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Sylvia Fowles’s Final Ride and the Last Days of a Legend

The Minnesota Lynx star’s final season hasn’t gone exactly according to plan, but the future Hall of Famer is still cherishing every little moment—and lesson—before she walks away from the game she relentlessly dominated for 15 years

Carson McNamara

Sylvia Fowles won’t let the sun catch her. She rises early each morning, the sky still dark and hazy. She doesn’t set an alarm; her body instinctively knows when to wake. She takes a seat on her Pilates mat, shuts her eyes, and meditates.

The room is quiet, but her mind is stirring. “Patience,” she thinks. “How can I be patient with myself and with others, if things don’t go my way?”

She breathes in, breathes out, concentrating on each inhale, exhale. When her mind drifts to the challenges of this season—her 15th and final WNBA campaign, and arguably her toughest yet—she lets the thoughts come and go. At 36, after years of setbacks and triumphs and disappointments and wins, Fowles trusts she will come back to her calm and center herself.

“You can’t fight your mind,” she says, “because the mind has a mind of its own.”

Since Fowles came into the league in 2008 as the no. 2 pick out of LSU, she has often been praised for what her body can do. At 6-foot-6 and 219 pounds, she has dominated anyone who dared enter the lane. The WNBA’s all-time leader in rebounds is fierce on the boards and unstoppable in the post; a double-double machine who never quits on a possession. Fowles, an eight-time All-Star and four-time Olympic gold medalist, helped usher in a new generation of WNBA post players who were more versatile and more skilled than ever before.

There may never be another Sylvia Fowles. The Minnesota Lynx star is among the last of a dying breed of back-to-the-basket 5s. Growing up in Miami, she was an unstoppable prodigy who became the first high school girl to dunk in a game. Chicago Sky forward Candace Parker, a legend in her own right, remembers meeting Fowles at age 14, watching her run up and down the court, and thinking two words: “Pure dominance.”

“In a game that has changed so much throughout the years,” Parker says, “she still finds ways to dominate as a post presence and make teams have to adjust to her, which allows her teammates to be better and puts a lot of pressure on the defense.”

In her 15 years in the WNBA, Fowles has won two championships (2015 and 2017) and was named Finals MVP both years. She also won a regular-season MVP in 2017 and helped the Lynx complete one of the great basketball dynasties, which featured four titles and six Finals appearances from 2011 to 2017. Toward the end of that stretch, coach Cheryl Reeve limited the team’s playbook to just four or five plays; all of them involved Fowles. “She’s the best center to ever play,” says Lindsay Whalen, the former Lynx point guard.

This season, even in the twilight of her career, Fowles leads the WNBA in field goal percentage (63.6 percent) and rebounding (9.6 per game), to go along with 14.6 points and 1.2 blocks a night.

“She’s a legend,” says Jonquel Jones, the Connecticut Sun forward and 2021 WNBA MVP. “I can’t think of the WNBA without Sylvia Fowles.”

What’s allowed Fowles to thrive for so long isn’t just her formidable presence, but also her resilient mentality. Treating her 15th year like her first. Not doing anything “half-assed,” as she says. She believes she’s never too old to learn something new, as she constantly reminds herself to “always be a sponge.”

Meditation has strengthened her mind as she wrestles with the inevitable limitations of her aging body. Her knees constantly ache. She has plantar fasciitis. She gets so beaten and bruised in the paint that she often shows up at the Lynx training room wincing, and when team trainers ask her what hurts, she replies, “Everything.”

But she doesn’t want anyone to see her pain. She returns to the floor chipper and motivated the next day because she doesn’t want to let her teammates down. She takes pride in sacrificing her body each game for them. She also doesn’t want anyone to look at her with pity and say, “You ain’t got it no more.” She can’t stomach the thought of being a shell of her younger self. “My biggest fear is getting embarrassed. I’m not going to let you outwork me. I’m not getting embarrassed,” Fowles says. “I’m not about to let you show me up.”

So she continues to push herself, often arriving first to practice and beating everyone in sprints. She begs her coaches to let her complete every drill, even when they’d like her to rest. Fowles isn’t willing to stop. “She’s always worked like if she was going to get cut,” says Miguel Diaz, her former AAU coach with the Miami Suns. “She’s never been comfortable.”

When Fowles’s knee pain worsened in early June, an MRI revealed she had suffered a cartilage injury in her right knee. The training staff ruled her out indefinitely, but Fowles refused to accept the news.

She wasn’t going to let her story end with a season-ending injury. She would leave the game on her own terms.

“I already knew I was coming back,” Fowles says. “Ain’t nobody sitting out this season.” She returned to play just five games later. Her coaches are awed by her ability to play through pain. Fowles shrugs. She has a job to do; why wouldn’t she pull through? She refuses to wear a knee brace because that would be an acknowledgment that something is wrong. That she might not be able to do something. And she never, ever wants to surrender to anything.

“When she walks away,” says Reeve, “she will have no regrets about what she’s done as a professional basketball player. None. Because she has literally emptied her tank each season to get herself ready to be as great as she is.”

Making this even more remarkable is that Fowles gives her all for a team near the bottom of the standings. The Lynx are 14-20 and have struggled with a youthful roster. Rather than take possessions off, or pout to the media, or blame her teammates, she presses on, night after night, no matter what her body endures or how disappointing the final score is, not for individual glory but because she cannot comprehend operating another way. She is ending a Hall of Fame career, at the tail end of one of the best basketball dynasties ever assembled, in the most peculiar of circumstances, with a smile on her face and a double-double in hand, because she is wired this way. True grit, Fowles has shown a generation of players, comes from a place deep inside that refuses to quit. Nobody gave her that. Nobody can duplicate that. Her will to keep playing, keep pushing until the clock runs out, as perfectly imperfect as she is and always will be, is what drives her each morning.

Minnesota Lynx v Los Angeles Sparks Photo by Juan Ocampo/NBAE via Getty Images

Last Saturday, a couple of days after the Lynx bounced back from three straight losses to beat the Dream, Fowles was in bright spirits outside of the team’s hotel in Los Angeles. She was preparing for treatment before morning practice. She’s remained upbeat, even though this hasn’t been the sendoff anyone could have envisioned. Expectations were high at the beginning of the season when she announced this would be the final year of her decorated career. The team called her farewell tour “Syl’s Final Ride,” an ode to Fowles’s love for cycling.

Fowles doesn’t have the help she did in years past, as superstars and former teammates Maya Moore, Seimone Augustus, Whalen, and Rebekkah Brunson are now gone. Her inexperienced squad sits tied for fourth in the West and might miss the playoffs. It’s sometimes difficult for Fowles to show up to practice because she sees the disappointed looks on her coaches’ and teammates’ faces. She senses that they feel as if they are letting her down.

“It hurts my heart,” says Fowles. “It’s not about me, or my last year. It’s about, how can these girls sustain and grow?”

Her teammates and coaches held a meeting without her after a tough loss in June to address the pressure many felt because they weren’t giving Fowles the last dance she deserved. “We care about Syl so much,” says Lynx guard Kayla McBride. “Everybody got a little bit tight trying to perform for Syl.” They then came to an understanding: “Syl needs us to kind of relax and be in the moment.”

That’s where Fowles is: in the moment, brimming with gratitude for the chance to play with her teammates. To run up and down the floor until she can’t anymore. Brunson, now a Lynx assistant coach, reminds her that she shouldn’t compare this Lynx team to previous ones that contended for a title. “Figure out ways to enjoy this ride,” Brunson says. “Embrace the things that make this season special.”

Fowles is genuinely happy. Of course, she’d prefer to be winning, and it’s been frustrating to come up short. But she knows life is bigger than wins and losses. Bigger than basketball. She’s never been more sure of herself—of what she can do, of what she’s done. Of the importance of appreciating her unique journey, one where she wasn’t always as comfortable in her own skin.

She is finally … at peace.

“I love me,” she says.

Those three words feel like a revelation. It’s taken her a long time to be able to say them. To really feel them. She breaks into the biggest smile as she utters the words, a smile so uniquely Syl; a smile that anyone who has played with her for years or talked with her for minutes will remember. It’s infectiously warm, making one feel special. Loved, even.

Ask anyone about Syl and they’ll mention her signature bear hugs before any of her athletic achievements. She’ll physically pick someone up as she embraces them. She’ll knit teammates and coaches gifts in her spare time just because. Back in high school, she knew she wanted to commit to LSU but waited, because she was afraid college coaches would stop showing up to games, and that her teammates would lose opportunities.

“She’s the most generous, gentle giant you can ever come across,” says Temeka Johnson, a former LSU teammate.

Fowles is so loving with others that it’s almost baffling to her that she couldn’t give herself that same kind of love early on in her career. “I was hard on myself for a long time. I was not gentle with Syl,” she says. “I was so mean to myself.”

She’d berate herself if she felt like she wasn’t playing up to standard. Sometimes at LSU, even during solid performances, she’d cry in time-out huddles, feeling like she was letting her teammates down.

Soon after she arrived in Minnesota, she and Reeve had developed a saying to encourage her to forget her mistakes and move on: “Flush it!” Fowles also eventually sought out therapy, which she still attends twice a week. “It’s so hard when you have to rechannel your brain to think differently,” she says. Writing in her reflection journal in the morning and at night helps her, too. She finally realizes: “It’s OK to not be OK.”

She wasn’t always so sure. She felt fine about her height in elementary school but middle school was difficult. She was bigger than everybody. Skinny, lanky. “I got picked on a lot,” she says. It hurt, but she never mentioned it to her mother, Arrittio Fowles. One day, in sixth grade, Sylvia was walking home from school with her mom, who used to meet her halfway. It was their special time, because Arrittio held down three jobs to take care of her five children.

Arrittio knew something was up that afternoon. “What’s wrong?”

She rarely opened up to anyone, but this time the words tumbled out. She still hasn’t forgotten how her mother looked at her; how disappointed her mother was in her. Not in her classmates. In her.

Sylvia had let them get under her skin.

“Let me tell you something,” Arrittio said that day. “You’re different. You’re unique. You’re one of a kind. Nobody’s like you.

“Why do you feel bad for the way you’re built, the way you’re made?”

Something in Sylvia loosened. Maybe it was OK to be who she was. Maybe it was more than OK. Maybe it was a good thing.

I am different. I am unique, she began thinking. I’m not like everybody else.

New York Liberty v Minnesota Lynx Photo by Jordan Johnson/NBAE via Getty Images

Fowles’s childhood lesson from her mom was the first of many steps she would take to evolve into the leader her mother knew she could be. Some happened overseas, where she played in Russia, Turkey, and China over various offseasons to make more money, as many WNBA players do.

Back at the hotel in Los Angeles, Fowles stretches her arms onto her lap, revealing two tattoos she got on her forearms while playing in China. Her left arm has Minneapolis’s geographic coordinates; her right has Miami’s. They represent her two homes. While in China, she often thought about what home meant to her. About why she was sacrificing so much, often playing 11 months out of the year. She loved this game, but at what cost?

It was difficult, not just because of the wear and tear on her body, but because she was away from everything she knew. “Sorry, I can’t make your birthday party because I’m in China” was tough to say. She missed her nieces and nephews. They texted often, but she realized she felt like she wasn’t truly there: “I’m missing out on life.”

About two years ago, she decided she was ready to retire. It was a gut feeling she couldn’t shake. “I’m over this,” she thought, grinding through rigorous drills to transition from overseas to WNBA play. She just couldn’t sustain the pace anymore. Then that stubborn, determined part of her, the one that wants so badly to be great, to push past what she thinks she can tolerate, considers another go. Just one more dance.

“Mentally, I feel like I could do this probably for about another four years,” she says. “Physically, I don’t think I want to take my body through it no more.”

She wants to start a family of her own, spend time with her nieces and nephews, and, surprisingly enough, run her own funeral home, an idea she had after losing her grandmother at a young age. She has pursued her mortuary science degree while playing. That may surprise people who don’t know Fowles—that she could want and work for something so different, so far from basketball. But the beauty of Fowles is that she has always walked her own path. She can’t be put into any one box. She has never thought of herself purely as an athlete: “Basketball did not identify me at all.”

The game was purely a job to her, one she cherished and felt driven to be really, really good at it. Great, even. But she also enjoyed other things. Knitting, drawing, cooking, reading, jazz.

She is used to people not understanding her. They can’t reconcile her love for basketball with the other parts of her identity; that she can happily leave the game without feeling bereft. That she can know in her bones that she has value in the world even if she had never scored a single point.

“Am I weird,” she says with a smile, “or [are] you weird?” She is in sixth grade again, walking home from school with her mom.

You’re different. You’re unique. You’re one of a kind. Nobody’s like you.

Minnesota Lynx v Chicago Sky

Reeve already knew Fowles was special before she joined the already-dominant Lynx. She was one of the league’s best, but not yet a champion. If Fowles wanted to take the next step and become a leader on such a storied team, Reeve knew she’d need to learn that leaders have to do more than dominate. Leaders have to speak.

The problem was, Fowles was not naturally extroverted. Before she became known for her hugs, she had been somewhat shy despite her dominance. Part of that came from being the youngest of her siblings. It was also because the taller she sprouted, the more people gawked at her as if she were an exhibit.

“I really didn’t have a voice,” Fowles says.

Not only that, but she struggled to harness her physical gifts. At times she was afraid to take up space, to draw attention. She refused to dunk when she first arrived at LSU, fearful it would deflect the spotlight from her teammates. So, when Johnson threw her an outlet for a wide-open jam against Mississippi State during her freshman year, she hesitated, and kissed the ball softly off the glass.

Fowles wasn’t aware of her superpowers yet. She had to learn how to be physical. A little less shy, a little less sweet. A little more … mean. Her teammates and coaches pushed her hard, especially associate head coach Bob Starkey. “If you truly want to be great,” he told her early on, “you have to develop a level of toughness.” She often felt dejected after practice, but then would always text Starkey later that night: “Coach, I love it. Come get me tomorrow. Let’s go after it again.”

“She knew, to be special, she had to get comfortable with being uncomfortable,” Starkey says. Carla Berry, a former LSU assistant coach, remembers telling Fowles it was OK to make contact in the post. “She didn’t want to hurt anybody,” Berry says. She had to learn that demanding the ball, using her physical gifts, didn’t make her selfish. It made her powerful.

She slowly began to break out of her shell, but it wasn’t until a few years later, in the pros, while playing for the Sky, that she truly vocalized her needs for the first time. Even though she loved Chicago, loved her teammates, she decided to leave the franchise in 2014, wanting to challenge herself more. “Deep down inside I knew I needed to leave if I wanted to grow,” she says.

“That moment was about me,” she says. “And what I wanted, and what I felt in my heart.”

She flourished with the Lynx, particularly during the 2017 WNBA Finals against the Sparks. She helped force a decisive Game 5 with 22 points and 14 rebounds. And the next game? Fowles set the Finals record for most rebounds in a game (20) to go along with 17 points to help Minnesota win its fourth title and her second.

Each year, she evolved her play to fit the more up-tempo game, extending her shooting range and improving her passing. Basketball didn’t come naturally to her, as some might think, just because she was bigger or taller than her peers. She was not a skilled player when she first picked up a ball. Years of low-post work, of learning how to seal, how to spin, how to drop-step, helped her embrace finesse as much as she did power.

But in 2018, when the core of the team’s dynasty left and “the band broke up” in Minnesota, as Reeve says, Fowles was challenged to evolve once again. There was a massive void in leadership. It took a moment for the shift to sink in with Fowles. “Oh, that’s me now.”

“To be honest, a lot of players probably would’ve left the franchise,” Reeve says. She told Fowles at the time: “We’d understand, you know?” Reeve told her. “You came here to be with these guys.”

“Are you crazy?” Fowles said. “This is my home. This is where I want to be.”

She took on the challenge, realizing she couldn’t lead just by example anymore. But it wasn’t easy. “Frankly, she got exposed,” Reeve says. The two would often talk about what it meant to be a leader. Reeve kept pushing her farther out of her comfort zone, and things finally clicked during the 2020 season in the bubble. Because she and her teammates couldn’t go anywhere, she had the time and space to practice using her voice.

In other ways, she remained the same old Syl: deflecting attention, never posting her workouts on social media, picking up trash around the locker room, never complaining to refs. She never sought credit for the work she did in her communities, such as sponsoring Team Fowles, an AAU team within the Miami Suns organization, paying for scholarships for girls who couldn’t afford it.

Although she has felt touched by opponents’ video tributes for her, she’s a bit uncomfortable with all the hoopla. Fowles has asked those around her to downplay her final voyage. Her long-time agent, Lindsay Colas of Wasserman, had to convince her to say yes to doing something to celebrate her final season. Fowles avoided the topic with Colas, again and again. And Colas knew why: Fowles didn’t want the spotlight, or even an event. “If you ask Sylvia what she wants, her answer is going to be something for someone else,” Colas says. Colas was able to get her to say yes only after assuring Fowles that it would be a very small gathering: “We had to twist her arm to get her to show up,” Colas says. “She was trying to get out of her own party.” Wasserman ended up throwing a tea party for Fowles at All-Star Weekend in a hotel in Chicago.

“I don’t see why you have to give somebody credit when they’ve done their job for the last 15 years and been consistent and never gotten the credit. So why now?” Fowles says. “Because I’m saying I’m leaving? ‘Oh she deserves her flowers.’ I’m like, yeah, but I’ve been doing the same thing.”

“People are like, ‘Syl, you deserve it, you’ve been deserved it,’” Fowles says. “And I’m like, ‘But I never got it.’”

She has never been on a national magazine cover. She has never been the focus of leaguewide marketing efforts. She’s often passed over in discussions about the greatest players of all time. That used to bother Fowles. “It was hard at first, but I also had to dig deep and say, ‘It’s not about people who wasn’t giving you your recognition,’” she says. “It’s about the people who love and appreciate you.”

She’s come to realize that praise or awards don’t really matter to her. She knows how dominant she’s been. She knows the work she has put in. Validation doesn’t come from external recognition. It comes from the profound joy of a hard day’s work, of pushing herself and those around her to be the best they can be.

She cherishes the little moments, such as offering advice to teammates in the training room instead of putting on her headphones and zoning out. It is in the private moments, such as when former teammate Plenette Pierson’s father died, and Fowles embraced her with one of her bear hugs, told her that it would be OK, and that they would get through it together. This is the kind of leadership she worked so hard to embrace.

Perhaps that is fundamental to Fowles’s legacy: She makes people feel valued. Feel just as confident in their own skin as she feels in hers. Greatness, she has shown, is not just about individual achievement. “It’s about, how can I make people feel like they’re noticed and they’re seen and that they are loved?” Fowles says.

Sometimes she thinks about how many people walk around the world not feeling that way. She remembers how much love her mom gave her, even though they struggled at times. She by no means missed a meal, but things weren’t easy. She saw how, no matter how tired her mom was, she would make small gestures like giving her books each week. Giving, Fowles realized, is loving. It’s leading.

The people who know this best are the high school girls who play for Team Fowles. They see that Fowles doesn’t just write a check; she shows up to practices and games. She texts them. Encourages them. She even invited one player, Sydney Shaw, to play in WNBA pickup runs. “I was in shock,” says Shaw, now a freshman at Auburn. “In my head, I’m like, ‘This is so cool.’”

Crystal Primm, who started playing for Team Fowles when she was 14, now coaches the team. She considers Fowles a big sister. She ran into Fowles during All-Star Weekend in July. Primm told Fowles about the team’s recent struggles, which were weighing on her.

“I think you’re doing a great job,” Fowles told her. It was such a simple thing to say, but it was deeply meaningful. The person Primm admired most had given her confidence.

Primm, like many others who have been touched by Fowles, watched her final All-Star Game. They saw Fowles drain a 3 right off the bat. It was shocking because Fowles doesn’t usually show off her range.

“Bop!” Brunson said out loud. She had seen Fowles work on her range for years. “That’s light work for her.”

Toward the end of the second quarter, Fowles deflected the ball and raced down court. She gathered her steps to rise for a dunk. No more shying away. No more being afraid to take up space.

She ascended higher, throwing the ball through the rim with force. She broke into a giant smile and screamed. She jumped up and down, then ran down court, embracing her teammates.

She looked free. Loving the person she has come to be.

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