When Natalie Achonwa was playing in Indiana, she didn't get it.
Who was this "Sweet Syl" everybody talked about? Sweet? All she got when playing against Lynx center Sylvia Fowles was ''Kick your you-know-what Syl."
Intensity, focus, maybe the occasional elbow.
Then Achonwa came to Minnesota.
"You can feel her aura,'' she said. "From the outside, you see this gritty, dominant player. From the inside, when you're around her, 'Sweet Syl' is the only thing that makes sense."
Fowles is entering her final WNBA season, with platitudes from teammates already flowing during media day. Angel McCoughtry, a friend from their time at USA Basketball, saying Fowles was a big reason she came here. Damiris Dantas, in her rapidly-improving English, calling Fowles "Big Mommy." And Achonwa, trying to explain how odd it is to see such a fierce Fowles on the floor, such a sweet one off of it.
“A lot of women paved the way at (center). But I don't think anyone has done what I've done, not at the caliber I've done it. So yeah, I think I'm the best.”
The Lynx open the 2022 season Friday night in Seattle with the goal of competing for another title for Fowles. There is a weight that comes with that. Coach Cheryl Reeve said this is the first time since last decade's dynasty that the team has entered the season with a title as a realistic goal.
"We have a team that has a shot to contend," Reeve said. "And we want to make sure we maximize all that, for Syl. I feel, with this group, it's palpable."
For Fowles, it's time.
Entering her 15th season, the former league MVP and all-time leading rebounder is ready. Long after practice ended Tuesday she was on the Mayo Clinic Square court, playing with Odyssey Sims' son Jaiden, chasing him around, laughing.
For years Fowles, who grew up with three brothers and a sister and has 14 nieces and nephews, has wanted to be a mother. Before joining the Lynx mid-season in 2015 she had eggs harvested and frozen with that in mind. As she saw her brothers' kids grow, as she saw Sims become a mother, with her friend and teammate Napheesa Collier about to do the same, the waiting has become more difficult.
"But it had to get to a point where I felt like I had given the game my best," said Fowles, who is continuing to pursue studies to become a mortician. "That I had fulfilled all I had to fulfill. I feel like I'm at that point. I wanted to write my own ending."
Stats and honors
Before we talk about what Fowles is most proud of, what she'll remember long after all the scoring, rebounding, blocking and winning is over, let's crunch the numbers.
Fowles has scored 5,983 points, 13th in league history, with a chance at finishing in the top 10. She is the league's career leader in rebounds (3,712). She has been an All-Star seven times, All-WNBA seven times as well, and MVP in 2017. She has won four defensive player of the year awards and four Olympic gold medals; she got the Olympic rings tattooed on her left forearm — at the insistence of Collier, who got one too — after winning her fourth gold in Japan last summer.
Fowles is not a prideful person. The thought of the inevitable farewell tour around the league, and the attention it will bring, made her wince. (She didn't want to do any of that, to which Reeve simply said, "Too bad, you're going to.")
She held out for a half-season to get traded here in 2015. Since then the 6-6 former LSU star led the Lynx to two WNBA titles and was finals MVP both times.
Go ahead, ask her: Are you the best center in league history?
"I am," she said. "A lot of women paved the way at the five. But I don't think anyone has done what I've done, not at the caliber I've done it. So yeah, I think I'm the best."
There is not a lot of argument there.
"She definitely goes down as one of the greatest post players," said Becky Hammon, who played for years against Fowles and now coaches the Las Vegas Aces. "She is a freakishly athletic big. If you look at her size, and the way she's able to move like she does, to jump? She has championship DNA all over her."
Said Washington coach Mike Thibault: "An unbelievably fierce competitor. She wants to be great, all the time. She has standards."
Away from the spotlight
But none of the above is what truly matters to Fowles. It is the people she's met, the teammates and coaches she's come to love, a Lynx team that she has nurtured as an ersatz mother for years.
Ask her to define herself and you hear things like: Future mother, sister, daughter.
"I never wanted to be known as a basketball player," Fowles said. "I wanted people to think of me as someone who is loving, caring."
For years you've heard the stories of Fowles' warm embrace. Reeve is still amazed at how many people, upon meeting Fowles, walk away with free shoes. Achonwa talked about how bad she is at early mornings, and how much better it is to start the day with Fowles, who is one locker over.
Thibault got to know Fowles as an assistant coach on the 2008 Team USA Olympic team. Some time later his wife, Nanci, was diagnosed with cancer. One day they came back home after a doctor's visit to see an orchid sent by Fowles.
“From the outside, you see this gritty, dominant player. From the inside, when you're around her, 'Sweet Syl' is the only thing that makes sense.”
More recently: Dantas has been working hard to come back from a Lisfranc injury that ended her 2021 season. The rehab is difficult and sometimes lonely. So Fowles promised to be there with her. Every day. So at 7 a.m. the day after the team's preseason opener in Washington, D.C., Fowles was at the facility, in the pool, with Dantas.
"Anybody who knows Syl knows she's rooted in kindness," Reeve said. There are some players, Reeve said, who grow inward as the end of their careers loom.
"Not Syl," Reeve said. "She wants to help everyone."
Ready to retire
Reeve has always said that, as great as Fowles was, the big center was going to be fine walking away from the game, that she wouldn't play the string out too long.
Fowles has seen some athletes, in all sports, play too long.
"I'm like, 'Why are you still going?'" Fowles said. " 'What is your motivation?' I have always had the understanding that basketball is something I do, but basketball isn't me. It was a job. Now, you appreciate all the things that it provided. But it's a job."
But, like Thibault said, she has standards. She is proud of her consistency and the energy she has given. At Fowles' exit interview after last season, Reeve kicked out all the assistant coaches and went one-on-one with Syl. You don't look like a player who's done, Reeve said. Fowles agreed. But they both knew of Fowles personal goals. So Reeve said fine. Whenever you're ready, when you've decided, call me.
And she did. Fowles still wants to make sure the Lynx are headed in the right direction before she quits. But there will be so much afterward. Finishing her national and state boards in mortuary science. Motherhood.
Fowles has decided to get one more tattoo. It will be around her right leg. It will commemorate her WNBA titles.
"I can't get it until I see what we do this year," she said.