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‘Sweet Syl’: WNBA players on the unique influence of Sylvia Fowles

Fowles will retire at the end of the 2022 season, her 15th in the WNBA. (Catalina Fragoso/NBAE via Getty Images)

When Sylvia Fowles stole the ball from Jackie Young in the middle of the second quarter of the WNBA All-Star Game last month, she dribbled the length of the court with a full head of steam. No one was in front of her — just an empty lane and the basket. A second later, Fowles leapt and stuffed the ball into the net with such force that it sent everyone in Wintrust Arena into a frenzy.

Especially the players.

“I think I heard, like, my teammates and the crowd and I was like, OK, just go for it,” Fowles, 36, told ESPN’s Holly Rowe after the game.

While the dunk itself injected much-needed energy into the building, the moment was also symbolic. Fowles last dunked in her very first All-Star game as a member of the Chicago Sky in 2008. This season, her last in the WNBA, she did it again — and in Chicago no less — putting a stamp on her illustrious 15-year career.

In the years since Fowles went No. 2 overall to the Sky in the 2008 draft, behind No. 1 pick Candace Parker, she has spent seven seasons in Chicago and eight with the Minnesota Lynx, receiving accolades, winning awards and setting all-time records along the way. She is a two-time WNBA champion with Minnesota, a two-time WNBA Finals MVP, a WNBA MVP, an eight-time WNBA All-Star and a four-time WNBA Defensive Player of the Year.

As the 14-20 Lynx fight for a playoff spot in their two remaining games of the regular season, Fowles heads into the final phase of her career as the all-time record holder in defensive rebounds (2,855), total rebounds (3,982) and field-goal percentage (59.9 percent).

“I feel like the impact that she’s had on the game and the league, I feel like, just as a post player — I mean she’s changed the game when it comes to posts being able to be big, strong but also mobile,” says New York Liberty center Stefanie Dolson. “Finishing around the rim, I feel like she’s one of the greatest at that. At rebounding. Just everything in general.”

Dolson still remembers the first time she matched up against Fowles in the post. She calls it her “welcome to the WNBA” moment. Mike Thibault, her head coach at the time with the Washington Mystics, told her with a simple shrug, “Do what you can.”

“I did, and she killed me. She just dominated me,” Dolson says. “I realized I had to get stronger because I figured if that was what all post players were like, then it was gonna be tough for me. It’s made me a better player, a better post player.”

Fowles’ overall impact on the game and accomplishments are evident. But what makes her one of the most beloved and respected players in the history of the WNBA goes way beyond the boundary lines of the hardwood.

“Sylvia has carried the torch unheralded for a long time in this league,” says Connecticut Sun head coach Curt Miller. “She should be mentioned with the all-time greats, in sentence one. She probably has never really gotten the credit that she deserves. That’s how good she’s been. But also, everyone speaks so highly of her. To listen to players talk about her is just a credit to what a great teammate she has been.”

Mama Syl. Sweet Syl. Big Mommy.

These are just a few of the nicknames players around the league have bestowed upon Fowles. And with good reason. Anyone who has teamed up with her, or even played against her night in and night out, will gladly tell you why.

“It’s my dream (playing with her),” says Lynx teammate Damiras Dantas. “I dreamed one day in Brazil I’d come to this league. I watched Syl on YouTube, like videos of offense and defense, and now I’m here and it’s a good opportunity to learn something, play together. I come here every day and Syl teaches me something new — on and outside the court.”

Dantas has played five seasons with Fowles in Minnesota. (David Sherman/NBAE via Getty Images)

Dantas describes Fowles as someone who’s always dancing before games, having fun and lifting up others.

“I feel like she’s my mom,” Dantas adds. “She does everything right and she dominates post play, defense, rebounds. So for me, she’s the best post player in this league and the world.”

Jessica Shepard is quick to agree. The Lynx forward comes in every morning and receives a hug from Fowles. And when they hit the gym, Fowles shares lessons she’s learned along her storied basketball journey.

“Syl’s one of the most amazing people you’ll ever be around. She’s so caring with all of her teammates, and every day she’s checking in on you,” Shepard says. “And then you get on the court and you watch the greatest really every night. It’s fun to watch, and just being on the court with her makes [the game] a lot easier.”

Before Rachel Banham joined the Lynx, she spent four years playing against Fowles as a member of the Sun. Every time Banham had to run through a screen against Minnesota, she knew what was waiting for her on the other side.

“I remember we used to always double her and I was like, she doesn’t even feel me down here,” Banham says about Fowles with a laugh. “I was like a little ant. So that always made me laugh. I would tell her that after games and be like, ‘You didn’t even feel me down there, did you?’ I was a little rag doll.”

Now that they’re teammates, Banham has gotten to experience how the other half lives.

“It’s been really fun because she sets such good screens that I’m always open when I come off of ball screens,” she says. “And I can throw any kind of pass at her and she always catches it. I can throw it so high and somehow she always catches it. So that’s been fun. She just makes basketball easier.”

Danielle Robinson, Fowles’ former teammate with the Lynx and a current guard for the Indiana Fever, has nothing but good things to say about her. The two got to know each other during one WNBA offseason when Robinson was recovering from an injury. Fowles invited Robinson to come stay with her and train in Miami, where Fowles grew up and still resides.

“[She] welcomed me into her home and cooked dinner for us, and spent time. … This is her space, and you know how people love their space,” Robinson says. “For her to invite me down there — I think I was down there for like a week — just to see her regimen and how she trains and who she trains with. She took us to the beach and everything. It was just a cool moment.”

Once, when Robinson was holding an event in downtown Minneapolis to provide meals for the unhoused, Fowles volunteered to join her.

“She’s there for you and always willing to help,” Robinson says. “On top of that, she’s just the best person. Literally, you call her Sweet Syl for that very reason.”

“The first thing I think of is somebody with so much dominance and aggression that carries so much grace,” says Los Angeles guard Brittney Sykes. “She is an amazing human being. Like, I just love her so much. … She is the sweetest person ever. Like, the sweetest teddy bear.”

The Chicago crowd erupted after Fowles dunked in her last WNBA All-Star Game on July 10. (Stephen Gosling/NBAE via Getty Images)

In 2015, the Lynx faced the Indiana Fever in the WNBA Finals, and the series went to a deciding Game 5. Lindsay Whalen, former Lynx great and current head coach at the University of Minnesota, recalls head coach Cheryl Reeve drawing up four main plays. Three of them, she says, were for Fowles.

“And that’s why we beat Indiana,” Whalen says. “They just did not have an answer for Syl. She carried us. She really did. 2015 and 2017 are two examples where she just carried us to the championship.”

Whalen first connected with Fowles at Team USA basketball camp when Fowles was still with the Sky. The two had great on-court chemistry from the jump, fitting into their designated point guard-center roles seamlessly. Whalen knew exactly where to lob the ball into the post, and Fowles knew when it was time to screen and create a lane. Together, they won two Olympic gold medals at London in 2012 and Rio de Janeiro in 2016, and naturally they became friends off the court as well. Once Fowles joined Whalen in Minnesota, their bond grew even stronger.

“She’s probably the kindest, nicest superstar that there’s ever been,” Whalen says. “I mean, she’s helping fold laundry after the games with the support staff and helping the managers organize the Gatorade bottle. She’s so down to earth, it’s pretty incredible.

“Our friendship continues even after our playing days. She’s someone who I’ll always look up to and admire. I’ll always consider her more than a teammate.”

Fowles and Lindsay Whalen won two Olympic gold medals and two WNBA championships as teammates. (David Sherman/NBAE via Getty Images)

As the 2022 season winds down and Fowles’ retirement draws near, Whalen knows Fowles will miss the game but that new adventures lie ahead. And whatever Fowles goes on to do in her career — she earned her degree in mortuary science while playing in the WNBA — Whalen has no doubt in her mind that Fowles will be content.

“I know she’ll miss it, like we all do. You don’t get it back. And it’s such a big part of our lives for all of these years,” she says. “but I think she’s the type of person who will be successful in a lot of different areas and a lot of different things.”

For now, Fowles continues to excel at the highest level despite her age and the toll of running up and down the court for the better part of her life. If the Lynx are to make the playoffs for the 12th straight year after a slow start to the season, that road will likely go through Fowles, who is averaging 14.6 points, 9.7 rebounds and 1.2 blocks in 27.6 minutes per game.

“Nowadays, you’re seeing a lot of people spread the floor and shoot, but she dominates the block,” Banham says. “She’s a true five, and she’s so strong. She can rebound, she can score, she can block shots. She makes it really tough for people inside to figure out how to guard her and how to stop her.”

“Even now in her last year, she’s drawing double- and triple-teams and still finishing through that,” adds Robinson. “And I think that’s just a testament to how hard she works, honestly, and just the skill set that she has.”

Even before she set out on her farewell season, Fowles’ basketball legacy was firmly intact. But the impression she’s had on the players and coaches around the league will last far beyond her final game.

Lyndsey D’Arcangelo is a contributing writer at Just Women’s Sports, covering the WNBA and college basketball. She also contributes to The Athletic and is the co-author of “Hail Mary: The Rise and Fall of the National Women’s Football League.” Follow Lyndsey on Twitter @darcangel21.

Sofia Huerta signs contract extension with Seattle through 2027

(Daniel Bartel-USA TODAY Sports)

Former Oregon soccer players detail instances of verbal abuse from former USWNT assistant

(Chris Pietsch/The Register-Guard via Imagn Content Services)

Members of the Oregon women’s soccer team are saying they received harsh treatment and even verbal abuse from head coach and former USWNT assistant Graeme Abel. 

During the 2023 season, the team had zero wins, and upon its conclusion a total of 12 of the team’s 29 players departed the team. Former players told The Oregonian that Abel would verbally attack them, threaten to kick them off the team and at times would even throw objects.

"When I’d make a mistake at practice, it felt like he made it a job to embarrass you to the point where you just wanted to walk off the field,” one player said. “He’d stop the practice – and I know it’s college soccer, it’s very competitive — but he’d stop practice and just keep going nonstop on this one thing."

In total, the Oregonian spoke with 14 former players – including 12 who agreed to be interviewed in depth. All said that they experienced verbal abuse. Six of the players were among those who transferred following the season. 

One instance of Abel’s tirades included him throwing a water bottle that narrowly missed players’ heads. 

“He kicked all of our staff out of the locker room, kicked a trash can, threw a white board, sat on the trash can and started screaming,” one player recounted. “He wanted us to tell him what we thought went wrong in the game. Me and another player spoke up, and he said, ‘You’re just (expletive) wrong.’ And that if we didn’t want to be in this program, we could all quit, and he’d sign our release paperwork tomorrow.”

While Abel was not made available for an interview, he did say in a statement that “at no point have I used threatening statements or financial repercussions as a part of coaching.”

Instances of emotional distress stemming from Abel’s alleged harsh treatment date back to 2021 – his first full year leading the team following an abbreviated 2020 campaign.

Other former players contacted by The Oregonian detailed positive overall experiences, and described his style as “normal coaching.”

Others, like USWNT players Becky Sauerbrunn and Lindsey Horan, did not respond to requests for comment, although Sauerbrunn wrote in 2019 that she had a “great relationship” with Abel. 

Still, multiple players interviewed had similar stories, with one saying that girls would be “crying in the locker room” after practice because of what he would tell players. Attempts to speak with the administration about his behavior, players say, was “discouraging.”

“His office is like the scariest place,” one player said. “You’d have to sit there while he’d belittle you and say all these nasty things, and gaslight you into believing you’re not good enough. ... Our team fell apart because of the environment he created. We were just trying to get through the day. There was no way we could focus on soccer.”

Multiple players said they experienced suicidal ideation while playing at Oregon. In part of his statement, Abel wrote that “at no time do we put our student-athletes in any danger.”

Abel is currently in his fifth and final year of his contract at Oregon.

Gotham FC unveil Championship rings ahead of banner reveal

Gotham FC players celebrate Lynn Williams' goal in the first half of the 2023 NWSL Championship. (Ray Acevedo/USA TODAY Sports)

Gotham FC has unveiled their 2023 NWSL championship rings — and safe to say, they deliver.

The reveal has led to a little bit of trash talk ahead of the team’s matchup with Kansas City this weekend, as both teams have NFL owners. While the Current are co-owned by Patrick and Brittany Mahomes, former Giants quarterback Eli Manning is a co-owner of Gotham. 

On Wednesday, Manning took to Sportscenter to give Mahomes a bit of a hard time.

“He may have one more Super Bowl ring than me, but he does not have a NWSL championship ring like I do,” Manning joked.

“Come Sunday night at Red Bull Arena, April 14th, we’re dropping the banner on Kansas City. We got the ring ceremony, the players get their rings and their championship afterwards. This is it, I’ve got something to talk a little trash to him about because I can’t do it about football anymore, I gotta find something else.”

The appearance came after Manning posted to social media, inviting Mahomes to “come see [the championship ring] up close this Sunday.”

Mahomes responded in kind, writing that “we’ll see y’all Sunday!”

Gotham takes on current league-leaders Kansas City on Sunday at 6pm ET. The game is available on NWSL+.

Oregon State hit by transfer portal again as Raegan Beers departs

ALBANY, NEW YORK - MARCH 31: Raegan Beers #15 of the Oregon State Beavers shoots a free throw during the first half against the South Carolina Gamecocks in the Elite 8 round of the NCAA Women's Basketball Tournament at MVP Arena on March 31, 2024 in Albany, New York. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

Oregon State leading scorer and rebounder Raegan Beers announced on Thursday that she is entering the transfer portal. 

"Thank you for all of your endless love and support these past two years," she posted on social media. "I will never forget my time at OSU and I am thankful for the opportunity I had to meet and play with incredible people. My journey as a Beav was a special one and I am grateful for my teammates, coaches, fans, and friends who have changed my life throughout my time here."

A sophomore forward, Beers is a two-time All-Pac-12 selection who averaged 17.5 points per game last season while shooting 66.4 percent from the field. She also added 10.3 rebounds en route to earning third-team All-American honors from the AP. 

She’s the fourth Oregon State starter – and seventh player overall – to hit the portal this offseason. She joins Talia von Oelhoggen and Timea Gardiner in the transfer portal, as well as starting freshman Donovyn Hunter. 

Beers and Gardiner were both top-10 recruits in ESPN rankings coming out of high school. 

With the dissolution of the Pac-12, the program will join the WCC next season and no longer be a part of the Power 5.

Conference realignment is hitting the team hard, with coach Scott Rueck saying during the tournament that he knew it could seriously affect his team moving forward. 

"That's reality," Rueck said. "I can't control that, other than just keep doing what I'm doing. I think the opportunity within that for a leader provides a discipline that you'd better be on your A-game all the time. You'd better take care of people, and you'd better provide a great experience. That's the approach going forward and what happens, happens. We'll find a way."

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