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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.