LOS ANGELES — Sylvia Fowles stands 6-foot-6, weighs about 200 pounds and wears the same steely gaze during most of her time on a basketball court. Game 2 of the 2016 WNBA Finals produced two rare occasions when she broke character.
Both times, league MVP Nneka Ogwumike ended up pinned to the hardwood after receiving a bump from Fowles, and Fowles stormed off in the other direction, pleading with the referees for leniency. Coaches throughout the 31-year-old’s life have been telling her to play with this type of ferocity. She’s heard it all at this point:
You’re the biggest player on the floor; you should dominate.
You’re our X-factor. When you play well, we’re unstoppable.
Fowles’ current coach, Cheryl Reeve, still pushes those same buttons. But there’s one button Reeve can’t push: She can’t make Fowles angry. Make no mistake about the WNBA’s most imposing post presence – she’s “soft as pudding,” says teammate Seimone Augustus, her friend for more than a decade. “Sweet as pie. Like the gooey middle of a donut.”
Since arriving on the already potent Lynx in July of last year, Fowles has averaged 14.4 points, 8.5 rebounds and 1.7 blocks, won Finals MVP during their run to a third championship in five years, taken home her third gold medal from the Rio Olympics, and earned her third WNBA Defensive Player of the Year award. But none of those encompass her most significant contribution to the team in Reeve’s eyes.
“The best part about Syl is her demeanor,” the coach said. “I try at points to [tick] her off a little bit, ’cause I like a mean Syl. It’s hard to [tick] her off. She has such a great spirit. … She’s just amazing. She is the same. Every. Day. Every day with her personality.”
It was not always that way. Big Syl needed years of hardening, growing up in the Victory Home Housing Projects in Miami-Dade Country, Fla., to become “the sweetest person you’ll ever meet” in Augustus’ words. Big Syl says her latest coach can’t make her angry because of all the times her three older brothers did just that – especially the second-oldest, Morris.
When their single mother, Arrittio, assigned chores for the week, “the worst one was washing dishes,” Fowles recalled at practice in Los Angeles on Thursday, “because every time you finish he made sure to bring his dishes last.” When they hit the Victory Home basketball court and Syl was the only girl playing, “my brother made it his business not to put me on his team,” she says in her soft southern twang. “He used to tell his teammates to go at me and push me down. He’d see when I was about to cry and he’d tell me, ‘I’ll send you home if you cry.’
“I used to have to straighten out my act real quick and just suck it up and go out there to finish the game.”
Teased by her peers for her height, Fowles avoided basketball for much of her childhood. She ran track like her older sister Dorothy and tried volleyball. But her interests consisted less of sports and more of sewing, cooking, drawing and braiding hair – despite the coach/athletic director at Horace Mann Middle School “stalking” her for two years. “You wanna play basketball? You wanna play basketball?” he’d beg.
Big Syl soon relented, joining the Miami Suns AAU team in eighth grade. State titles at Edison High School in 2001 and 2002 and Gulliver Prep in 2004 followed, plus MVP honors at the 2004 WBCA All-America Game. She became nationally known in 2001 as the first girls high school player ever to dunk in a game. When a teenage Fowles first arrived in Baton Rouge, La., on a recruiting visit to Louisiana State University, Augustus, her host, expected an intimidating post presence. Instead, her future center brought a knitting kit.
“I was like, ‘What is your big [butt] up to? Knitting?’” says Augustus, laughing at the memory. “She just sat there with her knit kit and knitted this sweater for the coaches.
“But then once she got to LSU and we actually got on the floor and played together, I’m like, ‘Yo, totally different person.’”
Augustus and Fowles, just one and a half years apart, became inseparable. “I had the car and she was my car pool buddy. I would drive her everywhere,” says Augustus. “I was kind of lame in college so she gave me that bit of excitement – get out the dorm and go do something. I think we work well together because she’s obviously the more energetic one.”
On the floor, they reached three straight Final Fours as Fowles grew from shy freshman who remembers crying almost every day at practice into the nation’s premier center. In the span of months, the LSU coaches’ orders evolved from, “You’re bigger than everyone else, just throw it up and Syl’s gonna go get it” to “No, Syl – duck in, create some space down there! Make a post move!”
When Augustus graduated and landed in Minnesota as the No. 1 pick in the 2006 WNBA Draft, she was sure she would never be Fowles’ teammate again. Especially when, two years later, the Chicago Sky selected her second overall after Candace Parker in the 2008 Draft. But by April of last year, Fowles was ready for a change of scenery.
“I want to do something different,” she told the Daily Herald after the Sky announced that Fowles had requested a trade. Reports surfaced that she’d narrowed her preferred landing spots down to Los Angeles, Minnesota and Washington. Minnesota was the favorite because of Reeve; Fowles had heard rave reviews of the Lynx coach from USA Basketball teammates Maya Moore and Lindsay Whalen. Her closest USA Basketball teammate, Augustus, hardly had to say a word.
“I have to pitch this team to her? You can be a part of this?” Augustus says at practice for their second straight Finals together, sweeping her hand across the court to highlight the stacked roster in front of her. “There really wasn’t much to be said.”
Three times Fowles thought a trade was coming, and after the third – which happened while she was vacationing in California for the Fourth of July – she gave up hope. That made July 28, 2015, “the happiest day of my life,” she said at last year’s Finals.
The Lynx finally ended the saga that day by acquiring Fowles in a three-team trade, sending young forwards Damiris Dantas and Reshanda Gray, plus a first-round pick, to the Atlanta Dream, who shipped replacement center Erika de Souza to Chicago. Minnesota had won two titles despite lacking a true center to hold down the middle, and Moore’s co-stars were increasingly banged up. Fowles cured all of their ills.
“My goodness, I don’t know where we’d be [without Fowles],” Reeve says at Finals practice in Minneapolis. “Sylvia was kind of this buoy effect. … When you age a little bit, maybe you lose a little bit of foot speed and you get beat. And there’s Syl.”
Yet the Lynx looked vulnerable entering last year’s playoffs. They endured a stretch of four losses in five games in August as they worked Fowles into the mix and the center slowly worked her way into game shape. They finished the season 22-12, their lowest win total of their current six-year run of success. By October, the driving force during their roller coaster five-game Finals win over Indiana was not Moore, Augustus or Whalen, but the center acquired less than three months earlier.
Fowles reported to training camp in April for her second year with Minnesota two weeks early, this time affording the coaching staff ample opportunity to develop a playing style that fully takes advantage of her skill set. Her coach-player relationship with hard-nosed Reeve has been everything Fowles had hoped.
When the team, which finished this season atop the league at 28-6, faced rare adversity in responding to Alana Beard’s stunning buzzer-beater in Game 1 on Sunday, Fowles pointed to Reeve as the force holding the team together. Somehow, the Philly native’s tough love has allowed the gentle giant to blend in seamlessly to the star-studded team.
“Everything Coach Reeve does, I’m like, ‘You can’t be no worse than what I already had,’” says Fowles. “When she goes out there talking trash, I just look at her. Sometimes I laugh and she’ll get [ticked] off. But in my head I’m thinking, ‘I’m not going there. I’m not going there. I’ve been there before and I’m not going there.’ But she tries.”
Reeve tried again during Game 2, threatening to sub Fowles out for backup center Janel McCarville when she got too riled up at the lack of calls. Amid another dominant performance — 13 points and 15 rebounds — Fowles responded by shooting what she later called “the evil eye” across the court. “I’m alrrriiiiight,” she said. “And [Reeve] was like, ‘OK, she’s alright.'”
The Lynx used to be known for their Big Three, or Core Four if you included power forward Rebekkah Brunson, a key cog in their first two titles. Now the WNBA’s new-age dynasty revolves around the unstoppable inside-out duo of Moore and Fowles. She has found new life in her career and extended the team’s championship window for at least another year.
Off the court, she still likes to draw and sew, and remains interested in working in fashion. But she’s also used her free time to begin pursuing a different post-playing career. As of October, Fowles has 42 credits left to complete to receive a degree in mortuary science from the American Academy McAllister Institute in New York. She hopes to finish the program by the spring semester of 2018 and become either an embalmer or mortician, inspired by a negative experience with her grandmother’s death during her childhood that she hopes no one else has to experience.
“[At first] I was like, ‘Huh?'” says Reeve. A 6-foot-6, 200-pound mortician? Only Big Syl could make that sound endearing.
“And then I was like, ‘She’d be great for the families when you really think about it.'”