Sylvia Fowles evolves into an MVP front-runner

MINNEAPOLIS -- "I was that weird kid," Sylvia Fowles said with a laugh.

But perhaps there is a better description for the Minnesota Lynx center as a child: She was a mixture of intriguing contradictions.

The 6-foot-6 Fowles is in her 10th season in the WNBA, and is seeking her second championship with the Lynx. She has averaged nearly a double-double in her WNBA career and is a three-time defensive player of the year. She's considered the front-runner for MVP this season.

But Fowles was once a tall, fast, athletic girl who initially did not want to play organized basketball. She was the youngest of five children, but the one usually given the most responsibility by her mother.

She was a daredevil prankster who didn't fear anything, but also a level-headed pragmatist who understood commitment and discipline. An active youngster who often couldn't sit still, but also an artist who -- when committed to a project -- could focus intently for hours.

A gentle ray of sunshine whose smile could light up a room, but also a deep thinker who had, as she says, "kind of a fascination with death."

That could sound overly dramatic or morbid from a lot of people, but not with Fowles. Having lost a great-grandmother, a grandmother and a cousin at a relatively early age, Fowles became curious about death rather than frightened of it.

What happens afterward? Where do we go? Do we return?

Existential questions that everyone considers, but Fowles does so without trepidation. That's just who she is.

"She has so much depth to her that a lot of people don't know," said Texas A&M assistant Bob Starkey, who was on the LSU staff when Fowles played there and remains a good friend. "She is an excellent artist, very creative. She's very generous and gives back to her community. She has such a big heart, and never forgets anybody. Sylvia is just a very special individual."

And a heck of a basketball player. Fowles has won three Olympic gold medals and two EuroLeague titles. Her No. 34 jersey will be retired this season by LSU, which she helped lead to four Final Four appearances. She's having what many consider her best overall WNBA season, and had 18 points and seven rebounds Tuesday as the Lynx took a 1-0 lead over the Mystics in the WNBA semifinals.

"She understands how to use her physical gifts to not just be good, but dominant," Minnesota coach Cheryl Reeve said. "As far as a physical, low-block presence, I don't know that anyone in our game has been better. Syl is a combination of aggression and ability; it's impressive to be around that every day."

Or as Chicago's Stefanie Dolson, speaking for all the WNBA centers who've had to go against Fowles, puts it: "Her relentlessness makes it tough on us. You've got to work so hard against her. She's strong, big, and she just doesn't stop. It wears you out."

Fulfilling a basketball destiny

Fowles has become one of the best centers in women's basketball history, but says of the sport, "I resisted it for a long time."

A coach/athletic director at her junior high school kept asking her to play. Finally, he called her mother, Arrittio, to see if Fowles could come to practice.

"And Sylvia was saying, 'Mom, please tell him no!' " Arrittio recalled. "But I sort of pushed her into it."

It wasn't that Fowles disliked basketball. But she was used to the rough and tumble hoops contests with her brothers and their friends on the playgrounds of Miami, where they grew up. Basketball often seemed more like a fight than a game, a test of how much pain she could deal with and dish out. She didn't care for it.

But she grew very tall in the summer before eighth grade, and the school's pursuit became even more ardent.

"So I was like, 'OK, I'll try it,' " Fowles said. "And then I kind of fell in love with it. But I was terrible. All I could do was rebound and run. So that was the game plan: outrun everybody and make layups."

By high school, she was superstar, winning three state titles, two with Edison High and one with Gulliver Preparatory School. She went to LSU hoping to play for Sue Gunter. But the longtime coach was forced to retire due to illness before Fowles started her freshman season in 2004, and then Gunter died the following summer.

Fowles' current Lynx teammate, Seimone Augustus, was two years ahead of Fowles at LSU. Even to this day, Augustus said, they both are motivated to play in a way that would make Gunter proud.

"Coach Gunter would always say, 'No excuses; get it done,' " Augustus said. "And it's something we still carry with us: the grind we go through, the work ethic, always trying to improve."

"As far as a physical, low-block presence, I don't know that anyone in our game has been better." Lynx coach Cheryl Reeve on Sylvia Fowles

Augustus recalls the conversations she used to have with Fowles, who with her size tended to take a pounding inside and be frustrated by it.

"I said, 'This is going to be your life. You're going to have to play through it,' " Augustus said. "I had to stay on her."

So did then-LSU head coach Pokey Chatman and Starkey, who said he told Fowles her freshman season, "You have a chance to be a really special player, but it's going to take a commitment from your part."

Fowles acknowledges that she shed tears a lot during that first season at LSU, as Starkey continually pushed her in practice. But then she would text him afterward to say, "Keep doing it."

"She has an insatiable desire to get better," Starkey said.

Perfect fit with Lynx

That desire is what ultimately led Fowles to leave Chicago, the WNBA team that drafted her at No. 2 in 2008.

The Sky went to the WNBA Finals in 2014, losing to Phoenix. Fowles at that point had spent seven seasons in Chicago, and no longer felt she was growing as a player.

The Sky had given her the core-player designation and hoped to retain her, but Fowles had made up her mind. Her only option to leave was to force a trade by sitting out until it happened -- which turned out to be about midway through the 2015 season.

Fowles wanted to keep improving, and to be in an environment that challenged her in all the right ways. That was Minnesota.

"She's come to a system here where you're not allowed slippage; you're held accountable every day," Washington coach Mike Thibault said. "Not just by the organization, but by your peers. Great players who play hard every day and don't let their teammates slide. That's what we've been trying to build as well.

"If that just comes from the coaches, it's not enough. But when Syl looks around in the [Lynx] locker room, there's another Olympian everywhere she turns. Her being healthy, and them saying to her, 'As a team, we're going to be as good as you are,' that's done wonders for her."

Fowles, at first, was wary of being too assertive with Minnesota, a franchise that won two titles before she arrived. She gradually figured out, though, that assertiveness is what the Lynx wanted. She helped them win the 2015 championship, and the Lynx nearly repeated last year.

But Los Angeles won the title on Nneka Ogwumike's second-chance effort after Fowles had blocked her shot. That 77-76 loss -- and the way it happened -- just added more fuel for Fowles.

"I'm a people pleaser, and I don't like to make anyone uncomfortable. But being in a competitive sport, that can be your downfall, because it's survival of the fittest." Sylvia Fowles

"Everybody with our team hated the way the season ended," Fowles said. "But when you look at the bigger picture, I had to think of what I could have done better myself, and what could have helped the team as a whole.

"The exit meeting I had with Coach Reeve ... it was like a light switch. I fully realized what I needed to do. When I first came here, I thought more like, 'Get in where you fit in.' I didn't want to step on anyone's toes. But Coach Reeve told me she wanted me to be me, to be dominant all the time. And I think that's what everyone is getting to see this year."

Miami: Home is where the heart is

Fowles now has a house in Cutler Bay, an area of Miami-Dade County that was devastated by Hurricane Andrew in 1992, when Fowles was almost 7 years old. So far she said, via reports from her mother, Hurricane Irma has not damaged her home.

No matter where Fowles is, a part of her is always in Miami. It's a place she loves, and her family remains there. One of her brothers has been in prison since Fowles was in college, and it's obviously a painful subject for her. She knows how many pitfalls she was fortunate to avoid.

When Fowles saw the Oscar-winning movie "Moonlight," it was an emotional experience. It's the story of a young man from Liberty City, in greater Miami, who is trying to find his identity in what is a dangerous, heartbreaking and yet beautiful world.

"It brought back a lot of memories," said Fowles, whose family lived in Liberty City when she was growing up. "Yes, there were a lot of fights, and a lot of ways to get in trouble. But for the most part, there was a sense of sisterhood and brotherhood. There were people trying to take care of each other, especially the younger kids who they thought had potential."

That's something many recognized in Fowles, including her mom. Arrittio was a single mother who worked three jobs to support her family, but Sylvia said she didn't feel that she lacked for anything.

"I never went hungry, and everything I needed, I got," Fowles said, but added that despite being the youngest of five, she was held accountable at an early age.

"I was the little sister, but I was also the 'big' sister," she said. "My mom put those expectations on me. I had to make sure our school uniforms were ready for the week. That everything was in order when my mom got home from work.

"I didn't like it and didn't understand it at that age. But my mom and I had this conversation a few years ago. I asked her, 'Is it something parents see in their kids? Who might be the most determined? Who will carry the most weight?' And she said, 'Yes.' I definitely see now why she did it, and it helped to where I am today."

Fowles learned to cook, sew, knit and crochet as a child, and those are all things she still does. She creates beautiful hand-made gifts for people, joking that she goes to the arts and crafts store Michaels "practically every other day." She's also learning to play the bass guitar, and she loves listening to jazz.

She's also preparing for the future. When Fowles mentioned to reporters last year that she was studying to get a degree in mortuary science and plans to run a funeral home someday, it might have sounded strange. But it doesn't seem odd at all when you sit and talk with her about it.

The loss of loved ones when she was young impacted her in a way that probably wouldn't happen with most people: She decided working in that industry would be a good way for her to help others.

"I think it goes to the core of who she is," Starkey said. "There's probably not a more difficult time in people's lives than dealing with death. So I think when you go into that profession, it's a calling."

But Fowles, who will be 32 in October, doesn't intend to stop playing anytime soon. She recently signed a contract extension, and would love to finish her WNBA career with the Lynx.

"I'm a people pleaser, and I don't like to make anyone uncomfortable," Fowles said. "But being in a competitive sport, that can be your downfall, because it's survival of the fittest.

"What Minnesota built from the ground up, though, is about self-respect and how we treat each other. Not to be jealous of each other, but to always build each other up and play for the same goal. That's what we walk by and live by. It's definitely brought out the best in me."