Sylvia Fowles said it didn't bother her a bit.
Not to dredge up the past, but it was only months ago. The 2021 WNBA season was about to start when a certain sports conglomerate put together a list of the Top 25 players entering the season and put Fowles at No. 16.
Out of sight. Out of mind.
Fowles is 35. She missed most of the 2020 season in the WNBA bubble because of a calf injury, while the Lynx finished a surprising fourth (though Lynx coach Cheryl Reeve is convinced the team was a strong defensive rebounder away from reaching the finals).
“I don't like altercations. But at the end of the day you have to do what's in the best interests of the team.”
We only mention this because those around Syl, those who coach her, play with her, love her, have been shaking their heads about that all season. Not Fowles.
After finishing a regular season that has her, at least, in the MVP conversation? After rebounding and blocking and stealing her way into a fourth career Associated Press defensive player of the year award? After leading a Lynx team that survived a slow start and injuries to rise to the No. 3 seed and a second-round playoff meeting Sunday with Chicago, her former team? After playing on the U.S. team in Tokyo and winning her fourth Olympic gold medal?
"I know what I'm capable of," Fowles said. She's not about to admit that a perceived slight was anything like motivation.
But she wasn't smiling.
There is a reason why Fowles is called Mama Syl or Sweet Syl by her teammates. She's a 6-6 buffer from a head coach that can, at times, be rather forceful. She is a team builder; the first time Bridget Carleton walked through the door after signing a seven-day contract late in the 2019 season, the first person she saw was Fowles, who gave her a big hug.
But there is a feisty side to Fowles, too. And it's hard not to think that the best true, post-up center in the 25 years of the league wouldn't be at least a little motivated to prove suggestions she could no longer dominate in the league were greatly exaggerated.
"Whatever is outside doesn't matter," Fowles insisted. "At this point I have nothing to prove. But I had personal motivation for this season — defense. The last couple years I kind of went under the radar defensively. That was the focus. Personally, it was defense."
And, perhaps, more.
Seeking another title
Near the end of her career, Fowles' broad shoulders have been a bridge from one era of Lynx teams to another. After helping one Lynx iteration win the final two of four titles, Fowles has taken what she learned from Lindsay Whalen, Rebekkah Brunson, Maya Moore and Seimone Augustus and is now trying to impart that to the likes of Napheesa Collier, Kayla McBride and Aerial Powers.
"It feels weird," Fowles said. "You come in with all these great players. Just a well-oiled machine. You have this chemistry and understanding. And then you have to start all over. They had a big impact on me. And I feel I'm having that impact now. On this team. But this team has impacted me, too. Their energy has rejuvenated me."
Collier remembered a game early in her rookie season in 2019. Fowles got the ball in the post, was triple-teamed. Easy bucket. "I was like, 'That's insane,'" Collier said.
Whalen, now the Gophers women's coach, saw it for years. In 2017, when Fowles was on the way to winning the regular-season MVP and her second WNBA Finals MVP, there would be times when she'd throw it into Fowles, surrounded by defenders. Footwork, fake, fake, fake. Score. "I'd look over at Cheryl and be like, 'What?'" Whalen said. "She'd shrug, and I'd shrug."
Not much has changed. This season Fowles has averaged a double-double. She was 14th in the WNBA in scoring (16.0 points per game), second in rebounds (10.1) and blocks (1.8), and tied for first in steals (1.8). She is first in the league in shooting percentage (.640) and second in points in the paint (12.1). Analytics? She is first in defensive win shares (2.8) and second in defensive rating (90.1).
Respect on the line
Reeve said Fowles' footwork and help defense are better than when she arrived in 2015. Playing better than 30 minutes a game, she still runs the floor.
"And people kind of thought she was done," Reeve said. "I don't know why. They don't think that when [Diana] Taurasi comes back from injury. When [Sue] Bird comes back from injury. I don't know why Syl doesn't get the same respect, and never has."
She does with the Lynx. When Fowles first came in 2015 at midseason, after holding out to force a trade from Chicago (the best decision she ever made, she said; she doesn't think she'd still be playing had it not happened), she joined a team that had already won two titles. It was like diving headfirst into a winning culture. She kept quiet and worked, tried to contribute without stepping on toes, soaked it in.
"It was their team," Fowles said. "They had done it without me."
“At this point I have nothing to prove. But I had personal motivation for this season — defense. The last couple years I kind of went under the radar defensively. That was the focus. Personally, it was defense.”
Now, six years later, the Lynx are hers. She has learned to communicate, hold teammates accountable. For one of the nicest people around, it was hard.
"I don't like it," she said. "I don't like altercations. But at the end of the day you have to do what's in the best interests of the team."
That has meant taking Collier under her wing. It started early, with Fowles willing to help and Collier, smartly, craving a mentor. Reeve said Collier is Fowles' closest friend on the team; at a recent photo shoot for the team picture, one shot had Collier riding Fowles piggyback. "She brings us together," Collier said.
Said Fowles: "Me and Phee are like bread and butter."
Layshia Clarendon saw it right away after joining the team after its 0-4 start. "She is the heartbeat, in so many ways. She is the backbone of our team."
Always a helping hand
Reeve was asked where Fowles ranked in importance among players she'd coached here.
"It's hard to do what she's done, which is help a team that won 25 games a year, and to now help us get to where we are," Reeve said. "Syl is up there with Seimone. And, I would say, Lindsay. So top three."
Fowles has earned a reputation as one of the best people in the game. Washington Mystics coach Mike Thibault worked with Fowles with USA Basketball. When his wife, Nanci, was diagnosed with cancer, Fowles was among the first to call.
"She gets what life is about," Thibault said.
Whalen remembers the aftermath of the title celebration after Game 3 in 2017, in the locker room in the basement of Williams Arena. "There she was, helping clean up the champagne, putting away jerseys not long after grabbing 20 rebounds — there is the finals MVP, folding laundry," Whalen said. "I just can't think of a better representative of the team."
"That feeling of winning in '15 and '17, it's different now," Fowles said. "Because the faces are different. But the energy doesn't change. And that's what you want to teach these girls. It's going to be hard, gritty. You have a short memory, a quick turnaround. But all of those things make it so worth it when you win."