Illustration by Joe Rull, Star Tribune
Lynx superstar Sylvia Fowles writing the final chapter to her story of basketball greatness
Fowles has loved her WNBA career. But she's not struggling with walking away from basketball as she approaches her final regular-season home game Friday at Target Center.

By Kent Youngblood Star Tribune

Sylvia Fowles' tears usually come at night.

That's when she's alone, the work of the day done, when she has time to think about the final days of her wonderful career.

Lately it's been especially intense. Fowles, the greatest classic, back-to-the-basket center the WNBA has seen, has always approached her job with a singular focus. All that mattered was her job, her team, her teammates, the next game.


But, lately, the periphery has crowded in. As the 15th and final season of her career wound down, as she has gone from one arena to another, receiving gifts, hugs, thanks?

"These past two weeks I've been the most emotional,'' the Lynx center said. "I always say that I tend to go into this thing blindfolded. I just do my job. I don't pay attention to the outside world and how they see me. But to sit back and go city to city, to have gotten all the love and appreciation that I've gotten? It makes me feel I've done something right for the last 15 years. So you think about those things. I do a lot of my reflection at night, and that's when I cry.''

Not out of sadness. Fowles has loved her career, but she won't struggle walking away from it. At the start of the season she talked about writing the end to her own story, and she has done that. Fowles studied mortuary science during her career and she has two job offers waiting back home in Florida. She wants to travel. She wants to become a mother.

She's ready.

No. It's joy. Ask Fowles what she remembers most about her career and you won't get a game, a play, maybe even a title or her 2017 MVP award. She'll talk about her great teammates, the relationships she forged.

Which is why Friday will be so ... Intense.

After the Lynx finish their game with Seattle — a team that includes Sue Bird, another member of what might be the WNBA's greatest generation, who also has announced her retirement — the Lynx will honor Fowles.

It will be a celebration of a career and a life.

"I have mixed emotions,'' Fowles said. "This being my last game at home I want to have fun, focus on getting a playoff spot. I want to be respectful of the people coming out to support me, people who love me. I'm looking to have a good time, let my emotions flow."

Lynx coach Cheryl Reeve was more direct: "Because the game has so much significance, before and during the game it will be business as usual. After the game we'll all be a hot mess.''

Fowles and Bird were teammates in Moscow years ago, when Fowles was a year out of Louisiana State University. Bird remembers the team's first practice, when nobody wanted anything to do with Fowles in the paint.

"Immediately dominant,'' Bird said. "Her size, stature. She's more of a complete player now. I remembers that MVP season in 2017. She was virtually unstoppable. But even then, no one wanted to mess with Syl.''

Mike Thibault, Washington Mystics coach and general manager, worked with Fowles with USA Basketball. To him, greatness is dominance over time. "Lots of players have been good for a short period, then it fades,'' he said. "For 15 years, two teams, she was dominant. I see her as one of those players who embraced who she was as a player.''

The numbers are staggering. Fowles will retire 10th all time in WNBA scoring (she currently has 6,392 points), No. 1 in defensive rebounds (2,856), total rebounds (3,983) and shooting percentage (60%). She recently rose to third in blocks (719). Fowles was the WNBA Defensive Player of the Year four times, the first and fourth awards coming 10 years apart. She was an eight-time All-Star, she won four Olympic golds, two WNBA titles — she was MVP in the Finals both times — and the 2017 regular-season MVP.

Thibault remembers her working endlessly on her free throws after Team USA practices, determined to get better; a 58.5% free throw shooter as a rookie, she became a career 72.8% shooter.

Fowles always worked. There was a game against Los Angeles this year where Fowles got the ball and then was surrounded by extra defenders. She squared up, then spun for a layup. Even after many seasons, Reeve saw something new.

"Talk about classic centers, there is no one like Syl, no one,'' Reeve said. "The skills, the dominance, the athletic play."

Fowles forced a trade from Chicago after sitting out the first half of the 2015 season, determined to come to Minnesota so she could play for Reeve and with Maya Moore, Rebekkah Brunson, Seimone Augustus and Lindsay Whalen. Fowles said she'd have contemplated retirement had the trade not happened. When it did, the experience allowed her to fall in love with the game again.

"We don't have the dynasty we ended up creating without Syl,'' Whalen said. "We wouldn't win in 2015 and 2017 without her. I wouldn't be going into the Hall of Fame without her; there is no way I'm a four-time champion without her. Best center of all time. And she's the nicest person.''

Lynx backup center Natalie Achonwa didn't understand Fowles' nickname — Sweet Syl — until she got here. To that point she'd played against the tenacious Fowles and other adjectives came to mind. At media day this spring she talked about Fowles' aura. "From the outside you see this gritty, dominant player,'' Achonwa said. "From the inside, when you're around her, 'Sweet Syl' is the only thing that makes sense.''

Days ago, Reeve called Fowles the most beloved player in the league. She may be right. Ask anyone about how good a player Fowles is and the discussion always gets back to how good a person she is.

"It's who she is,'' Bird said. "Her warmth. Even back in Russia, she had this welcoming vibe about her, this warmth about her.''

Before her final regular-season home game in Seattle, Bird talked about how the love she was getting at the end of her career was simply all the work she put in during it coming back around. Fowles agreed.

"It comes from building relationships,'' she said. "Understanding other peoples' journeys. Being there.''

Now Fowles is getting all that back. Napheesa Collier returned to action 10½ weeks after giving birth, driven by a desire to play with Fowles again. In every city, she has been showered with gifts.

“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.”
Natalie Achonwa, Minnesota Lynx center

"She is starting to see the magnitude of her body of work,'' Reeve said. "Not just here, with the Lynx, but everywhere. She's seeing how people feel about her.''

That said, Reeve has been vocal in recent weeks about how some players are more recognized by the league than others, and how Fowles hasn't always gotten her due.

All she can do is play, Fowles said. Talking about it is frustrating. She knows how her fellow players feel about her.

But still:

"[The WNBA] will always have a core group they choose to market,'' Fowles said. "I don't understand why. In a league with 144 players, why not market everybody.''

It's fitting Seattle will be in town as Friday's opponent. The game will feature two of the greatest players in a generation of talent that lifted the league. Last week Bird talked with pride about how players have played hard despite lower salaries, a lack of respect. "No matter what, you could always count on the product on the floor,'' she said.

Said Fowles: "We were go-getters. We had a chip on our shoulder. We had a lot of things to prove. We had a mission, a big mission.''

For Fowles, the mission is almost over. It's time to say thanks. Fowles will.

"I'm so grateful for my teammates,'' she said. "I'm half of what I am without my teammates. I couldn't have done this by myself.''