I rarely get starstruck in my job anymore, not a flex, but rather something that’s come through with repetition over the past few years. That went out the window a month ago when I met Sylvia Fowles during All-Star Weekend in Chicago.
I did multiple hours of prep, watching interviews all the way back from her time in Chicago, listening to every podcast she’s been on, and reading other pieces and features since she came into the league in 2008. Nothing could really prepare me for actually meeting Syl one on one.
She walked into the backroom where I was set up in the All-Star press junket, my last interview of the day, and I kinda froze up for a second. Like, this is a living legend, one of the greatest players in the history of the sport!
And then she told me she liked my shoes, shook my hand, and asked what my name was. It seems like a small thing, but it was incredibly disarming, it made me feel comfortable, and it sparked a really great conversation about the shoes she was going to wear in the game the next day.
It clicked for me quickly, “Sweet Syl, I get it now,” I thought to myself. It’s part of my job to NOT get starstruck, but Sylvia Fowles brought me back down to earth and composed me with her genuineness. I had an out-of-body experience for a second, but then we started talking about Adidas NMD’s and I regained consciousness.
The biggest thing that resonated for me in our conversation: Strategic, a word Fowles used to describe herself.
“Everything has to be planned out for me; that’s how I function. I strategize everything to the tee. I’ve always been like that all my life, so it’s a challenge for me to actually dive in deeper of self because I’m always thinking about everyone else.”
Even in her final year, a season that’s been dedicated to her legacy, Fowles has struggled to embrace it. That shouldn’t come as a surprise.
Watch her Defensive Player of the Year award ceremony and speech from last season, her fourth such award, and it tells you all you need to know. Fowles effusively praised her teammate, Cheryl Reeve, and insisted it wasn’t an individual accolade. It’s not forced; that’s just really how Fowles views life and the game.
She knit an entire baby basket for teammate Napheesa Collier and her newborn daughter, Mila. I cannot undersell a. How large this basket was b. How incredible it was c. that everything was handknit by Fowles herself: Take a look.
Again, that strategy, meticulousness, care, and effort come through in the simplicity of small things like a baby gift. Fowles’ mentality is what makes those small things big things, literally and figuratively.
“I hate just going out and buying gifts, I want to put things to be meaningful, and she (Collier) means a lot to me, so I wanted to make sure her first baby had everything she needs and more.”
Fowles brims talking about baby Mila. She’d just met her in person for the first time when Collier and her husband brought her to a Lynx home game, but they’d already been well acquainted over facetime!
“I talk to Napheesa on facetime every day, you’d think Mila is my kid (laughs). She’s definitely Napheesa 2.0. I can’t wait to grow up with her.”
How does Fowles stay present during her last season while knowing the future is at hand? That preparation and strategizing pops up again, a theme here with the reigning DPOY.
Fowles really wants to start a family, and as soon as I ask if that’s something that’s been on her mind this season, she darts in, “Oh BABY, I’ve been planning!”
She’s long held off on aspirations outside of basketball to stay present, stay grounded, and be in the moment. Whether it’s going back to school, having kids, and thinking about post-career life in general, Fowles tries to keep that on the back burner for now.
“It’s difficult, but I had to make that promise to myself that I would be present. I think that’s made me appreciate this last year because I have time to hone into what I’m doing with you right now and what I’m doing later today. That’s what makes it special,” says Fowles.
“But, it also makes me dial in on what this feels like. I don’t want to leave and then think about it next year and be like, “oh, this did happen,” but I’m enjoying it.”
That same strategic nature is what’s made Fowles’ career underappreciated in a sense. It’s easy to see how things play out offensively. Buckets are easy to track, note, to highlight. Passing can be flashy and arguably more worthy of a reel than a great finish around the rim.
7.7% is such a key number here for me, and it’s telling in how we understand and view the game as a collective. Fowles finished top ten in the league last season in both steal and block rate, topping out at a 7.7% rate of forcing turnovers, a wildly impressive activity rate. That’s part of what makes it frustrating in a sense for me and for Fowles as well.
“It’s almost like a required taste, right? You really don’t get recognition for defense… but that stuff wins games. It’s definitely underappreciated,” says Fowles.
Fowles is impacting plays so much more than a 7.7% clip could imply. You can see and highlight the block at the rim as Fowles makes a stellar rotation. You can highlight her quick hands playing closer to the level of the screen and spearing the ball out as a ball-handler turns the corner. That 7.7% so greatly undersells Fowles’ impact as a defender.
Fowles is one of the best in basketball at what’s called two-ninening or cleansing. Defenders can only be in the paint for three seconds before a defensive foul is called if they’re not directly guarding a player in the paint as well. It’s a principle of help defense to bend the margins, keep that time in rhythm, and be able to maintain a help position while constantly shifting to get out of the paint and back in without giving up a crucial lane to the easiest place to get a shot off in basketball.
Her footwork is immaculate, something she honed growing up with her three older brothers in Miami.
“Growing up playing basketball with them, they never allowed me to play offense. So I played my first organized game in eighth grade in middle school, and I was like, “OH, you can play offense too?!” So that was the only way I could prove myself to my brothers that I knew how to play because I could only get defensive stops, so I pride myself on that,” says Fowles.
“I think when I really got good was when I started having to think two steps ahead.”
Much like how she approaches life off the court, Fowles is always thinking, always planning, always preparing, and always strategizing during and prior to a game.
When an offensive set takes 15 seconds to be enacted, with multiple actions dying or being shut down due to Fowles’ communication, mobility, knowledge of personnel, and instincts, you miss out on the bigger picture. Yes, that ended up being a jump shot that wasn’t even contested by Fowles, but it ends up being that ugly look because of the hours of work that goes on in film sessions, in studying tendencies, and in executing scouts.
The plays that don’t happen because of Fowles’ defensive gravity are also missed in the box score and often on the broadcast. Her presence deters dribble penetration from happening in the first place… just by being there. Offensive staffs draw up plays and gameplans with the purpose of keeping the ball away from Fowles or putting her into action to take away her ability to muck things up with help. Even then, Fowles is still remarkably mobile in her final season. She can switch in a pinch and hold her own against ball-handlers on the perimeter.
It’s crazy to me that she’s been underappreciated in her career.
“It’s crazy to me too sometimes,” chimes in Fowles with a laugh.
Sylvia Fowles is one of the greatest players to grace the hardwood with her presence. It’s awesome that she’s been getting her flowers this season, it’s deserved, but it’s been deserved for the past decade as well.
Fowles mentions how she admires the new generation of athletes and how they market themselves on social media, but also admits she probably wouldn’t be more active with social media even if she was coming into the league now. She doesn’t like the attention and prefers to be low key, letting her play speak for her throughout her career.
There’s a real gap in media coverage in terms of actually highlighting some of the quieter players. Finding ways to spotlight all personalities and skill sets in a league diverse in both is incredibly important, something that’s still a work in progress.
“Appreciating what you (the league) have, like not every player is the same. We have a variety of phenomenal players, and I think that’s only going to get better as generations go on. Just admiring what everybody brings to the table, not just choosing a group you want to see, but appreciating everybody.”
None of this comes from a place of bitterness with Fowles, I think that’s pretty clear if you’ve ever heard her speak. She genuinely wants to see the league continue to grow and improve as well as the coverage around it.
We talked about jazz, something I didn’t realize she was passionate about. She’s a huge fan of Miles Davis. I’m not a jazz aficionado by any means, but I listen to it a ton when I’m writing and trying to focus without any lyrics in the background. She asked who my favorite jazz artist is, and I rattle off quickly Kamasi Washington, a new-age jazz musician that I strongly recommend.
Syl’s PR person comes into the room to let her know it’s time to go, a blindingly quick and enlightening 15 minutes have passed like that.
As she gets up from her chair, “Send him to me,” she says.
And I just kind of laughed and said sure, that it was great to meet her, and I was looking forward to seeing her in the game tomorrow and catching the rest of her season.
Sitting there thinking to myself after I was on my own, it hit me, “dude, how am I supposed to just SEND something to Sylvia freak in Fowles?”
So for the heck of it, I checked her Instagram, saw that she was messageable, and sent her the Spotify link a few minutes later and another thank you for making the time. A shot in the dark. Does Sylvia Fowles really want to listen to Kamasi Washington that bad?
The answer is yes, unequivocally as I got a response a few moments later and a heartfelt thank you.
This may seem like a random story, and it’s not meant as a dig to anyone who wouldn’t do this. I did not expect Sylvia Fowles to ask me to send her the link to a musical artist, or to get a response either. I wouldn’t have thought anything of it if neither had happened. But, I think that both did happen speaks so greatly to Sylvia Fowles and who she is as a person.
I’m just a guy who watches and covers basketball. She’d never met me and that interaction could’ve gone so many different ways. The genuine nature I’d heard about speaking to anyone who had met Syl, which she mentioned in how she approaches her life and being in the present; I felt that personally.
I’ve only been covering the WNBA for a full season now and basketball at large for a few years. I’m not sure I’ll ever have an interaction like that again, because that’s just who Sylvia Fowles is: A legend in the sport, a compassionate person who gives life to others, and a genuine caring soul. I selfishly hope the Lynx make it into the final playoff spot so that Sunday’s showdown with the Sun won’t end up as her official last game. Regardless, it’s been a privilege to cover her for the short time I have, to watch her since I first caught up with the W, and to get to speak person to person.