Older, Wiser Fowles Learning To Detach, Then Dominate

Nightmares have mothers, too.

The swirling blur of limbs responsible for all that carnage from the Southwest to the Northeast over the past week calls hers three times a day.

“I don’t ever really complain to my teammates, but my mother’s probably like ‘what’s she calling me for?’” said Chicago Sky center Sylvia Fowles, the second-leading scorer and rebounder in the WNBA and leading candidate for Natural Disaster of the Year. “I call her all the time telling her about how much I need a break and how my body hurts.”

Over the Sky’s past three games, Fowles bruised and lumped and contused her way to one of the best weeks of the year. Of anyone’s year. She notched three straight double-doubles, but dominated the final two games of the week so thoroughly that her 19-point, 11-rebound effort against Connecticut on Aug. 9 was reduced to black sheepdom. In those two games – a three-point loss to the first-place Lynx on Aug. 12 and an upset win over the Silver Stars on Aug. 14 – she shot a combined 79.3 percent from the floor, scored 28 points in both, averaged 15 rebounds and had one turnover across 73 minutes.

Against San Antonio, she grabbed more offensive rebounds than the Stars’ leading rebounder, Sophia Young, did in total. For a team in dire need of some wins to stay in the hunt for its first-ever postseason berth, she gave Chicago hope.

And as the regular season veers into the home stretch with the Sky sitting just 1.5 games out of the playoff picture, it becomes clear just how important it is to get Sylvia Fowles some rest whenever possible.

“The level Sylvia’s played at, from collegiate ball, the WNBA, European ball, [it’s] year-round,” Sky coach Pokey Chatman said. “If you’ve been around players like [Diana] Taurasi and [Sue] Bird, players who understand that, you learn some of those lessons in terms of being like ‘When we have a day off, Sylvia, I need you to take a day off. Stay home, do nothing.’”

Nobody in the WNBA has spent more time on the court than Fowles, who’s second in the league in minutes per game (34.8), behind only Washington’s Crystal Langhorne (35.0), who’s played six fewer games (and 205 fewer minutes) than Fowles. In the three games last week, Fowles played 36.7 minutes per game, which means she sat for 10 minutes across three games.

“She’s crucial. Essential,” said Chatman of her star. “I think she’s a player that can dominate both ends of floor. I don’t know if you can say that to the same level with many players.”

This is the time of the year when days get shorter but minutes get longer. When joints creak like the parquet below them and muscles go on strike. With 25 games already in the books for most teams and about 10 more left on the schedule, here’s the point in the season when players are reminded of what it means to be a professional.

Especially down low.

“It’s difficult as a post player,” Chatman said. “You’re running rim to rim, you’re getting hit on every cut. It’s easy sometimes to say you’re gonna take this play off. She hasn’t ever taken any plays off.”

Turns out that being a professional basketball player means having two speeds. You’ve got court speed, and you’ve got rest speed. They’re otherwise known as on and off. It’s the in-between where things get messed up.

So Fowles has learned to take advantage of those rare days off, which generally come between travel or practice days and game days. Which means basically never. It took a while to get there, admittedly. Like anyone else, she figured that when she was resting, somebody else was shooting. Or lifting. Or growing eight inches.

“It took me a while to learn [to turn off basketball for a day],” she said. “Some of that is because I’m stubborn. I refused not to play, thinking ‘I know what’s best for my body.’”

Now, she’ll get as far away from the arena as she can. She’ll call her mom. Three times a day. She’ll check in with her nieces & nephews – “I try to make my family feel important because I’m always gone and always on the go” – and Skype with whoever else wants to talk to her.

And you’ll be happy to know that the force that could only be stopped last week by the shot clock also spends her free time drawing.

“Basically you don’t watch basketball, you don’t talk basketball, you don’t think basketball,” she said.

But those off days are still rare. On practice days, Fowles still stays overtime at practice, taking extra shots until she’s confident she can make them all. Or at least maintain her league-leading .584 shooting percentage. Then, the minute she’s satisfied, she’ll run off and freeze her body in ice.

“That’s taking care of your body,” Chatman said. “The cold tub isn’t a fun place to be. Most players are running to the bus, but she was hunting down the trainer for a cold-water tub.”

But it pays off. As do the Days of No Basketball. Not that Chatman wants every player to vacate the premises completely on off days, she said with a laugh.

“They’re professionals,” Chatman said. “They’re fighting for, 1 - their livelihood; 2 – an opportunity do to something special here in Chicago and 3 – they know their bodies, they know what they have to do to make themselves ready at the highest level.”

And as the Sky head into the final stretch of their season, Fowles becomes even more central to her team’s hopes of making history. She’s quick to pass credit off to her teammates, who, she said, have begun settling into their roles and catching fire at just the right time. But for the first time in her career, she’s ready to show everyone the way, she said.

“I feel more comfortable in the position I’m in,” she said. “I think my teammates have a great respect for me in how I go hard all the time, and it’s time to step up and be a leader.”

“We don’t have the luxury of starting bad and making five substitutions and still being in the game,” Chatman said. “That’s not an insult. But we need Sylvia to be on the floor.”