One of America’s greatest, kindest, and most intriguing athletes retired on Sunday after a stellar career, and chances are, unless you follow the WNBA, you probably don’t realize just how special Sylvia Fowles is.
That is truly a pity, and a reminder that despite all the advances in women’s sports, many female athletes — especially ones who are a bit shy and don’t promote themselves on social media — still go underappreciated.
If a 6-6 male Miami native was an eight-time NBA All-Star, four-time NBA Defensive Player of the Year, four-time Olympic gold medalist, had won two NBA titles, league MVP, Finals MVP twice, and was the NBA’s all-time leader in rebounds and shooting percentage, he would be a household name in South Florida.
He would likely have his pick of endorsement offers.
Instead, because the letter “W” precedes “NBA” on all those staggering accolades, Fowles leaves basketball as a legend to those who followed her, coached her and played with and against her, but as a relative unknown to many people who consider themselves diehard sports fans.
If you’re feeling guilty now, don’t. It’s OK. You are forgiven if you don’t know much about Fowles. “Sweet Syl” or “Mama Syl,” as she is lovingly known by her teammates, was never one to seek attention. She is old school and low key, not big on social media. She has just eight total Instagram posts this year and her Twitter feed, with 17,000 followers, consists almost entirely of retweets from the Minnesota Lynx and her teammates.
Although she towered over everyone on the court from the time she dunked as a freshman at Miami Edison High and led Gulliver Prep to a perfect season state title, Fowles always tried to blend in. She is known for her selfless attitude and humility.
Last Friday, the day of her final home game at the Target Center, a day that she was showered with love and gifts from her team, she arrived at the arena loaded with gifts for her teammates, coaches and staff. When they entered the locker room, they found on their chairs hand-knitted beanies that Fowles spent months making, customized Crocs to match everyone’s personality, Gucci bags and Nike sneakers.
When teammate Napheesa Collier had her baby girl, Fowles knitted her a giant basket and filled it with hand-knitted beanies, dresses and a blanket. Fowles loves to knit. She knits hats, sweaters, scarves. She has been knitting since she was a kid growing up in the Victory Home Housing projects in Miami. She learned to do it on the back porch, from her great-grandmother, who used knitting to calm Fowles down when she was a restless little girl.
To this day, Fowles calls knitting her “happy place” and says it reduces her stress. Her home is filled with giant balls of colorful yarn and knitting looms. Her friends and teammates have urged her to sell her beautiful knitted items online.
The Lynx dubbed this season “Syl’s Final Ride” and honored the 36-year-old center in various ways the past few months. She appreciated it, but admitted the celebrations made her uncomfortable.
“I have a hard time processing someone crediting me for doing my job,” Fowles told WNBA.com. “I don’t feel like I need to be acknowledged or praised for that. That’s why I have shied away from it. I never wanted the attention. To my core, I think, ‘Why do we have to do that?’ ”
But Fowles didn’t just do her job. Since being drafted No. 2 overall out of LSU in 2008, she finished her career with 6,415 points and was No. 1 in WNBA history in defensive rebounds (2,856), total rebounds (4,006) and shooting percentage (60 percent). She was third in blocks (721).
She led the Lynx to two WNBA titles and was MVP in the Finals both times.
Now, she is eager to start a family (she had eggs frozen) and become a mortician. Yes, a mortician. She wants to either be an embalmer or open a funeral home.
She has spent the past seven years studying mortuary science and working part time in funeral homes in Minneapolis and Miami. She said in an interview with ESPN.com that her fascination with death and funeral homes dates to her grandmother Dorothy’s funeral, which she attended when she was 5.
Not long thereafter, she was lining up her stuffed animals in rows in her bedroom and playing funeral when other kids were playing school.
So, to recap: One of the greatest basketball players in recent memory is also a super generous soul who loves to knit and wants to become a mortician. Despite being one of the most imposing post players in WNBA history, she has been referred to by teammates as “soft as pudding” and “sweet as pie.”
And she is a proud Miami native who spent her childhood sewing, cooking, braiding hair and holding her own on the neighborhood playground basketball courts against her brothers and their friends.
Sylvia Fowles is a local treasure. She should be mentioned in the same breath as Udonis Haslem when we talk about Miami basketball role models. She runs clinics and camps for young girls. She is everything we should want our sports stars to be. She didn’t get the attention she deserved over her 15-year career.
But here’s guessing she will continue to quietly impact lives in the next chapter of her life. And if she ever puts her knitted items for sale online, this sportswriter will be among her first customers.