The process of making Sylvia Fowles an almost unguardable force was already under way when she was in the fourth grade.
The Lynx center began playing pickup basketball games with her three older brothers in elementary school, and the boys had a cruel rule: She couldn’t play offense.
Her brothers would organize five-on-five games with her on one team and them on another. When her team had the ball, they told her to stay on the end opposite of the action, or they instructed her teammates not to pass to her. So if she was going to get her hands on the ball, she would have to do so on defense.
And “if you want to steal a ball,” Fowles said, “you’ve got to learn how to catch. I developed those hands really, really early.”
Now those hands — “nice-sized hands,” assistant coach James Wade said — are helping Fowles lead the Lynx to a league-best record going into Friday night’s game against Los Angeles in St. Paul. She makes difficult catches in traffic look easy. So even when teams crowd in the paint or create narrow passing windows by playing zone defense, the Lynx still have confidence dishing to the 6-foot-6 center.
“It could be flying out of bounds,” point guard Renee Montgomery said. “It could almost hit the rim. She catches everything.”
Near the end of the Lynx’s practice on Thursday, Seimone Augustus lobbed a pass high over the heads of two defenders, just as Fowles requests. She tells teammates if she can’t catch the ball, no one can.
She jumped, grabbed the ball with one hand, came down to the ground in front of the hoop and jumped again to score a layup. All in one fluid motion.
“She has good footwork to go with those great hands, and they all coincide,” Wade said. “You might have post players who have good footwork, and you might have post players that have good hands. But to have those two things together — and good instincts — there’s not a lot [of players who have both]. It’s very rare.”
Wade, who works closest with Fowles, said balance is what enables her to make catches in traffic. She lands with a wide base, which means she can pivot into multiple moves depending on how teams defend her, and often they defend her with double- or triple-teams.
Fowles also handles contact well. She can make an opponent look like “a gnat,” coach Cheryl Reeve said.
Much of this skill set is natural, Reeve said, but Wade works to bolster it. He likes to “beat her up as much as possible” in the post by knocking her around with pads.
Opponents organize their defenses around Fowles, so if the Lynx want to get her the ball, they sometimes must try a risky pass. Occasionally a turnover results from trying to rifle a pass underneath the hoop, after Fowles has sealed off one defender only to have another standing nearby.
“It’s like throwing downfield,” Reeve said of the difficult entry passes. “You’ve got to throw it downfield.”
The Lynx have the confidence to do so, Wade said, because Fowles has confidence in herself. When Montgomery is on the floor, Fowles said she simply gives the point guard “the eye,” which is really a quick raise of both eyebrows.
Her 20.7 points per game and 68.2 shooting percentage are career highs. Which makes it almost unbelievable this MVP candidate wasn’t allowed to play on offense in those pickup games with her brothers until she was in eighth grade.
By then, she said, she caught everything.