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Inside the W with Michelle Smith: Sylvia Fowles – The Definition of an Icon

When Sylvia Fowles takes the floor for the Minnesota Lynx on Friday night in Seattle for the 15th and final WNBA opening night of her career, she will be, as she so poetically put it, “writing my own ending.” “This is about me challenging myself another year to see what I can accomplish,’ Fowles said. “And I want to give my teammates another go at it.”

The ‘It’ she refers to is a championship, of course, an exclamation point in the last chapter. One more for the road for a player who has so carved out many identities during a career that will surely lead her to the Hall of Fame someday.

Sweet Syl. Unstoppable Syl. Legendary Syl. All in a 6-foot-6-inch package of nearly unmatched skill, strength and athleticism, and unfailing selflessness and generosity.

At 36, Fowles is a singular figure in the history of the WNBA with a resume few can match – two WNBA titles, four Olympic gold medals, the WNBA’s All-time leading rebounder and single-season rebounding record holder, a seven-time All-Star, 2017 MVP and four-time Defensive Player of the Year. Her success is matched only by the love and admiration she inspires across the league. She is the ultimate plant “momma”, the enthusiastic hugger, the person who knits hats and scarves to calm her nerves and soothes you with that smooth voice and a wide smile. On the floor, however, she is “one of the most difficult people anyone has ever played against,” said Lynx head coach Cheryl Reeve. “A lot of players will be planning a party when she retires.”

Teammate Napheesa Collier said last season that, “She’s so consistently good that it’s not even a thought. It’s not like she has highs and lows. I think people are taking that for granted.”

Fowles intended to retire at the end of the 2021 season, hoping to slip out without a “farewell tour” after matching Tamika Catchings with her fourth Defensive POY Award and season averages of 17.0 points (the third-highest average of her career) and 8.0 rebounds per game. But Minnesota made an early playoff exit, losing a second-round game to eventual champion Chicago and that left Fowles feeling unfinished. “I didn’t like the way things ended. It sticks with you. I thought I had an OK season, but it’s not about me, it’s about the team and that stuck with me for a long time.” Ultimately, “I didn’t want to leave my teammates with a bad feeling.”

Lynx head coach Cheryl Reeve gave Fowles space and time to think about her decision. “I love that she gave me the space to think about what I wanted,” Fowles said.

Reeves said her relationship with Fowles has always extended beyond basketball. “We’ve always talked about life more than sports,” Reeve said. “It’s about what comes after basketball for Syl. And I would have been happy for her either way.”

But when Fowles decided to come back for one more season, Reeve knew that the 2022 season would be about two things – showing appreciation for “Syl” and getting her one last shot at a title with a team that’s largely intact from last year’s team, which started the season 0-4 and rallied to go 10-3 after the Olympic break to earn a No. 3 seed in the playoffs.

Fowles said she is “blessed” to have had a long WNBA career but never intended to play until she was 40 like her Olympic compatriots, Sue Bird and Diana Taurasi.

“For me, basketball is my job, it’s not my whole life,” Fowles said. “It was never my goal to play until the wheels fall off. I only have one body and I want to do other things.”

One of those things, Fowles has been clear about is becoming a mother. With a big family.

“I want kids. I froze my eggs when I was 30,” Fowles said. “I think my body can take kids, but the biggest thing for me is to be able to be functional later and not have to have a bunch of different surgeries on my knees or hip to be able to play with my kids.”

Seimone Augustus, now an assistant coach with the Sparks, was a college teammate of Fowles’ at LSU, where they played in four Final Fours and played alongside her for five seasons in Minnesota. During that time, they won two WNBA titles together. She said she believes that Fowles is one of the top five post players in league history. She has seen Fowles’ growth as a player for over a decade and a half. The tall girl who didn’t like the way her brothers used to knock her around and admitted she hated playing defense learned to accept and embrace her natural gifts. But it took a while.

Sweet Syl stayed too sweet for a long time, Augustus remembers. “Syl had to work her way into the eyes of all of us to see her as a legend, and that’s a beautiful thing.

Elevating her game required a different Syl, and she started meeting those expectations once she got to Minnesota.

“I think she was the most dominant post player in the league during the time we were winning championships. She cemented her legacy as one of the greats.”

In addition to motherhood, Fowles has set her sights on leading for the next generation, serving as a sponsor for the Miami Suns in the Nike Elite Youth Basketball League, advocating for food sustainability with an organization called “Appetite for Change”, and continuing with her work after achieving a certification in mortuary science.

“Syl has known she wants to be a mom since college, and I think it’s been something getting louder and louder in her ear,” Augustus said. “I think you know, once you start checking off everything you want to do after your career is over, you start wondering ‘how many more times can I do this?’ How many more seasons can I play, missing out on time with family, doing things you have been waiting to do.”

Fowles would still like to slip away quietly. But the Lynx and the rest of the WNBA will have something to say about that this summer. The Lynx’s unveiled their “Syl’s Final Ride” campaign in late-April. “I have a hard time processing someone crediting me for doing my job,” Fowles said. “I don’t feel like I need to be acknowledged or praised for that. That’s why I have shied away from it. I never wanted the attention. To my core, I think, ‘Why do we have to do that?” Augustus understands better than almost anyone, having made her own decision to retire two years ago after calling her family to make sure they would be OK with it. She knows that Fowles did the same.

“She had to get that confirmation, and I’m sure her mom said to her ‘You deserve that standing ovation, so let people celebrate you’,” Augustus said. “But that’s never been Syl. She will get mushy about it, but it will be at home in Florida with her family and friends. I will never be in front of us.”

Fowles hopes her legacy will be one thing: consistency. “I hope that with everyone I’ve run across, that I’ve just been me.”

Longtime WNBA reporter Michelle Smith writes a column on throughout the season. The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the WNBA or its clubs.