/Sportspage Magazine

“Walking to the locker room won’t be the same not giving you a fist bump every night,” Minnesota Lynx guard Lindsay Whalen wrote on his Facebook page after hearing of Eckblad’s passing.

After the 2015 Lynx season began, when asked about Eckblad, Whalen said, “He was a great guy, a big fan of ours and we miss him a lot.”

He was a long-time Minnesota Lynx season ticket holder even before the team had its recent success that led to two championships, three WNBA Finals appearances and four Western Conference Finals appearances in the past four seasons.

“It’s just been kind of weird to not have him here. We could always count on Justin and his friends being right there in the tunnel when we came through,” said Lynx guard Seimone Augustus. “I remember seeing him here before Whalen was here, but Whalen was his favorite, he was her die-hard fan. To not see that smiling face in the tunnel saddens us. Our buddy’s gone. When I say ‘loyal’ fans who’ve been here from the time we weren’t who we are today, that’s what he symbolized. It feels different not seeing him.”

Whenever the team came off the court at Target Center, either at halftime or at the end of the game, Eckblad was there in his wheelchair with his friends in the tunnel, win or lose, to welcome the team and greet them with a smile.

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Justin Eckblad and Minnesota Lynx forward Maya Moore in the tunnel at Target Center after a game. Photo by Ernie Burnham II.

“He was always there. He was always with us every time we came out of the tunnel and he was always excited,” said forward Rebekkah Brunson who first heard the news at the team’s Tip-a-Lynx event held June 3 as a benefit for the Minnesota Lynx Foundation. “It’s unfortunate that he’s not with us anymore. We’ll always remember him.”

Prior to the season’s start, the players were given wristbands to wear in memory of Eckblad.

“These wristbands give us a chance to take him out on the court with us. We’ll always keep him in our spirits. He was one of our greatest fans and I’m sure he’s still with us,” said Brunson. “I spoke with his friends and told them how I felt about it and just thanked them, in a way kind of thanking him for all the support that he gave us.”

Every time the Lynx returned from away playoff games, Eckblad was always one of a handful of loyal fans to greet them at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport. It didn’t matter if it was 11 p.m. or 3 a.m., he was there making sure that the team received a warm welcome and congratulations for a job well-done.

“It just speaks to what kind of community we have here that people feel so connected to the team that they come back year after year, game after game,” said forward Maya Moore. “No matter what a person’s physical condition is, they just enjoy the atmosphere and the passion that we bring. People like Justin are definitely a part of the Lynx family.”

As a media member, I’ve watched Eckblad in the tunnel brighten the mood of players and coaches by his presence during my seven seasons of covering the team. He was always smiling and always happy no matter what the outcome of the game was. Perhaps it was because he always knew that he was living on borrowed time and decided to make the best of it. Nonetheless, those who have known Justin Eckblad over the years have had their lives touched by a remarkable person who is still missed by many.

Hanging inside of Lindsay Whalen’s locker is a t-shirt with Eckblad’s photograph and the inscription “Justin Eckblad: The heart of a champion.” Truer words were never spoken.

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