By now it's become a running joke. Almost a gag between Lynx coach Cheryl Reeve and center Sylvia Fowles. A rite of spring, if you will, in which Reeve goes to Fowles as training camp commences and says something to the effect of:
"You need to play fewer minutes."
To which Fowles sighs and says, "Whatever you say, Coach."
"We laugh about it all the time," Fowles said.
Reeve has an altruistic aim, which is why she was throwing out numbers like 24 minutes per game during camp this year. Fowles, 35, is in her 14th season. She is coming off a truncated 2020 season in the WNBA bubble in which a right calf injury limited her to seven games. Reeve wants to manage the load she puts on her 6-6 center.
So, good intentions. Then Fowles goes out and fills up the boxscore and a few weeks go by and she's averaging nearly 30 minutes a game.
Bottom line: "Our job is to win games," Reeve said. "Syl wants to be out there, and when Syl is out there we're a better team. I don't know where I would've gotten 24 [minutes] from. That's just silly."
So, now, Reeve is doing what Lynx fans have done since 2015: sitting back and watching Fowles play. Nearing 36, with a fourth Olympic gold medal in her sights this summer, Fowles is off to a wonderful start.
She is scoring 17.3 points per game, and averaging 9.5 rebounds and 1.7 assists. On a team that struggled out of the gate 0-4 before winning the past two, Fowles was the one player Reeve could rely on every game. She scored 20 or more points in three of the team's first six games.
Last Sunday, in a game everyone knew the Lynx had to win, Reeve shortened her bench and rode Fowles, who delivered: She scored 24 points, including a team-high six in overtime in a victory over the long, lean Sun. She grabbed nine rebounds and had four assists, three blocks and a steal.
To Reeve it was a top-five all-time game Fowles has played for the Lynx. And that's saying something for a player who was the league MVP in 2017, the WNBA Finals MVP in 2015 and 2017 and defensive player of the year three times.
The nagging notion entering the season was that Fowles, coming off a significant injury, was reaching a point of diminishing returns.
"At the end of the day my work speaks for itself," Fowles said. "Ask any post player in front of me what it's like playing against me."
'She has been the rock'
That's not to say age isn't insistent. Fowles sometimes sees tape of herself from years past and sees a well-oiled machine, not the player who feels the aches and pains of 10,000-plus WNBA minutes. Reeve sees a player who does less rim-running than in the past. On some nights, maybe, a little less upward explosion.
But Fowles said savvy has more than made up for that. Her defense remains strong; there are still times in practice when Reeve is trying to work on something and has to tell Fowles to let an entry pass get into the lane. The WNBA career leader in field goal percentage (59.3), Fowles is shooting 60.3%. (As Reeve has often said to younger players: The reason you have to get the ball to Syl is because she's a 60% shooter and you're not.)
One of the narratives of this year's training camp was about "Mama" Syl. How the veteran was nurturing a young team, communicating, mentoring. All words that sometimes describe a player who isn't bringing it on the court any more.
And then the season started and Fowles went out and led.
"She has been the rock," Reeve said. "We know what we're going to get from her, every day. And this, in a period of instability all around her. She has been our one constant. Really, ever since 2015."
Kayla McBride came as a free agent before the season. After years playing against Fowles, McBride said she's happy to be on the other side of it.
"She's always locked in," McBride said of Fowles. "Every game, every practice, every shootaround. You can see how she's gotten to the places she's gotten to by the way she prepares."
Heading toward history
Fowles came to the bubble last year in the best shape of her career. And then, promptly, she was waylaid by that right calf. The team determined the problem was her training; the Miami native had spent too much time running on the sand beaches. Her legs were strong, but inflexible. This past offseason there was less running in sand and more biking. Fowles had one scary moment in camp, when she landed wrong and felt something in the calf. But it was just scar tissue.
Confident in the calf, Fowles went out and played.
In its season preview, one national outlet ranked the league's top players, and Fowles came in at No. 16. Reeve took issue with it. Fowles? "I try not to pay much mind to that," she said.
This is not to suggest Fowles was being disrespected. But, her protestations to the contrary, it seems Fowles has used this as motivation.
She's a proud player, and there has often been the feeling that Fowles — and perhaps even Reeve — has felt Fowles has not been given her due, whether it be from officials who watch her get hammered in the post without making a call to discussions of the best post player ever.
So ask her. Are you the best post player ever? "Most definitely," Fowles said, laughing. "I don't like giving myself credit. But the older I've gotten, the more I've realized that people won't give you credit if you don't give yourself credit."
Said Reeve, with all due respect to, say, Lisa Leslie and Lauren Jackson: "I've been in this league 20 years, and there has never been a player more physically dominant. When you're talking true center? Nobody better."
And now, at 35, Fowles' metronome-like consistency has continued. She is 15th in WNBA career scoring, first in rebounding, first in shooting percentage, fourth in blocks.
Perhaps Fowles' consistency has spoiled folks. "It's hard being great," Fowles said. "I've been doing it for so long, it's only noticed when I'm not doing it."
She's still doing it. Reeve hopes Minnesota fans can appreciate what they've seen the past six seasons: an all-time great in her sport who forced a trade to get here in 2015, and who stayed here even as the championship era came to a close and Reeve started to reload.
"She's been a blessing," Reeve said.