Minnesota Lynx coach Cheryl Reeve is used to hearing the knock on the door. Each morning during the WNBA season as she meets with her staff, Reeve knows Sylvia Fowles will drop by for a visit.
"She comes in, bangs on the door, we know who it is," Reeve said. "She gives me a hug, says hi to everybody. It doesn't matter if Syl was upset or disagreed with something in a game. She always stops by ... she just gives off such great energy all the time."
It's a ritual between them, a pairing of coach and player that clicked from the first day Fowles -- who has thrived under Reeve to cement her place as one of the best centers in women's basketball history -- joined the Lynx in July 2015. Fowles will retire when their eighth and final season together ends this fall. How long will that final journey last? Long enough for a lot more morning pop-ins, is the hope.
The Lynx will need Fowles' consistency and energy. They are off to an 0-3 start in a 2022 WNBA season that is less than a week old. And although losses at Seattle and at home to Washington were not necessarily that alarming, Minnesota falling at Indiana on Tuesday has to prompt some worries. Reeve and Fowles know the Lynx will need to navigate challenging waters in the legend's final season.
Fowles' fellow 2021 Olympian, forward Napheesa Collier, is due to give birth this month and her timetable for return to the Lynx remains uncertain. Forwards Damiris Dantas (foot) and Natalie Achonwa (hamstring) are out with injuries, and guard Kayla McBride is still competing overseas. Guards Layshia Clarendon and Crystal Dangerfield (who had 10 points and six assists Tuesday for the Fever against Minnesota) were both released as the Lynx had to make difficult roster cuts. Only two of Minnesota's top seven scorers from last season -- Fowles and guard Aerial Powers -- were in the Lynx lineup on opening weekend. And, of course, forward Maya Moore isn't officially retired but hasn't played since 2018 after leaving basketball to work on social justice issues.
Fowles knows her responsibilities in 2022 will go beyond simply playing the game.
"In the last couple of years, a lot of the joy I've gotten has been in teaching," said Fowles, the league's all-time rebounding leader. "Cheryl has given me that space to say the things I need to say. Instead of everything needing to come from her, some of it can come from me. And my teammates respond well."
"With this younger generation of players, you do need to talk to them, and not in a negative way. The WNBA is so much faster, and when they get to this level, you need to talk them through things and let them know it's going to be OK."
The Lynx have made the playoffs 11 straight years since missing the postseason in 2010, the first year of Reeve's coaching tenure in Minnesota. It's a period that has produced four WNBA titles and six Finals appearances. Fowles, who sat out part of 2015 until being granted the trade she requested from Chicago, is the only core member of those Lynx championship teams still playing for Minnesota.
"The path probably has to look different than what we've been accustomed to," Reeve said of the 2022 season. "When you only have 10 players, you know things are going to happen. We have to be flexible. We've had to make hard decisions. But what matters to us most is how we do this."
Reeve and Fowles both believe a healthy Lynx team can still make a postseason run, even in a WNBA that appears stacked near the top.
"Cheryl and her staff do a really good job of making sure we have the right people here to run our system, and our system has been good to us," Fowles said. "But we all need to understand what it takes day-in and day-out just to win a game in this league. What's going to separate you is who has the motor, who can go the longest and be the healthiest. And what team can stay glued together from start to finish."
Staying positive and keeping the team together is a burden that will fall on Fowles' shoulders to a significant degree, but she believes the task is in her wheelhouse. She has formed a reputation as a "lean on me" type even going back to her childhood.
"I do see myself as a mom for this team," Fowles said. "Some of them just call me 'auntie.'"
Fowles also said the process of becoming a respected leader has been as hard-won as some of those banners that hang from the Target Center rafters.
"There's been some trial and error," she said. "Whether it's in the business world or the sports world, whether you are sitting in an office or playing on the court, it's very important to understand who you are working with.
"Communication is one of the bigger pieces. I watch how other players respond to the coaches or to me and to each other. You want to work hard and be reliable, so someone can come to you and talk about things. But it also means being empathetic. Knowing when to be bluntly honest, and when to dial back in certain situations."
The respect for Fowles comes with the territory for a player who is a certain Hall of Fame selection. In her 15th season since being drafted No. 2 overall out of LSU in 2008, Fowles has averaged 15.8 points, 9.8 rebounds and 1.8 blocks while shooting 59.7% from the field during her WNBA career. She is a four-time WNBA defensive player of the year and has won four Olympic gold medals with the United States. Other than a calf injury that sidelined her for much of the 2020 bubble season, the 36-year-old Fowles has mostly remained healthy and believes she could play a few more years.
"When you walk away, you need to be really sure. She knows what she wants in her personal life, but she also looked at a franchise that she cares deeply about."Minnesota Lynx coach Cheryl Reeve
But whenever this season ends, Fowles says she's ready to take on other commitments. She wants to spend time with her family, most of whom live in her native Florida, for starters.
"The hardest thing about this career is family," Fowles said. "I was thinking about when my first nephew was 5; now he's 21. You miss out on so much. I don't want to make those sacrifices anymore. I want to spend more time with my mom."
She also wants to start a family of her own.
"I froze my eggs when I was 30, so it's something I've been contemplating a while," she said. "Now, I want to have kids. And that was another big reason to retire; I don't want to have to travel with children. I want to settle down and focus on them."
"It gets to the point where you have all these mark-ups of what you think life is supposed to be and where you want to be at this age and things you want to accomplish."
Fowles and Reeve discussed all of this soon after the Lynx's 2021 season ended with a second-round playoff loss to eventual champion Chicago. Both left that meeting unsure if Fowles would be back for 2022.
"Syl felt she still had more to give," Reeve said. "Her preparation for a season is hard to go through. But when you walk away, you need to be really sure. She knows what she wants in her personal life, but she also looked at a franchise that she cares deeply about."
Reeve also notes how circumstances have prevented the Lynx from having a "farewell season" for other franchise favorites. Lindsay Whalen and Rebekkah Brunson didn't announce their retirements before their final seasons. Seimone Augustus spent her final season playing for the Los Angeles Sparks in 2020. Moore, who turns 33 in June, has an uncertain future with the team and in basketball.
"We haven't had anybody who has had that proper last ride, so to speak," Reeve said. "We wanted to make sure Syl's last journey is the best it can be."
Fowles' love for the Lynx is palpable; she says the championship teams she played with are more special than she can properly put into words. But right now, she wants to put everything into 2022, both for the younger Lynx players who haven't experienced all that she has and fellow veterans like Angel McCoughtry, who is in her first season in Minnesota.
"I feel like I've learned what works to motivate people, when you need to be harder and when you need to dial down," Fowles said.
Whether her star player's celebrated final season also includes team glory is a question that will play out over the next five months, but Reeve knows Fowles' daily presence -- a consistent approach that begins with an AM knock on an office door -- gives the 2022 Lynx a fighting chance.
"I don't care what our record says," Reeve said. "We're going to be a team that is so prideful about how we handle our challenges. We're going to have each other's backs at every turn. That will be a successful season in and of itself."