Sylvia Fowles is one of the most successful American athletes ever.
Four Olympic gold medals with the U.S. national women’s basketball team. Two W.N.B.A. titles with the Minnesota Lynx.
Eight W.N.B.A. All-Star teams. One league Most Valuable Player Award. She is the league’s greatest rebounder and its career leader in field-goal percentage.
Fowles won big in college at Louisiana State. In Europe. In Russia. In China.
How much of the above did you know before reading this, especially those of you who don’t pay great attention to women’s basketball? Most likely not much, and that’s a shame because you’ve missed out on greatness.
How good is Fowles?
“The best-all-time classic center in the history of our league,” said Cheryl Reeve, who has coached Fowles since 2015 with the Lynx and the Olympic team.
“Better than 99 percent of players that have ever played,” said Maya Moore, who competed with and against Fowles for years. Moore recalled Fowles’s mix of graceful power and emotional intelligence and the warm vibe she is known for: “Syl is the embodiment of a perfect teammate.”
Before the current season, Fowles, 36, announced that she planned to retire, her remarkably strong, lithe frame having taken a ferocious pounding over a lifetime of achievement. Unless there is a drastic shake-up in the playoff picture, next Sunday’s game, when Minnesota visits the Connecticut Sun, will most likely be the last of her decorated 15-year W.N.B.A. career.
Fowles is not the only W.N.B.A. all-timer set to end her playing days when the curtains close this season. After 21 years as the point guard for the Seattle Storm, Sue Bird will be gone, too.
Even if you’re a casual sports fan who does not follow the women’s game, it’s a good bet you know Bird. She came to the league out of the University of Connecticut as the girl next door who could hoop with the best and exits it as much a household name as the W.N.B.A. has had.
Fowles is just as good a player. Better, say many experts. Yet outside the respect earned from her peers and followers of women’s basketball, she has operated in the shadows.
Fowles told me last week that she had to learn not to let the lack of fame bother her. “I have had to get to that space of not caring,” she said, noting it took about half of her career to come to terms with being as overlooked as a player of her caliber can be.
Fowles said she has never been featured on national magazine covers or been the focus of ad campaigns from large-scale companies. She can walk through major airports unrecognized, other than the gawking looks from strangers marveling at a stunning, 6-foot-6 woman strolling through the concourse.
“It has been frustrating to do everything right and be so consistent throughout the years and not get the credit,” Fowles said. “But at some point, you also have to let it go because if I held on to it, I would walk around being angry.”
Bird and Fowles are peers in every meaningful sense of the word. They are basketball greats whose careers primarily overlapped. They became friends while playing together in Russia during Fowles’s early years as a professional player and have remained so.
But there is a yawning gap between their sponsorship deals, popularity, name recognition and even their post-career broadcast opportunities. This is partly a function of typical sports dynamics. Point guards get more publicity than low-post players. Bird is comfortable in front of the camera. Fowles is low-key.
The gap also exists because of societal disparities magnified in sports, where only a small number of women catch the spotlight. When I spoke with Bird, she did not hesitate to enumerate them.
Bird is an out, proud lesbian, but she recognized that, to some, “I pass as a straight woman.” She continued, noting that she is also white, “small and, therefore, not intimidating, compared to Syl, who is Black, dark-skinned and of a certain stature, yeah, that is 100 percent at play here.”
Fowles acknowledged as much, but didn’t seem in the mood to dissect it.
“You think you’re supposed to do everything right, and then when you do everything right, that you’ll get noticed,” she said. “But for multiple reasons, that’s not the case.”
Fowles’s voice trailed.
“Why do I have to work twice as hard just to get noticed?”
She wished for a better future: that the next generations of greats who look like her will be far better known, that the W.N.B.A. will find a way to promote all of its players. “Eighty percent of us are Black women, and you have to figure out how to market those Black women,” she said. “I don’t think we do that quite well.”
Fowles has done what she can to pave the way for those changes. She has performed in a way that will stand the test of time. “I’m proud of myself that I have been the same person from 2008 to 2022,” she said. “I’m not a pushover. I’m a leader, and not a follower. I stand up and speak on things that I believe.”
In her last season, playing the role of on-court coach to a young and struggling Lynx team, she was averaging nearly 15 points and almost 10 rebounds per game through Minnesota’s 81-71 win Sunday over Atlanta.
The fight for respect will now fall to other players as Fowles sets off for a profession that fits perfectly with a personality Bird described as motherly.
For years, Fowles has studied to be an undertaker when not battling on the hardwood. You read that right — an undertaker. The back story: She has been entranced by funerals and their emotional resonance since she attended her grandmother’s memorial as a child. She sees worth in ensuring that the loved ones of the recently deceased know everything was handled right, to the end, with profound care.
So one of the most remarkable women’s basketball players is retiring to help bury the dead? Indeed. It’s an incredible story that too few people know about.
And that is a problem.