SYLVIA FOWLES IS GRINNING. Glowing even.
She wants me to know, with her generous smile, that she’s not afraid of the topic. We’re talking about death, and eventually, reincarnation. She likes to contemplate the future, and the unknown. It’s much more interesting to her than the past.
“I do believe in reincarnation,” Fowles says. “And if I do come back, I think I’d like to come back as an animal. Either an eagle or an elephant. I would love that.”
Fowles greets just about everyone with a hug when she meets them, and I’m no different. I’ve come to Minneapolis to ask Fowles about her impending retirement, about the curtain falling on one of the greatest careers in WNBA history, but I quickly realize it doesn’t interest her much. The 6-foot-6 Minnesota Lynx center squirms in her chair every time I try to bring up one of her numerous accomplishments: 2017 league MVP; two-time Finals MVP; four-time Defensive Player of the Year; eight-time All-Star; four-time Olympic gold-medal winner. It becomes clear she would rather delve into … just about anything else. Including (but not limited to) her love of knitting, of plants, her road to understanding her own mental health, and her future career as a mortician. Yes, mortician.
“My life is not basketball,” Fowles says. “It’s just something I do.”
We’re sitting across from each other at a table inside Breaking Bread Cafe, a restaurant run by Appetite For Change. It serves food grown in a community garden we just visited. (Fowles had a bench in the garden dedicated in her honor; she planted some beets during this latest stop on a retirement tour the Lynx have dubbed “Syl’s Final Ride.”) The greatest rebounder in the history of women’s basketball knows the clock is running out, but the celebration of her career, not the finality of it, is making her uncomfortable.
“I was really hesitant about a retirement tour,” Fowles says. “I’m like, you’re almost forcing people to give me attention, and that’s something I didn’t want. I’m sure real fans appreciate the things that I’ve done. Taking myself out of it, I suppose letting people appreciate you isn’t a bad thing. But I just think it’s weird.”
Basketball is one of Fowles’ love languages. She’s quick to concede as much. For most of her life, it has been her connection to people, her passport to explore the world. She loves the camaraderie of a locker room, the intensity of a close game. But the WNBA’s career leader in rebounds, field goal percentage and double-doubles wants me to understand something: She traded away a big portion of her personal life to pursue it.
She suspects she hasn’t been home to Miami, where she was born and raised, for more than two straight weeks since she was 15. There are family members, like her oldest nephew, who she barely recognizes. They’ve grown up, and become adults, while she was gone. One even has a kid, making her a Great Auntie. There was always another tournament, or an opportunity to hoop overseas, pulling her away. She’d like to start her own family soon. Fowles had her eggs frozen when she was 30. Teammates and friends around the league have joked for years that her nickname should be Mama Syl, because she has been such a warm, mothering presence to everyone, but now she’d like to make it a reality.
“I’m grateful for every opportunity basketball has provided, but at the end of the day, I would love to have those moments back,” Fowles says. “Missing birthdays, holidays, graduations, weddings, and all these things that make family, family. I’m so ready to do the things I’ve been missing for the last 15 years.”
SHE’S PROCESSING WHAT it will mean when basketball is gone. At one point in the conversation, she asks me when this story might run. When I tell it won’t publish until the last week of the regular season, Fowles grins and whips out her phone. She shows me a picture of two dozen hats she has knitted, one for each of her teammates or coaches. They’re a goodbye gift, a surprise she’s planning to distribute soon, but just one of many. She has been preparing to say goodbye for months.
“I’ve knitted so many beanies the last few months, it’s not even funny,” Fowles says. “I have baskets for the coaches, the trainers, the staff. I have plants for the coaches, mugs with my favorite tea in them. I want to be able to say thank you in a way that’s meaningful to me.”
The Lynx (14-20) have been riddled by injuries all season, but have gone 11-7 since starting the season 3-13 and could grab one of the final two playoff spots with a strong final weekend. Fowles, 36, has limped her way through much of the year with a sore knee and has been wearing a walking boot on off-days to combat plantar fasciitis pain. (She wore it during our interview, and felt compelled to apologize for limping so slowly as she made her way into the restaurant.) Yet despite the injuries, Fowles somehow still ranked among the best players in the league in scoring (19.0) and rebounding (12.6) per 36 minutes. She even provided the WNBA with a blissful, viral moment when she stole a pass on the perimeter, dribbled the length of the court and dunked on a fast break during last month’s All-Star Game. The reaction from her teammates — an eruption of joy — felt like testament to how much the league is going to miss her.
“Syl is so much bigger than basketball that it feels like almost a disservice to speak to just the basketball,” Lynx forward Natalie Achonwa says. “She has such a drawing, charismatic personality, it doesn’t matter what is going on, she is such a ray of light. I think I’ve learned from her to always see the good in people, the light and the love. There is so much we go through as people, as basketball players, as Black women. Sylvia makes it a point to see the good in people.”
Minnesota will play its final home game Friday (9 ET, ESPN2) against the Seattle Storm, and its final regular-season game Sunday (1 ET, ABC) against the Connecticut Sun. While the impending retirement of Storm point guard Sue Bird, the league’s all-time assists leader, has grabbed most of the headlines, Fowles has been arguably just as important to this era of the WNBA.
“I know I’m going to be emotional,” says Fowles, who will finish her career as one of the top-10 scorers (6,392 points and counting) in league history. “The last home game is going to be a hot mess. I promised myself I’m going to let myself feel whatever. If I want to cry, I’m going to cry. If I want to laugh, I’m going to laugh. If I want to be sad, I’m going to be sad. I’m not holding back.”
Fowles acknowledges she is, in her own way, grieving the end of her career. This is how we end up discussing death, and more than just the metaphorical kind. She tells me she doesn’t want to be buried. She’d like to be cremated one day, her ashes sprinkled on beaches around the world.
“Everyone should be talking about it,” she says. “I feel like the main reason people are so scared of death is a lack of education.”
For the past seven years, Fowles has been studying mortuary science, and working part time in funeral homes in Minneapolis and Miami — including every week during her 2017 MVP season, when the Lynx captured a fourth WNBA title — as a way to transition into her next profession: mortician.
“My mom would look at me and be like: ‘Why are you so weird?’ I just told her, ‘Mom, I don’t want to play tag. I want to play funeral.'”
“The human body is fascinating,” Fowles says. “To see it when it’s open, like when it comes from a coroner, and to see the fluid get pushed through the arteries, like to actually push out the blood, I think is one of the most fascinating things. You can read about it in a book, but to actually visualize it, is fascinating.”
It’s almost hard to fathom, a future Naismith Hall of Famer delicately draining dead bodies of fluids, dressing and prepping them, comforting families through their worst moments. But Fowles feels as calm and serene in a room full of cadavers as she does playing in front of thousands of fans. While I’ve heard hundreds of stories about athletes reinventing themselves in retirement, searching to find something to replace the role sports played in their lives, Fowles is the first athlete I’ve ever encountered who felt a pull to work on corpses.
I’m curious — perhaps morbidly so — as to why.
“I’ve been fascinated with death as far back as I can remember,” Fowles says. “Even as a kid, I was curious about it. Where do we go when we leave here? When you die, what happens to you? Americans don’t talk about it enough. When I go to Europe and play, everyone has plans set in place [for when they die]. It’s so open. I just want to be an advocate for it.”
The youngest of five kids, Fowles used to make deals with her older siblings. She would participate in the kind of activities most kids are drawn to — playing house, pretending to make meals and do the dishes — if, after it was over, they would help her stage mock funerals for her stuffed animals. Her mom, Arrittio, watched funerals unfold with a mixture of bewilderment and dismay.
“It used to drive my mom crazy,” Fowles says. “She never understood why. I would take all my stuffed animals and put them on a bench in the middle of the room and say ‘OK, we’re having a funeral.’ My mom would look at me and be like: ‘Why are you so weird?’ I just told her, ‘Mom, I don’t want to play tag. I want to play funeral.’ “
If there was one moment in her childhood, however, that crystallized the compassion Fowles would come to feel for the dead, it was the passing of her grandmother, Dorothy, when Sylvia was 5 years old. Even now, 31 years later, certain details of Dorothy Fowles’ life remain vivid. “She was a very sassy woman,” Fowles says. “She loved to cook. She had the longest gray hair you’ve ever seen. She’d always give us money to go to the store. She used to laugh at all her own jokes. And she used to make everyone share. She was that kind of grandmother.”
When Dorothy died, Fowles’ family decided they wanted an open casket. During the viewing, Fowles walked boldly to the front of the room, leaned over, and kissed her grandmother on the forehead. After a few minutes, her lips began to tingle, then her face began to itch. (Fowles believes, now, she had an allergic reaction to the embalming fluid.) She became convinced her grandmother must be in pain. Someone at the funeral home, she decided, must have done something wrong. She told her mom that, someday, she was going to be a mortician. She wanted to make certain people didn’t continue to suffer after they died.
“Years later, I remember telling her I wanted to go to school for mortuary science,” Fowles says. “She was like ‘You still want to do that? I thought you were kidding. I thought it was a phase,'” Fowles says. “No mom, this is something I want to do.”
As Fowles grew older, and basketball became a vehicle to travel the world, her fascination with death remained. Her time in Turkey (2010-2013) helped crystallize some of her feelings that Americans didn’t view death in a healthy way.
“I just found it fascinating how they still do things a lot like they did in medieval times,” Fowles says. “They pretty much just wash the body. Their caskets don’t have metal. They just wrap the body. I just thought that was the most simple thing. Why do we go to such extreme measures? Their sermons are more like a celebration. It’s not people crying and mourning. It’s more like ‘We’re going to a better place.'”
I couldn’t resist asking: What would Fowles want her funeral to be like one day?
“Definitely a celebration,” Fowles says, letting out a huge laugh. “A little dancing, a little singing. I want people to have a good time. I don’t want it to be sad.”
FOWLES HAS ALWAYS been something of an iconoclast, even within the world of basketball. Attention has always made her uncomfortable, so she mostly shunned it. An All-American who led LSU to four straight Final Fours, she was drafted second overall — behind Candace Parker — by the Chicago Sky in 2008, and gradually became one of the premier post players in the WNBA over the next seven seasons, her combination of size and grace a nightmare for opposing coaches. Players around the league quickly learned she was always lurking around the basket, capable of swatting shots into the first row of the stands whenever someone drove the lane.
She was named Defensive Player of the Year in 2011, averaging a career-high 20.0 points and 10.2 rebounds while leading the league in blocks. She led the Sky to the WNBA Finals in 2014, and helped the United States win gold medals in Beijing and London.
But it wasn’t until 2015 when she began to grasp the notion that none of the accolades were making her happy. The Sky, who had drafted future league MVP Elena Delle Donne second overall in 2013, appeared to be on the verge of something special, but Fowles needed a change of scenery. Her contract was up, but the Sky still held her rights under league rules. She asked the team to trade her. When the Sky refused, she decided to sit out the season, a decision to this day she calls the hardest of her life.
The Sky eventually relented, shipping her to the Lynx, after Fowles showed she wasn’t bluffing by sitting out the first 17 games. It became an important moment for player empowerment in the WNBA. The Lynx won a championship — Fowles earned Finals MVP honors — that same season.
“It felt like Syl 2.0,” Fowles says. “When I got to Minnesota, I just felt like a different person.”
The 2017 season, however, will go down as the one Fowles cherishes the most, but not for reasons you might think. After winning her third gold medal in Rio in 2016, Fowles was named WNBA MVP in 2017, and the Lynx won their fourth championship. But what Fowles is most proud of is her willingness to address something she has never discussed before. She sought treatment for depression that season.
“Everyone has a breaking point,” Fowles says. “At some point, you need to talk about certain things, you know? I stepped outside of my element and was like ‘Look, mental health is real. I really need to talk to somebody.’ I think that was my breaking point of realizing, you have nothing to be ashamed of. People like you are struggling. Depression is real. As an elite athlete, you deal with so much, you barely have time to decompress. When people think about mental health, they just think of it as a personal problem. But I think we’re just now getting to the point where we can understand how outside things can affect you too. You might be having a bad week, a s—ty practice, and then you see stories in the news about shootings and killings, and that can affect you too. It was a big growing period for me. If I had to relive it? Hell yeah I would. Because I learned I’m able to withstand a lot of stuff.”
IT’S HARD FOR FOWLES to put into words just how much the WNBA has changed since she entered the league in 2008. Statistics tell at least part of the story. Only three of 14 teams averaged at least 80 possessions per 40 minutes when Fowles was a rookie. Ten of the league’s 12 teams have a chance to surpass that mark this year. In 2008, WNBA teams attempted 15.6 3-pointers per game. This season, the league average is 22.4. Just last week, the league announced its all-WNBA teams would go to a positionless format. “Everybody is running fast and jumping higher,” says Fowles, who made the only 3-pointer she ever took back in 2010. “The pace has definitely picked up.” Even her teammates acknowledge there might not be a place for traditional post-up players like Fowles in the future.
“I think her legacy will be as one of the last true dominant 5s,” says Lynx guard Rachel Banham. “She could score in the paint every single night, give you 20 and 15 and not hit a single 3. Now days, you are trying to stack 3s every night. She’s a true traditional big, scoring from 1 to 5 feet at a 70% clip, and I think we’re not going to ever see that again. That’s pretty special.”
Fowles views the league’s evolution through a different lens, as one might suspect.
“I like the way we’re building things up, whether it’s through equal pay, whether it’s social justice, whether it’s standing up for different organizations,” she says. “I’m liking that part. I think we have a hold of different people and we have the opportunity to speak on different things. I’m looking forward to what it’s going to look like over the next couple years.”
Fowles wasn’t sure, when she first started working in funeral homes on her off days years ago, how much of it she should share with her teammates. She didn’t want to make anyone uncomfortable. But word got out, and she was happy to answer questions when it did. It didn’t surprise many Lynx players once Fowles explained why it was important to her.
“You have to be such a specific kind of person to be able to be in those situations,” Banham says. “I’d be crying all the time. But Syl has this natural ability to make people feel loved. And when you’re going through loss, you need that.”
Fowles might like to have her own funeral home someday, back in Miami where she plans to live, but she would also be content just prepping bodies for showings. It’s the art that interests her, not running a business. “I work with a lot of guys,” she says. “It’s a guy-driven business. They’re so delicate with me. They’re always like ‘Oh we don’t want you to lift this body. You can’t do that.’ “
Fowles rolls her eyes, then laughs heartily. She said in those moments, it’s the rare time when she wants to bring up her basketball career as a way to explain: Hey, I’m tough enough to handle a little heavy lifting. When I ask Fowles what it is about mortuary science she finds so compelling, she explains not with feelings but with a story.
She had a client recently who, thanks to the hours she’d accumulated in her internship, was entirely her responsibility. He was her first time flying solo. The client was from somewhere in the Caribbean, and his family was coming in for his funeral. Fowles was so nervous about making sure he looked just right. “You have all these things you have to do,” Fowles says. “You tissue build, you put on makeup, you cut his hair, you groom him, you dress him, and then you also have to put him in the casket. As I was putting the finishing touches, making sure nothing was on his suit, his mom walked in. She let out this big burst in a Caribbean language. She just started crying. And I was like ‘Is everything OK? Did I do something wrong?’ “
No, the woman said. He looks like himself. I’m so happy.
“That’s the feeling I’m looking for,” Fowles says. “You can make so many people happy by doing right by them, by letting them see their loved ones the right way before you put them in the ground.”
Saying goodbye, Fowles knows, can feel like an act of love too.