Sylvia Fowles promised herself she wouldn’t cry.
Because it was a happy time. The Lynx were starting their playoff run to the 2017 title. Fowles, the Lynx’s star center, had just finished a WNBA regular-season run for the ages and was about to take the stage to accept the league’s MVP trophy.
And then, with the same speed at which the 6-6 Fowles can run the floor on a fast break, she went from smiles to sobs. A catharsis 10 years in the making.
“I said I wasn’t going to tear up,’’ she said, her voice cracking.
This is as good a place as any to start Fowles’ 2018 story. She is the reigning MVP for both the regular season and the WNBA Finals. She is coming off the best season of her career. Already a dominating presence on defense, she became deadly efficient on the offensive end last summer. When Fowles looks back at that season, at those playoffs, she is rightfully proud.
But when she remembers that moment on the stage, the tears streaming?
“It was the cumulation of a lot of things,’’ Fowles said. “A whole lot of things. Me dealing with injuries my first few years. Frustration in Chicago, we can’t win. Then you want to leave and they hold you. Wanting to be better. Sitting out to get to Minnesota. And, finally getting here and finding it was everything you had always imagined in your head the WNBA could be? Put that all together. What you saw, that night, was years of emotion pouring out.’’
In one stream of consciousness, Fowles’ WNBA story.
The story of her forcing a trade to Minnesota midway through the 2015 season has been told. Ditto for the playoffs MVP award she won that fall as the Lynx won their third WNBA title.
But last year?
Challenged by Lynx coach Cheryl Reeve to be great, prodded by assistant coach James Wade in workouts before and after every practice, Fowles went from very good to historically dominant.
She averaged 18.9 points, 10.4 rebounds and shot 65.5 percent. She led the league in shooting. More analytically, she also led the league, according to basketballreference.com, in defensive rating, win shares and in player efficiency, an all-encompassing analytic that takes into account all a player does — and does not do — for her team.
“It was always there,’’ Reeve said. “And, I think, she came here to find it. As good as she had been — and it was a hell of a career by the time she came here — there was this untapped area.’’
And now? Encore. If the emotions of that MVP news conference tell a story, that story isn’t finished. Of that Fowles is certain.
The Lynx open the regular season Sunday against the Los Angeles Sparks at Target Center in a rematch of the past two league finals. The last time we saw Fowles she was grabbing a Finals-record 20 rebounds in the clinching Game 5 victory at Williams Arena.
Reeve said more than once this training camp that, on a team that is growing more and more “veteran’’ by the year, both Fowles, 32, and Maya Moore, 28 — the two superstars on the team still firmly in their prime — have to lead the way this year.
Fowles is ready.
“Yes,’’ she said. “I like a challenge. Now, I don’t like feeling like I’m the superstar, or anything like that. I shy away from that stuff. But the challenge part? I like it when the coach says, ‘I need you.’ ”
Seimone Augustus and Fowles go way back to college at LSU, a school that retired Fowles’ uniform number this past season. And what did Augustus see last year?
“It was the first time ever seeing Sylvia dominate,’’ Augustus said. “It didn’t matter, the defense. They could double-team her before she got the ball, after she caught the ball. But nothing stopped her.’’
Watch Fowles and the word “powerful” comes to mind. But her moves are also smooth. She can score on the break or, with her footwork, on her own in the paint, as well as with brute force.
“When Sylvia is in the mind-set of, ‘I’m going to dominate,’ and she’s having fun doing it? I can’t think of anything better,’’ said Moore, herself a WNBA MVP. “She was confident last year. She had clarity of who she was.’’
Arriving weeks before camp began, Fowles worked to improve her footwork. Reeve pushed her to hone her offensive skills.
But for all her success last year, it was a battle.
She was double-teamed. Pushed, shoved. She had her nose broken early against Connecticut. At different times in the season her shoulders acted up, and she dealt with intermittent hip soreness and Achilles’ tendinitis.
But most of all, there’s the constant contact that comes in the post.
“Story of my life,’’ she said. “If I don’t get hit, I probably miss the shot. That’s how bad it is.’’
Fowles, in 2017, wasn’t going to be stopped.
“The mind-set is to pick up from where I was last year,’’ Fowles said. “I know it won’t be the same. I have to be more determined. They’ll be coming at me from the start, and I like that. I want that challenge.’’
Her 2018 journey could be different. She carried the Lynx early last season while Moore — who had an uncharacteristically slow start — rounded into form. This year Moore, having played a half-season in Russia, is in top shape, in rhythm and determined to come flying out of the gate.
“That’s our 1-2 punch,’’ Fowles said. “We got to that by the end of last year. To have that from the get-go? That’s hard to stop. How can you send all your people at me when she’s shooting the way she can shoot? So, pick a poison. I’m looking forward to it.’’
Still, it will be hard to match last year’s story line. If Fowles played like Wilt Chamberlain in the regular season — high-percentage, high-scoring — she went Bill Russell in the playoffs. She had 34 rebounds in the final two games of the Finals, when she and Rebekkah Brunson beat up L.A. on the boards.
“I went back to the basics,’’ Fowles said. “For me that’s defense.’’
All those years of waiting were worth it. Fowles is loathe to criticize her time spent in Chicago, but in Minneapolis so much is different.
“You have so many superstars here, but nobody wants to dim your light,’’ she said. “I don’t think I got the support, fully, in Chicago. It was always a competition between me and somebody else. Here, everybody respects what you bring to the table. You are welcomed with open arms. I think that’s the difference between here and Chicago.’’
And now she’s about to begin her encore. With, perhaps, a little added incentive. In the annual preseason survey of league GMs, Moore was voted most likely to win MVP. Fowles didn’t get a vote.
“Perplexing is probably a word that comes to mind,’’ Reeve said. “I just don’t understand that at all because of the fashion that she did it in [last year].’’
But for Fowles, defending as league champ is more important than winning back-to-back MVPs. She is where she wants to be. She is convinced that, had she not made her way to Minneapolis, there wouldn’t be any MVP award to talk about.
“We know what we have here,’’ Fowles said. “And we don’t want to lose it.’’