Before Sylvia Fowles first arrived in Downtown Minneapolis via a three-team trade in July of 2015, the Minnesota Lynx knew what kind of missing piece they needed to add in order to vault the team from a two-time champion to a true dynasty — a dominant post player.
Fowles underwent hip surgery prior to the 2014 season; her rehab not only limited the 2013 WNBA Defensive Player of the Year to just 20 games played that season, but also made Fowles question her desire to play basketball any longer.
“I was going through all these emotions and I told my mom, ‘I’m done. I’m quitting. I’m over basketball,’” Fowles recalled during her jersey retirement speech in front of thousands of fans on Sunday night at Target Center.
But then, it all changed while she was playing overseas following the 2014 W campaign and heard an unforeseen recruitment pitch from one of the league’s greats.
“I seen Maya [Moore] in China. We went out for dinner after the game, got in the cold tub. We talked a little bit about Minnesota, what it was like, and all the great opportunities that they presented to me. I was sold. Off the top, I was sold. I had a couple of conversations with Seimone, asked the same questions. And then I was like, ‘This is where I wanted to be,’” Fowles said.
Even once Fowles made the decision she wanted to leave the Chicago Sky, there were hurdles she had to climb. She wasn’t a free agent, so ultimately didn’t have a direct say in how she would become a Lynx.
“I knew I was leaving Chicago. I had two coaches that I wanted to play for. Cheryl Reeve and [Washington Mystics Head Coach] Mike Thibault. Thank God that I didn’t go to Washington. So thank you guys for looking out,” Fowles added, with a laugh.
Fowles sat out half of the 2015 season before Chicago ultimately dealt her to Minnesota in July.
“She had such strong conviction about being a Minnesota Lynx, that she was so determined, that she said, ‘I will sit and wait until this can happen,’” Lynx Head Coach and President of Basketball Operations Cheryl Reeve said proudly on Sunday.
And when she arrived, phew. What Fowles brought to the Lynx was worth the wait. With Lindsay Whalen and Seimone Augustus both battling injuries for a good chunk of the season, bringing in a dominant player to add another element to a dynamic attack was crucial.
“She came in in 2015 and carried us in 2015 to that championship. Absolutely carried us. The only reason we won was because of Syl,” four-time WNBA Champion point guard Lindsay Whalen said about the 2015 WNBA Finals MVP in a tribute video that displayed in the arena on Sunday night.
“We don’t win the 2015 Championship without Sylvia Fowles. We don’t get back in 2016 and 2017 and win another one without Sylvia Fowles, no question about it,” said Reeve in the same video. “Sylvia Fowles’ uniqueness, her domination both defensively and offensively at the center position, no question put us in position each of those years to win a championship.”
“I remember in 2015 the place was rocking and we were struggling versus Indiana and you literally put us on your back and said, ‘I got it,’ and we won our third WNBA Championship,” said Moore, who, fittingly, celebrated her 34th birthday at Target Center on Sunday night. She then summed up what it was like to battle against Fowles quite well.
"I loved looking at the other team's bench sometimes. You'd just be doing your thing and they'd just be like " - Maya Moore@MooreMaya gives @SylviaFowles her flowers at her jersey retirement pic.twitter.com/23KppJmnyL— WNBA (@WNBA) June 12, 2023
But that’s what happens when you go up against someone with a resume that stands alone, and all you can do is watch:
- Four-time All-Defensive First Team selection
- Two-time Defensive Player of the Year
- Five-time All-Star
- 2017 WNBA MVP
- Two-time WNBA Finals MVP
- Two-time WNBA Champion
And that’s only considering the second half of her career — the eight seasons she spent in Minnesota.
Two WNBA championships, two Finals MVPs, a WNBA MVP and 4 Defensive Player of the Year awards–but none of it compares to the number of lives @sylviafowles has touched.— Nike Basketball (@nikebasketball) June 12, 2023
Congrats, Sylvia, for being one of the game’s most dominant and heartfelt players and for your #34 jersey… pic.twitter.com/bxVH1HeALa
The Taylor Family, Cheryl Reeve and the Lynx organization built an incredible culture with Moore, Whalen, Seimone Augustus, Rebekkah Brunson and a long list of All-25 caliber players and people. So when the already mega-talented Fowles joined, it took her to a new level.
“My life changed once I got here. This organization was everything that I needed it to be from top to bottom, to how to treat each other, to the respect that they have for each other. And then I was coming in with these girls who didn’t take nothing less than great as an option. So every day at practice it was a battle. It was fun. Sometimes it was hard,” Fowles said.
“We fight, we fuss, but when we came in between these four lines, we battled with each other and it was murder for the other teams. That’s something that I always appreciated.”
Sylvia Fowles says it all changed when she started playing in Minnesota pic.twitter.com/5ZNsyJPYvN— espnW (@espnW) June 12, 2023
The eight-time All-Star said those around her changed her life after she arrived in Minnesota. But little did she know that she would permanently transform the Minnesota Lynx organization, too — not just because of who she was as a basketball player, but primarily because of who she was as a person.
“We knew we were getting somebody with great hands, great finishing ability, great footwork, great pick-and-roll defense. What we didn’t know we were getting, was one of the greatest humans of all-time,” Whalen said Sunday of of Fowles, whom she also credited for the team’s title in 2017.
Fowles dazzled on the floor with a generational blend of strength, tenacity, physicality, agility, hands, timing and soft touch around the rim that will one day should immortalize her in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. All throughout her illustrious 15-year WNBA career, behind the game face of a fearless competitor capable of delivering a beat-down to an entire team by herself was one of the kindest and most genuine people walking the planet.
“I had no idea of the person that Sylvia Fowles is. I had no idea. I think it’s a strange combination to be so dominant and then be like, ‘Don’t call me Big Syl, call me Sweet Syl!’ I think it’s very sweet,” Reeve said about her beloved center, before turning to Fowles’ mother and drawing some laughs from the Target Center crowd. “I know her mom thinks she’s strange. We’ve talked about it, right Mama Fowles?”
“That smile. Sylvia is...I don’t know of a more dominant player, but as sweet as pie. You don’t find that combination,” Moore said in a heartfelt speech addressing her teammate. “I would figure someone who’s really dominant in and just exceptional in their own head and their own world doing their own thing, but Sylvia is a model of living looking outward. And that takes a lot of energy. Again, she makes it look easy.”
“She was just so chill about how incredible she was. She was a stand-out, once-in-a-lifetime player. And if you meet here, though, none of that shows. She just is the sweetest, kindest, caring teammate,” Fowles’ former Sky teammate Elena Delle Donne said in a tribute video.
“Smooth excellence. She’s the sweetest person,” Whalen said.
“Sylvia Fowles is the perfect combination of kindness and sass. She’s got it to the nth degree in both,” Reeve added.
“Sylvia Fowles is one of the most beautiful people I’ve ever met in my entire life, both inside and out,” said former Lynx Assistant Coach (2008-2017) and current Minnesota Timberwolves color analyst Jim Petersen, who coached Fowles and the team’s bigs.
“When I look at Syl, it just makes you smile. The energy, the love, the goofiness,” Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Famer, Lynx Legend and current Associate Head Coach Katie Smith said.
Although she retired following last season, Fowles is still determined to continue giving to her former Lynx teammates.
“Even this year in the beginning of the season, we’re starting training camp, and Syl was there. I was like, ‘What are you doing here? Why are you here?!’ And she said, ‘I’m gonna work out with Phee!’,” Brunson said during a five-minute personal tribute to Fowles. “But that’s how she is even thought she wasn’t a part of this team as a player anymore. She wanted to continue to pour into the people that she played with.”
Brunson made her way back to that and nailed the dismount.
“She’s always pouring into other people and filling up others’ cups. I hope that when we lift your jersey into the rafters that it fills your cup up a little bit. We want to thank you, we appreciate you, we love you, and I’m glad we get to hang out [in the rafters] for a little bit longer.”
Augustus shed light on a different way in which her former LSU co-star gave to teammates.
“The nights she would come over after a hard day’s practice or a hard game and maybe I didn’t play well, and she would have time, words, and a candle. We would go on a hunting spree looking for candles. We would go to Home Goods, Bed, Bath and Beyond, you name it. ... It was like a sneaker head looking for sneakers,” Augustus said, struggling to finish the story without laughing. “I cherish those moments because I don’t know if you know how much that meant to me in those times. It helped me get through a lot and for that I thank you for everything that you’ve done.”
Despite being one of the all-time greats and the leader in the locker room after Moore, Augustus, Brunson and Whalen all retired or left basketball, Fowles didn’t let that create a wall between her and her teammates in a new era for the franchise.
“I remember my first couple of days as a Lynx back in 2019, she was the first one to make me feel so warm and comfortable and welcomed in the locker room. I joined the team like late in the season, with like five games left in the regular season, and it was uncomfortable for me as a rookie, but she just welcomed me with open arms,” Lynx forward Bridget Carleton told Canis Hoopus pregame on Sunday. “I think that sticks out most about her and having her in the locker room and just as a person.”
“She’s the best. We love her. She’s great. She’s a good human. She’s funny. She’s sassy. She’s just a goof ball. We’ve had a lot of fun having her around. Obviously she’s been incredible on the court. There’s no doubt. Her numbers don’t lie,” Lynx guard Rachel Banham added. “But the person that she is, is what really matters and what I think everyone’s gonna remember years and years down the road. So I’m really honored to say that I got to play with her.”
I then asked Banham what her favorite memory with Fowles was. Before I could finish asking the question, her face lit up with a smile, knowing exactly what she’d say.
“Mine is definitely dancing with her pregame. We always would dance together like crazy people. It wasn’t cute, it wasn’t good, but it was fun and it gets the people rowdy. Yeah, so it would always be me and Syl pregame in the locker room being wild,” she said, laughing her way through the recollection. “So, I miss doing that with her because now it’s just me who gets people going and now I’m just a loner. Those are definitely my favorite memories.”
Kent told me that Syl checked in on Damiris (rehabbing the Lisfranc injury), and asked DD what the hardest part of her rehab is. DD’s answer was the loneliness.— Jack Borman (@jrborman13) May 15, 2022
So now Syl goes through the rehab work w/ DD every day at 7 before practice just so she isn’t lonely. It’s who Syl is.
So, how should Sylvia Fowles be remembered?
When fans look up at the south end of Target Center and see that No. 34, they will probably think of the 2015 and 2017 titles, and her incredibly dominant, yet humble run as a torch bearer for one of the sport’s greatest dynasties.
But for me, I’ll think of everything fans didn’t see. I’ll think of the story in the above tweet, the hugs (yes, they live up to everyone’s description of them), how quick she was to raise up others above herself, the way people’s faces lit up when you asked them about Syl, the off camera quips she made to media about Reeve and her teammates, the dance battles after practice, how she interacted with kids, and how much she fought through to be there for her teammates, her coaches, and the Lynx fans she loves so much.
Fowles will go down as an all-time great person who just so happened to also work her way to becoming an all-time great, Hall-of-Fame-worthy basketball player.
“Her legacy is one of graciousness and greatness,” Petersen said.
“The physical dominance, that’s going to be hard [for anyone to ever top]. [Players like Syl] just don’t come around very often. But I think how she did it, the loyalty, the commitment that we talked about — and it’s not just to the organization. It’s to her teammates, the ways she gave constantly.” Reeve told Canis Hoopus before the game Sunday.
“People in the community, opposing coaches’ spouses, and the list is so long. Car dealership people that I run into. And what they say about Sylvia Fowles, she’s the most amazing human, their favorite human. Things like that. If just a small part of that lives on, that would leave an incredible mark. I think for her, that probably means more than rebounds and blocked shots, etc.”
“Just [everyone] understanding what Minnesota means to me, what I mean to Minnesota, and not taking it for granted,” Fowles told Canis Hoopus on Sunday after saying Reeve’s answer hit the nail on the head. “So I would love to have a longtime relationship with Minnesota [into the future, while] also understanding that the roots run deep between me and Minnesota.”
Fowles added that seeing that No. 34 in the rafters and her relationship with her second home aren’t the only parts of her Lynx legacy that will hold significance to her.
“I plan on having a family. So for my kids to be able to see that my jersey has been retired and I’ve done something that’s great in the state of Minnesota, that means a lot as well.”
Fowles’ kids will also be able to see her name live on through present and future Lynx players, too.
To close the jersey retirement ceremony, the Lynx announced that beginning in 2024, the organization will award annually one Lynx player with the Sylvia Fowles Altruism Award, which will honor Syl’s selflessness, kindness, humanitarianism, authenticity, connection and inspiration. She is the first player in franchise history with an award named after her, which is fitting, considering that no one single player has had a greater impact on the organization everywhere outside of the four white lines than Fowles — from the locker room to the offices at Mayo Clinic Square, to the greater Minneapolis community and everywhere in between.
Fowles said Sunday that Minnesota is and always will feel like home for her. And moving forward, it’ll feel like home for hundreds more to come because of all she did to make the organization a better one than when she arrived.
There’s no question that the Lynx have a massive hole in the middle this season without No. 34 roaming the paint and brightening the locker room. Reeve would be the first to tell you that.
“Sylvia Fowles, we miss your rebounding, I miss your blocked shots, and I miss you sucking your teeth at me when I sub for you or implore you to get back on defense. I miss the heck out of that,” Reeve said Sunday to close her remarks about Fowles. “But I am so, so proud of you for believing in us and becoming a Lynx, and being all that you were for us, and that your jersey is about to be hanging in the rafters. I love you.”
Now retired, Fowles misses Reeve and her teammates, but is doing all the things she missed out on doing as a player 1,800 miles away from her native Miami, Florida. She’s driving her nieces and nephews to school, picking them up, helping them get ready for prom and graduation, and traveling to visit family she didn’t see enough during her playing days.
But Fowles still carries with her all that she learned from her coaches and teammates in her eight years with one of the league’s model organizations, and thanked everyone for it.
“All my coaches, all my teammates. I wouldn’t be who I am without y’all holding the bar high. And I appreciate that. And no, it’s not easy, and yes, I have shitty days. But seeing you guys put forth the effort in how y’all hold me to certain standards made me change my perspective of who I need to be,” Fowles said as part of her closing remarks. “So with that said, I love everything that y’all had to say about me. But the reality is, with all these people in my life, I wouldn’t be the way I am today without them. So thank you ladies for everything. I appreciate it, and I love you guys.”
"That's pretty amazing. It's no better feeling to be up there with The Mayor, The Sniper and The Machine. We got The Assassin coming soon."— Jack Borman (@jrborman13) June 12, 2023
Sylvia Fowles hints that Lynx Legend Maya Moore will get her jersey retired next. pic.twitter.com/ulh1bho1js
And now the legendary Fowles’ No. 34 resides in its forever home, up in the south end of the Target Center rafters presiding over a court on which she wiped the floor with countless opponents over eight seasons, along with those who helped her do it.
“To be up there with those girls is legendary,” Fowles said on the broadcast Sunday night. “If those jerseys in those rafters could talk, they’d say a lot.”