An Unforgettable Ride: Reflecting on Sylvia Fowles’ Legendary Career

My first encounter with Sylvia Fowles came on April 9, 2008 – the day of the 2008 WNBA Draft. It was the first draft I was working in person and my task was to shadow Fowles in the hours leading up to and following her selection as the No. 2 overall pick, chronicling her day-in-the-life experience as WNBA lottery pick.

Before we met, my only knowledge of Fowles had been watching her dominate on the court in college – leading the LSU Tigers to four straight Final Fours – with a mix of size, strength, skill and athleticism that made WNBA scouts salivate thinking about her potential at the pro level.

In person, Fowles’ quiet and reserve proved striking; I was not expecting this 6-foot-6 force on the court to be shy while discussing her feelings about entering the WNBA with the draft just hours away. It was my first glimpse at the duality of Fowles – a player who could crush opponents on a nightly basis on the court, but be referred to as “Mama Syl” by players across the league for her motherly, caretaking nature off the court.

Sylvia Fowles at the 2008 WNBA Draft.

Five weeks after draft day, one of the greatest careers in WNBA history officially began when Fowles and the Chicago Sky visited Sue Bird and the Seattle Storm on May 17, 2008 for Fowles’ first road game. In full-circle fashion, Fowles’ final home game (now as a Minnesota Lynx) also came against Bird and the Storm on Friday night.

Fowles finished with 13 points and 12 rebounds – her 12th double-double of the season and 192nd of her career – but the Storm got the 96-69 win. While the game had significance in Minnesota’s playoff push, this night was about saluting Fowles and showing appreciation for all that she had accomplished in her career. From the video tribute video below, to the declaration of Sylvia Fowles Day by the governor of Minnesota, to the tears shed and hugs shared before and after the game, Fowles was the rightful center of attention for all in attendance and all watching on ESPN.

Fowles 12 rebounds on Friday were enough to pass former teammate Rebekkah Brunson for the most in Minnesota Lynx history. Fowles is the only player in WNBA history to be the all-time leading rebounder for two franchises: Minnesota (2,162 rebounds), where she has spent the past eight seasons since joining the team in 2015; and Chicago (1,832 rebounds), where she spent the first seven years of her career since entering the WBNA in 2008.

Looking back at her rookie season, the transition to the pro level was seamless as she was able to score against the best post players in the world, collect rebounds at a top 10 level, and protected the basket as one of only three players to average more than two blocks per game. Despite her first season being cut to 17 games due to a knee injury, Fowles was still selected to the All-Rookie Team with averages of 10.4 points, 7.4 rebounds and 2.1 blocks.

The leap for Fowles came in her third WNBA season, when she averaged 17.8 points and 9.9 rebounds, along with a league-leading (and still career-best) 2.6 blocks per game while suiting up for all 34 games for the first time in her career. Fowles earned her initial All-WNBA First Team and All-Defensive First Team honor that season – but was just getting started when it came to racking up awards and accolades.

Fowles followed her leap year by elevating even higher in 2011: she averaged 20.0 points and 10.2 rebounds, leading the league with 22 double-doubles. She joined Chamique Holdsclaw (2003) as the only players in WNBA history to average at least 20 points and 10 rebounds over a full season – a feat no player has accomplished since. This was the first of six seasons in which Fowles averaged a double-double; no other player has more than four.

In addition to racking up points and rebounds, Fowles led the WNBA in blocks (2.0 per game), while adding 1.2 steals per game to edge out Tamika Catchings to win her first WNBA Defensive Player of the Year award.

Fowles would go on to win the award four times – adding wins in 2013, 2016 and 2021 – and now trails only Catchings (five) on the all-time list. Those two players own 36% (9-of-25) of the league’s top defensive honors. Fowles’ most recent win comes a full decade after her first award, which is the largest gap between DPOYs of any winner.

“She was just the mom of the team and always nurturing — she really took care of us rookies,” said former Sky teammate Courtney Vandersloot. “I think there was a few of us that year. She made sure we knew what the heck was going on and really took me under my wing, made me feel comfortable and that I deserved to be here, and they wanted me here. I think that was the biggest thing, and my mom really appreciated it. She still loves Sylvia to this day because she knows [Sylvia] really did take care of me while I was here.”

After seven seasons and plenty of individual accolades in Chicago, Fowles knew it was time for a change as she looked to take career to new heights and more success. She pushed for, and received, a trade from Chicago to Minnesota. There, Fowles joined an established WNBA juggernaut with titles in the bag (2011, 2013) and an opening for a center to anchor the squad heading into the back half of the 2010s.

Fowles arrived midway through the 2015 season and made her presence felt immediately, elevating an already great Lynx team to another stratosphere. The 2015 Minnesota Lynx featured Lindsay Whalen, Seimone Augustus, Maya Moore, Rebekkah Brunson and Fowles in one of the best five-player lineups ever assembled.

Minnesota’s starting five of Maya Moore, Sylvia Fowles, Lindsay Whalen, Rebekkah Brunson and Seimone Augustus.

The Lynx returned to the WNBA Finals for the fourth time in five seasons, earning their third WNBA title in a five-game series against Catchings and the Indiana Fever. Fowles not only won her first WNBA title, but also took home Finals MVP honors after averaging 15.6 points on 69.6% shooting, to go with 9.4 rebounds, 1.2 assists, 1.0 blocks and 0.8 steals in the championship series.

Perhaps the scariest part of that Lynx title run is that there remained room for improvement: In 18 regular season games, Fowles averaged 15.3 points and 8.3 rebounds (her lowest mark since her sophomore season) and shot just 50.3% (a career low).

In 2016, Fowles played her first full season in Minnesota, winning her third Defensive Player of the Year award while helping the Lynx finish 28-6 to earn the No. 1 overall seed in a new playoff format that ditched conference affiliations. The new format led to a Finals matchup between the Lynx and Los Angeles Sparks in what turned out to be an epic five-game series. The Lynx were just seconds away from a successful title defense before a Nneka Ogwumike putback – after her first attempt was blocked by Fowles – proved to be the championship-clincher with 3.1 seconds to play.

A year later, Fowles had her best season in a Lynx uniform, averaging 18.9 points on a career-best 65.5% shooting, to go with 10.4 rebounds, 2.0 blocks, 1.5 assists and 1.3 steals in just 30.8 minutes per game. She posted 20 double doubles (tied for the league lead with Jonquel Jones) and the Lynx outscored opponents by 9.8 points per game in her minutes on the court.

Leading the Lynx to a league-best 27-7 record, Fowles won league Most Valuable Player honors, becoming only the second WNBA player (along with Catchings) to win their first MVP award at least 10 seasons into their career. Only three NBA players have ever done it – Hakeem Olajuwon in his 10th season (1993-94), Karl Malone in his 12th season (1996-97) and Kobe Bryant also in his 12th season (2007-08).

While earning the league’s top individual honor was great, it was topped by Fowles and the Lynx getting their revenge on the Sparks in another classic five-game Finals. This time around, the Lynx won the final two games to clinch their fourth WNBA title – tying the Houston Comets for the most by any franchise in league history (the Storm later joined the tie in 2020). Fowles was once again named Finals MVP after averaging 17.8 points, 15.0 rebounds, 2.4 blocks, 1.8 steals and 61.3% shooting.

Parker and Fowles – the top two picks in the 2008 Draft – were now 1-1 against each other in the WNBA Finals. These two have played against one another for the better part of two decades, from AAU Tournaments as teenagers, to SEC matchups between Parker’s Tennessee Lady Vols and Fowles LSU Tigers, to the WNBA.

“I’m big on ‘Do as they do, and not as they say,’ because I think a lot of people say a lot of stuff. But Syl, man, she does it every single day” Parker said, while seated side-by-side with Fowles at an All-Star press conference. “You know it’s going to be a battle every time you play against her.

“On offense you know you’re going to have guard the duck-in and then you’re going to have to turn around and guard the rebound, because she is an amazing offensive rebounder. And then you’re going to have to come down and make things difficult for her on the other side.

“If you think about it — I’m sorry, I’m going off a tangent but we are the 1 and 2 pick and I don’t think there’s that much that separates [us]. Think about it: points, championships, it’s been unbelievable to play against you for all these years. Just honestly the advice I’ve gotten is watching her. She just makes me level up my game.”

After winning four championships in the span of seven years, the Voltron that was the mighty Minnesota Lynx began to break apart. Following the 2018 season:

• Whalen retired to become the head coach at her alma mater, the University of Minnesota;

• Moore walked away from the game in her prime to focus on family and social justice issues;

• Brunson missed the entire 2019 season due to a concussion, eventually deciding to retire and join the Lynx coaching staff the following year;

• Augustus played 12 games with the Lynx in 2019 before leaving to join the Sparks as a free agent in 2020. She retired prior to the 2021 season and serves on the Sparks coaching staff.

Fowles was the only cornerstone piece of the dynasty still on the court – along with Reeve on the sidelines – as a new generation of Lynx players came into the fold. Fowles went from being one piece of a veteran core, to the vet leading a younger group of teammates. Reeve pushed Fowles to become a more vocal leader, and Fowles took it as the next step in her evolution as a player.

While the Lynx have not made it back to the Finals since that magical 2017 run, they have made the playoffs every year dating back to 2011. Entering the final weekend of Fowles’ final season, the Lynx are in the thick of a competitive four-team race for the final two playoff spots. If the Lynx are able to secure a playoff berth, they would match the Indiana Fever (2005-2016) for the longest run of playoff appearances in league history with a dozen.

On June 19, the Lynx blew a 14-point second-half lead to the league-leading Las Vegas Aces to lose their fifth straight game and fall to 3-13 – their worst start through 16 games in franchise history. Ten days before this game, the Lynx announced that Fowles was out indefinitely due to a cartilage injury in her knee.

Was “Syl’s Final Ride” going to go out with a whimper and a season-ending injury? Not so fast. Fowles ended up missing just two weeks and her return helped spark a mid-season turnaround for the Lynx, who have gone 11-7 since that disastrous 3-13 start. Last week, they Lynx got another boost with the return of Napheesa Collier just three months removed from giving birth to her first daughter. Collier was determined to play alongside Fowles one more time, and now they have a chance to extend that run into the postseason.

Friday’s game against Seattle was not only the final regular season meeting for Fowles and Bird before both retire at the end of the season, it was also the final regular season meeting between Fowles and Tina Charles – the two players with the most double-doubles in league history.

In addition to her position as the league’s all-time leader in double-doubles, Fowles also ranks first in career field goal percentage (59.9%) and total rebounds (3,994); she enters her final regular season game on Sunday needing only six rebounds to become the first player to reach 6,000 in a WNBA career. When looking at rebound average, no player in league history comes close to touching Fowles at 9.8 rebounds per game; the next closest player is former teammate Brunson at 7.4 rebounds per game.

Fowles ranks third all-time in blocks (720), trailing only Margo Dydek and Lisa Leslie, and currently ranks 10th all-time in scoring (6,405) as she and Parker (6,408) have traded the ninth and 10th spot in the all-time rankings throughout the season.

Fowles is one of the final traditional back-to-the-basket centers in the league as there is more and more focus on “pace and pace”, with bigs spreading the floor as long-range shooters. That’s what made Fowles’ 3-pointer to open her final All-Star game in Chicago last month so fun – it was only the second 3 she had ever made in her entire career – among only five attempts between the regular season (1-of-1 back in 2010) and All-Star Games (1-of-4).

Another surprising moment that day came just before the end of the first half. Fowles deflected a pass from Jackie Young, got the steal (no surprise there from the four-time DPOY), then found herself with no one in front of her as she pushed the ball on a one-woman fast break. Feeling the buzz building in the arena from the Chicago fans and fellow All-Stars, Fowles rose up and threw down a one-handed dunk.

“I just heard the momentum of the crowd,” said Fowles after the game. “I probably heard a couple of benches and seen a couple of faces on the other team and I was like, [I’ll] just go for it. It was just in the moment. I didn’t really think about it.”

Not only did the crowd erupt, but so did every player on the court and on the benches, all filled with joy as Mama Syl added another legendary All-Star moment. In fact, Fowles has two dunks in her WNBA career – her first All-Star Game in 2009 and her final All-Star Game in 2022.

“I don’t even remember who I was standing next to but it was like, they were like, ‘Uh-oh, she going to do it,’ and I was like, ‘No, we are old.’ — and right when I was about to finish ‘old,’ she threw it down,” said Parker. “And I was like, ‘Well, now, her nickname is Sylvia ‘Tom Brady’ Fowles.’ Because now she’s going to come back for another year, because you can’t dunk and not come back.”

Fowles assured everyone that there was no way she was changing her mind about retiring at the end of the season, but when you look at her production, it’s clear that she still has plenty of game left. She’s the league top rebounder (9.7 rpg) and leads all players in field goal percentage (62.9%), while also ranking 18th in scoring (14.6 ppg), sixth in blocks (1.2 bpg) and tied for second in double-doubles (12).

As the chart above illustrates, there is a consistency to Fowles’ production year-over-year that does not follow a traditional career trajectory. When a player is finishing their 15th season and preparing to retire, there are typically clear signs of decline – ones we just don’t see with Fowles. While it may take more effort to prepare her body for competition each night, the result has been little to no drop off in her game as she prepares to exit on her own terms.

There may not be a more beloved player in the league today – a player that has earned everyone’s respect with her play on the court and everyone’s admiration for the woman that she is off the court.

The caretaking attitude that Fowles displayed throughout her WNBA and overseas basketball career will translate well to her life after basketball as she pursues a longtime dream of opening a funeral home – a lifelong pursuit sparked after attending her grandmother’s funeral as a child. She’s completed her studies in mortuary science and has gained valuable on-hand experience over the past few offseasons. All that is left is the examination to complete her degree and begin her next chapter in life.

But Fowles’ basketball book is still being written. She has just one guaranteed game remaining – Sunday at Connecticut – as the Lynx need a win and a loss by either New York or Phoenix to clinch on Sunday to secure on of the final two playoff spots.

Making the postseason after such a rough start to this final season would make for a remarkable accomplishment, both for Fowles and the Lynx organization. And it will give us a little more time to enjoy “Syl’s Final Ride” before the avid cyclist rides off into the sunset.