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One last hug for Sweet Syl

It’s all winding down this weekend as the Lynx, struggling through their worst season since 2010, try to squeeze out a 12th consecutive playoff berth to extend their league record and to send Sylvia Fowles back to the post season for a final time.

Sylvia Fowles shown during the second half of the 2022 WNBA All Star Game at Wintrust Arena in Chicago.
Sylvia Fowles shown during the second half of the 2022 WNBA All Star Game at Wintrust Arena in Chicago.
David Banks-USA TODAY Sports

Syl’s Final Ride, the marketing campaign created by the Lynx to celebrate Sylvia Fowles’s last season in the WNBA, hasn’t been an easy fit for its namesake. Fowles hates being the center of attention – as if, at 6-foot-6-inch, she can ever escape it. But as a difficult season for the Lynx meandered on, the player known league-wide as Sweet Syl accepted the visibility and accolades with the same grace she’s shown throughout her 15 pro seasons.

Fowles got flowers from former Lynx and LSU teammate Seimone Augustus in Los Angeles, a hug from fellow soon-to-be retiree Sue Bird in Seattle, and a recliner from the Chicago Sky, her original WNBA team. After the All-Star Game, also in Chicago, where the 36-year-old Fowles dropped an impromptu dunk for the appreciative crowd, Bird gave her the game ball.

So, is she finally comfortable with all this?

“No, it has not gotten comfortable,” Fowles said on a Zoom video call earlier this week. “As a matter of fact, it’s gotten worse.” Then she stopped to laugh before continuing.

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“But I would say, in the midst of it all, I do appreciate the love and support I’ve been given in every city,” she said. “It’s definitely fulfilling knowing you’ve had true fans behind you from Day One to acknowledge what you’ve done throughout this league. That makes you feel good, yes.”

It’s all winding down this weekend as the Lynx, struggling through their worst season since 2010, try to squeeze out a 12th consecutive playoff berth to extend their league record. A lot has to fall right for the 14-20 Lynx to make it to postseason, and the team isn’t taking any chances; they’ll honor Fowles on Friday night after her final regular-season game at Target Center. The Lynx also plan to honor Bird and another Seattle retiree, Briann January, before the game.

Then the Lynx fly to Connecticut to wrap up the season on Sunday. Beating Seattle or Connecticut, two of the best teams in the league, will be a chore; the Lynx are a combined 0-5 against them.

It’s been seven years since Fowles refused to report to Chicago and considered retirement before forcing the Sky to trade her to Minnesota. She arrived in midseason 2015, joining the Lynx Core Four – Maya Moore, Augustus, Lindsay Whalen and Rebekkah Brunson – for the last two of the dynasty’s four championships. All but Moore were starting to show their age, and Coach Cheryl Reeve retooled the Lynx around the dynamic Fowles in the low post.

Fowles already had two Olympic gold medals and two WNBA Defensive Player of the Year Awards when she got here. She added two more of each plus two league finals MVPs (2015 and 2017) and one overall MVP (2017). Named one of the WNBA’s 25 most influential players, Fowles departs as the league’s career in rebounds (currently 3,983) and field goal percentage (.600). Her number 34 will be raised to the Target Center rafters next year, joining Whalen, Augustus and Brunson.

Besides her considerable basketball skills and knack for playing through pain (something she doesn’t get enough credit for), another thing sets Fowles apart from other great athletes: She’s a genuinely nice, caring person. You know that friend who always remembers your birthday, who’s always delighted to see you, who’s the first to reach out when she hears about illness in your family? That’s Fowles.

She’s a hugger, too – not that bogus, don’t-get-too-close-to-me hug, but the real deal. Former teammates, coaches and friends all tell stories about Fowles sending gifts and notes, with or without a reason.

From left: Seimone Augustus, Maya Moore, Rebekkah Brunson and Sylvia Fowles react after a foul called against the Los Angeles Sparks during the first half in Game 4 of the WNBA Finals at Staples Center in 2017.
Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports
From left: Seimone Augustus, Maya Moore, Rebekkah Brunson and Sylvia Fowles react after a foul called against the Los Angeles Sparks during the first half in Game 4 of the WNBA Finals at Staples Center in 2017.
Before the pandemic shut down WNBA locker rooms, Fowles did postgame interviews sitting at her Target Center locker. Once in a while, after the scrum of reporters moved on, I lingered because I had a question that, for competitive reasons, I didn’t want to ask in front of the group. On those occasions, Fowles grabbed a chair from the next locker and invited me to sit and visit. That’s not because I was special; it’s because Fowles knows how to make everyone feel special. It’s a gift that will serve her well in her next career as a mortician. (Fowles needs to pass her national board exam before accepting one of the two job offers waiting for her back home in Florida, something she says she’s in no hurry to do.)

Fowles loves cycling; she headlined a community bike ride in Minneapolis last weekend. (That’s where the “Last Ride” business comes from.) But she knew it was time to retire after last season when she didn’t want to get in basketball shape. Injuries – a broken nose in 2017, a wrenched left elbow in 2018, a calf strain in 2020 and a sore left shoulder in 2021 – took a mental toll as well.

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Now she’s playing through cartilage damage in her right knee, which she hopes will heal this winter without surgery. The knee bothered her so much Wednesday night in Phoenix that Reeve said Fowles took anti-inflammatory medication during a timeout. But Fowles pushed through, combining with Aerial Powers for 17 fourth-quarter points in a badly needed 86-77 victory.

“Every once in a while she has a day like this when it’s pretty significant,” Reeve said on a postgame Zoom call arranged by the Lynx. “She said it happens once every 19 days. I don’t know where she got 19 from, but it was a tough day. She sees the finish line, so she’s going to hang in there.”

Fowles deals with the pain because she’s committed to her teammates, and they’re committed to her. The Lynx might be the tightest losing team in WNBA history. Napheesa Collier rejoined the Lynx 10 and a half weeks after giving birth so she could finish the season on the court with Fowles.

“Me and her fought about this for a very long time, because I really didn’t want her to come back,” Fowles said. “I felt like it was unsafe. But she assured me she was fine and was taking everything into consideration. At the end of the day, I just appreciated her and her will to just get back at the court and just be able to play with me my last year.”

The Lynx hoped to send Fowles out with a championship, but things unravelled quickly. Reeve, also the club’s general manager, cut starting point guard Layshia Clarendon in training camp and major free agent acquisition Angel McCoughtry the first week of the season because of injury concerns. McCoughtry, a five-time All-Star coming off two major knee surgeries in three years, was a risky signing for Reeve that didn’t work out. The Lynx opened 3-13, quickly settling into last place in the Western Conference.

Sylvia Fowles holding the 2015 championship trophy.
MinnPost file photo by Mike Dvorak
Sylvia Fowles holding the 2015 championship trophy.
More injuries and salary cap machinations saw the Lynx cycle through 20 players. Point guard Moriah Jefferson, cut by Dallas in training camp, proved a strong pickup, averaging 11.5 points and 5.2 assists. Powers, Kayla McBride, Jessica Shepard, Nikolina Milic and Rachel Banham had their moments. But in the end, turnovers — 14.6 per game on average, among the most in the league — cost the Lynx time after time.

“My thing coming into the season was, I just wanted to play,” said Fowles, averaging 14.6 points and 9.7 rebounds, both team highs. “I didn’t think about myself coming in here and sending myself out on a good note.

“My big thing was, how can I teach my teammates, how can they cope, how can they be good teammates for each other? I wasn’t thinking about playing in the playoffs or the championships. It was like, how can I be a great teammate and pass on the knowledge I’ve learned over the past couple of years?”

Now it’s almost time for Fowles to go. She’s never gotten the national acclaim and endorsements afforded some of the league’s other stars; Fowles spoke about it with New York Times columnist Kurt Streeter earlier this week and again on the Zoom call. Bird suggested to Streeter race was a factor, but Fowles chose not to speculate.

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“I feel (the WNBA) still has a core group they choose to market, and I don’t understand why,” she said. “We have a league of 144 players. Why not market everybody?”

Friday night will be all about Fowles. If you’ve never seen her play, tickets are still available. Bring your daughter. It’ll be emotional one way or the other. And if you time it right, Fowles might even give you a hug.