In the shadow of George Floyd Square, the Minnesota Lynx remain steadfast in the fight for racial justice

From Philando Castile to George Floyd and Daunte Wright, Sylvia Fowles and the Minnesota Lynx have been at the physical epicenter of America's fight for racial justice. Jordan Johnson/NBA/Getty Images

WITH A WIDE smile and a clap of her hands, Sylvia Fowles brings her Minnesota Lynx teammates together in a dark tunnel that leads to their home court at Target Center.

"Take care of each other; protect each other," Fowles says as music from the arena seeps into their huddle, the noise growing louder as the 2,000-some fans prepare to greet their long-gone team.

Fowles, a 14-year veteran who is in her seventh season with Minnesota, brings up the rear as the Lynx take the court for their 2021 season opener on May 14 -- their first official game in Minneapolis in 621 days.

Almost nothing is the same as it was the last time. The roster is different. The crowd is smaller, and masks outnumber the jerseys in the stands. But the excitement surrounding the four-time WNBA champions is palpable, a stark contrast to how the city has felt over the traumatic past year.

"Minneapolis hasn't been the same in a long time," says Lynx guard Rachel Banham, who grew up in a Minneapolis suburb. "It's a little more eerie."

Just three miles away from Target Center, plywood covers windows of businesses up and down East Lake Street. The occasional "open" is spray-painted on the wood itself in place of a missing or broken neon sign. A Target store that was looted has reopened, but the old Third Precinct of the Minneapolis Police Department is still boarded shut.

The murder of George Floyd, a Black man, by then-Minneapolis Police Officer Derek Chauvin on May 25, 2020, put the Lynx once again at the physical epicenter in the fight for racial justice. Five years ago, the Lynx wore T-shirts demanding justice and accountability for Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, two Black men who were killed by police in 2016. The message was both a call to action and a promise -- change starts with us.

But George Floyd's death was different. In the middle of a pandemic, Lake Street filled with protesters by day and burned after sundown. And the Lynx flew to Bradenton, Florida, for an entire season in the bubble.

Minneapolis, along with America as a whole, has spent the past year confronting the reality that racism is foundational and systemic in the United States. It was true in 2016, it was true in 2020 and it is true today -- even after many Americans were willing to see the knee on George Floyd's neck. The Lynx -- as Black women, biracial women and white women -- have experienced the world differently but believe those differences can help lead to real and lasting change. It's messy, and they don't always agree on everything, but their solidarity is a model for change at a time when change feels like an immovable mountain.

Now the Lynx are back at Target Center, and their return is as much cathartic as it is full-circle. Three weeks after Chauvin was convicted of murdering George Floyd, "Enough is Enough" by Blush rolls on the big screen as the Lynx set out on a new season. Fans clap at the images of WNBA players participating in protests set to the song's social justice message.

If we ever want to make things better we should do it right now.

SYLVIA FOWLES IS shopping at Walgreens when she gets the news that a verdict has been reached in Chauvin's murder trial. She's been back in Minnesota for only a couple of days -- she's still unpacking -- and she realizes she's missing a few essentials. She snakes through the aisles to grab her vitamins, witch hazel and cotton swabs. But news of the verdict sets off a scramble. After getting back to her apartment, she hops on a team Zoom call, where it becomes clear that should there be a "not guilty" verdict, there are plans to get everyone out of the city.

The Lynx hub -- Target Center, Mayo Clinic Square, and many of the players' apartments -- is in the heart of downtown Minneapolis, and the tension has been rising all day. Everywhere the Lynx players turn, they're reminded of the stakes of the moment. Fencing has been installed in the wake of spates of violence and destruction. Members of the National Guard, dressed in fatigues and holding weapons, line the streets, the sidewalks, everywhere. The news of an incoming verdict sends cars streaming out of downtown in the middle of the afternoon.

Lynx coach and general manager Cheryl Reeve is in one of those cars leaving downtown. She's in her office at the Lynx training facility with CNN on the television when the announcement of the incoming verdict flashes across the screen. She drives to her home, and walks upstairs to put the television on. She's anxious; unsure of what the outcome will be. "I wondered to myself that if I felt this way, how did my Black and brown friends feel?" she says now. "Because it seemed pretty darn obvious, but too many times it was obvious what the verdict should be and it didn't work out that way."

Rachel Banham is sitting on her couch bracing for the verdict. For Banham, it has been a complicated year. Both of her parents are retired police officers. And her grandfather was the first Black police officer at the University of Minnesota. "It's something that's really hard for me," she says. "I'm so proud of my parents, but also it's hard because you have s---head cops that are doing dumb things, and people in all different positions of power who are racist."

Like Banham, Crystal Dangerfield is on her couch. She rushed up to her apartment from the garage, and isn't even sure if she locked her car door. As the clock ticks past 4 p.m., Hennepin County District Judge Peter Cahill is ready to begin the proceedings. He reads the jury's findings: Guilty. Guilty. Guilty. Guilty on all three counts, including murder. Relief washes over Dangerfield as she hears the words. Outside, car horns honk in celebration. "For it to be a clean sweep, it was excitement, but also shock," Dangerfield says. "There were still nerves about, are they going to get this right?"

Justice is never guaranteed. And it's often late.

A YEAR AFTER his murder, George Floyd Square is still closed to traffic. Barriers are erected one block in each direction from the corner of East 38th Street and Chicago Avenue in Minneapolis. "Where there's people there's power," is scrawled along the roof of an old Speedway gas station. At the square's south entrance on Chicago rest the 24 demands of the community. Number 24 reads: "Continue the closure of 38th and Chicago until after the trials of four officers charged with the murder of George Floyd." The square has been remade by the people. And the people keep it.

George Floyd Square isn't just the mural almost everyone has seen by now. It's a series of memorials, an outpouring of community grief at continuous traumatic loss. At the center of the square, the base of a statue is lined with the images of Black people killed by police -- a litany of names that has become all too familiar. George Floyd. Philando Castile. Breonna Taylor. Daunte Wright.

Although it is only four miles from Target Center, Fowles cannot bring herself to visit George Floyd Square. "Mentally I don't think I would want to prepare myself to be in that space," Fowles says. "Seeing what we see on TV and witnessing that is enough for me to not want to be there. I don't think I'm ready for that yet."

Fowles grew up in Miami. She and her four siblings were raised by a single mother. "We were some naughty kids," Fowles says. Engaging with law enforcement was expected, and they knew those experiences wouldn't always be positive. Oftentimes they weren't.

"We'd always have these issues with the cops, where they're minor or major, but we normalized that," Fowles says. "It was like 'Oh it's going to happen anyway. So why sweat it? That's just what they do.' It don't make it right, but you don't realize that until you get older."

LISTEN: On the ESPN Daily podcast, ESPN's Katie Barnes joins Pablo Torre to discuss the Lynx's impact on athlete activism.

As a biracial kid growing up in Minnesota, Banham had a different experience. Her high school is over 80% white. When she was younger, she often put relaxers in her hair. As an adult, she wears it naturally, but it took becoming a professional in the WNBA before she was comfortable doing so. "I'm light-skinned as hell," Banham says. "I've had privilege in that I don't feel a sense of fear that other people feel, but I do have a Black father and a Black family."

Hearing the varying experiences of her players is what moves Reeve. As a white person, she knows her racial experience is vastly different than the players she coaches. But she's also familiar with discrimination as a gay woman. "For 20-plus years, hearing stories, being close to players, being close to their families," she says, "you just get a much greater understanding if you open your eyes."

One particular story affected Reeve deeply. Former Lynx player Seimone Augustus was pulled over by police in 2012. Augustus was in Roseville, Minnesota, a suburb northeast of Minneapolis. She detailed her interpretation of events in a series of tweets following the incident. Augustus was pulled over for having an air freshener hanging from her rearview mirror; the same reason, according to his mom, that Daunte Wright was pulled over nine years later. The 20-year-old Black man was killed in the Minneapolis suburb of Brooklyn Center on April 11, about 10 miles from where Chauvin's trial was taking place. The similarities were not lost on Reeve.

"There's just so many things in life you can learn if you actually step outside of yourself," Reeve says.

ON JULY 9, 2016, former Lynx players Augustus, Maya Moore, Lindsay Whalen and Rebekkah Brunson stepped up to plead for change following the police killings of two Black men, Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and Philando Castile in a Minneapolis suburb. The Lynx wore T-shirts and held a news conference to raise their voices for justice and police reform. Four off-duty police officers working the Lynx game that night walked out.

But the Lynx players opened the door for more collective action within the WNBA, both immediately and across the next several years. Over the next few days, players for the New York Liberty, Indiana Fever and Phoenix Mercury wore Black Lives Matter shirts. Fines levied by the league against the players were later rescinded.

In 2019, Moore announced that she would sit out the upcoming WNBA season. She has yet to return as her fight for social justice persists.

In 2020, the league dedicated its season in the bubble to Breonna Taylor and the "Say Her Name" campaign. Several high-profile players across the league opted to sit out the season completely to fight for justice. In August, players wore "Vote Warnock" T-shirts to stir opposition to then-Atlanta Dream owner and U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler, who was later defeated by Raphael Warnock.

"There's no question that the Minnesota Lynx were the first team to really create this space of being unafraid and to lead with courage," Reeve says.

Fowles, 35, is the only player still on the roster from that 2016 team. Five years ago, she was much less vocal, but that's something Fowles has decided to change.

"Back in 2016, I shied away from a lot of opportunities to talk about things," she says. "I think 2020 was that turning point where we all felt like we had to say something because if we didn't, then we were not doing justice to what needed to be done."

Fowles' presence has helped create space, awareness and conversation for her teammates. She regularly sends articles, prompting discussion about the world around them.

"We looked at her first to set up these conversations and make us feel comfortable," Dangerfield says.

If the past 12 months is any indication, there will be more conversation, more discomfort, and an ongoing reckoning. Particularly here. In Minneapolis. And with the Lynx.

Chauvin is scheduled to be sentenced for the murder of George Floyd on June 25. The federal trial of the three other former Minneapolis police officers involved in Floyd's death is still to come. Later this year, former Brooklyn Center Officer Kim Potter is scheduled to be tried on manslaughter charges in the death of Daunte Wright.

As they have been for the past five years, the Lynx will be at the epicenter. Together. Ready to stand. Ready to lean on each other. Ready to raise their voices.

"We have a lot more people we want to talk about," Fowles says. "It wasn't just going to be a one-time thing."