For the record: Cheryl Reeve, the Lynx coach and general manager, offered Sylvia Fowles an out.
It was during the offseason. Maya Moore was on an open-ended sabbatical, Lindsay Whalen was retired, Rebekkah Brunson was (and is) questionable to return.
Reeve was about to embark on a radical remake of a roster that had produced four WNBA titles since 2011, a rebuild that could take some time. And she felt she owed Fowles, a 33-year-old perennial All-Star about to enter her 12th season, the chance to keep winning.
If you want to be somewhere else, tell me, Reeve said. If you want to go to a place closer to winning, say so.
“You’re talking about loyalty here,” Fowles said this week, sitting in the lobby of the apartment complex where many Lynx players stay.
Fowles held out for half of the 2015 season to force a trade here from Chicago. By the time the Lynx won their third title that fall she was finals MVP. In 2017 she was MVP, both of the regular season and the finals, when the Lynx won their fourth title in seven seasons.
“It’s all good when things are going good. You have your Whalens, Moores, Brunsons, and everything is going smooth,” Fowles said. “Well, maybe things could be harder now. But I felt it was wrong to leave. I don’t want to go anywhere else. I’d rather stay here, do it the right way, finish in a Lynx jersey, leave this team in a good place.”
The Lynx open the 2019 season Saturday against Chicago at Target Center, coming off an 18-16 season, a first-round playoff loss and the end, essentially, of the core group that won all those titles. The season was both exhausting and frustrating and, in the case of Fowles, painful — she played through most of it with ruptured tendons in her left elbow.
But now: A new season filled with new faces. The 2019 Lynx roster includes three rookies, two of whom — draftees Napheesa Collier and Jessica Shepard — figure strongly in the rotation.
The Lynx signed Karima Christmas-Kelly and Damiris Dantas as free agents, traded for Lexie Brown, Odyssey Sims, Stephanie Talbot and Alaina Coates. Christmas-Kelly, Dantas, Brown, Sims and Talbot likely will figure prominently in the team’s plans.
When each day’s practice ends and the Lynx form a circle at midcourt, Fowles sees only two players who were on last year’s team — Seimone Augustus and Danielle Robinson.
“It’s stunning sometimes,” Fowles said. “You see all these new faces. You have to learn how people play, teach them how you play.”
It is a team that, league-wide, is not expected to compete for a title.
“So people are counting us out,” she said. “OK. You can say we won’t be as good. But I don’t know. I feel we need to make people shut up. A lot of people will be surprised with what we have.”
Fowles and Augustus have talked during camp about their desire to leave the Lynx in a good position before they go. Augustus, who has worn only a Lynx uniform, already has announced she plans to be done after the 2020 season.
Fowles is the player who, more than ever, the team will revolve around. On the court she will still be the focal point of an offense built to provide more spacing on the floor, and thus less pressure in the post. Off it, Fowles has forced herself to go from a leader by example to a leader by voice.
“Someone has to take this younger generation and teach them how to talk to each other, how to treat each other,” said Fowles. She has already been dubbed “Big Mama.” (“That name might stick,” Fowles joked.)
“So I’m talking,’’ Fowles continued. “I talk too much sometimes. I say to Reeve, ‘I’m talking too much.’ And she says, ‘You can never talk enough.’ ”
Fowles said the youth and energy of this year’s team is a tonic. She is buoyed by it, energized.
And she needed it after last season, which was difficult from the start. Whalen accepted the Gophers head coaching job, then came back and spent her final Lynx season with one foot in two camps. Moore, clearly in retrospect, was feeling burned out, not her normal self; after a difficult season she announced her intention to take at least a season off.
Fowles? A month before the All Star break, during a practice, she injured her elbow, an injury that got more painful as the season went on. Though the Lynx tried to keep it a secret, it’s clear opponents figured it out; Fowles recalls a number of players targeting the injury.
Also, Fowles said, it was hard playing on a team when everyone didn’t always seemed engaged.
“That was the hardest part,” she said, “seeing them have to struggle. You do get exhausted. At the end of the day you’re trying to help these people, but you’re not helping yourself. At the end of the season it was like, ‘Man, that was hard. Not as much fun as it should be.’ ”
So far, whether the team wins or loses, it’s already more fun. It is the youthful optimism, the energy, the work Fowles loves about this group.
“She has always carried this team,” Augustus said. “She’s always been a leader. But, this year, she’s vocal. She’s doing a great job of pulling everyone under her wing.”
And Reeve has been doing what she can to make Fowles’ job easier. She has added more shooters, hoping to space the floor. Sims, in particular, has forged a bond with Fowles in two-player sets. Reeve wants to run more, which Fowles loves. Easier points, less in-the-post pounding, though Fowles did add 15 pounds of muscle.
But, perhaps, more than ever, the Lynx need Fowles — who averaged 17.7 points and a career-high 11.9 rebounds while playing hurt last year — to be the go-to player.
“Any team she’s on has a chance to be successful,” Reeve said. “We’re not going to be the favorite, but you’ll have to play hard to beat us.”
Her elbow healed without surgery. Finally Fowles is pain free. As is her nature, she has stopped looking back and is focused on the future. A future that, for her, will include playing in Minnesota until her career is over.
“I came here because I wanted to win,” Fowles said. “I wanted to be around good athletes. I got two championships up out of it. And now I feel like, ‘What can I give back?’ ”