Sylvia Fowles’ March Towards Legend Is More Than A Numbers Game

Fowles is still not quite used to the idea that she is becoming a WNBA legend.

The dominant center has surged up the WNBA’s all-time charts this season, recently moving to No. 19 in all-time scoring and No. 4 in rebounding and blocks. She has an inside track to moving to the top rebounding slot—that will likely happen next season—and she will certainly move up a few spots in scoring as well by the time she eventually decides to hang up her kicks.

That is all still very strange to Fowles, whose approach to the game has never been about maximizing her personal statistics. In addition, unlike some of her teammates, Fowles did not grow up picturing herself in the upper echelons of the WNBA. In fact, she never really pictured herself playing basketball at all.

“When I was a kid, I wanted no parts of basketball, I think because of my brothers,” said Fowles. “They just were too physical and they used to beat me up all the time, I could never play offense, I was always on defense, so that’s what I thought basketball was, you just play defense and I was like, ‘I don’t think I want to do this sport.’”

It wasn’t until Fowles got to middle school that she got a chance to play both sides of the ball and in doing so realized that basketball might be for her after all. Now, even though she’s now been playing basketball at a high level for the better part of two decades, her accomplishments still feel fairly surreal. That said there is still a strong sense of pride in what she has done over the course of career. Those rebounds, buckets and blocks do not come easy.

“If I have to be honest, it feels a little weird. I only say that because I’m not the type of player to watch my accolades and the stuff that I’ve been doing over time,” she said. “But I know that my hard work eventually pays off, so to see myself in this position in my 12th season, it gives you that sense [that] you’re doing things right. So, I’m happy to be climbing up the charts but at the same time it’s very humbling to be among some of the best of the best.”

The best anecdote from this year came from Fowles not realizing she had passed Tina Thompson on the all-time rebounding list until a message from Thompson.

“Actually, I didn’t think about it. I got on the bus and finally turned through my phone and I had a nice message from Tina, and I was like, ‘What is she talking about?’ I was so dumbfounded, what is she talking about? Then I went to social media and I was like, ‘Ohhhh,’ so I had to send her a message back saying thank you, appreciate the love and all that stuff,” Fowles said.

To anyone who knows Fowles, her attitude is not surprising. Even as she has become a living legend in the WNBA, she has remained the same person. She cares deeply about playing well and winning games, but she is quick to deflect praise to her teammates.

“I never seen myself as a basketball phenomenon, should I say. It was just something that I just so happened to get myself into to stay out of trouble,” said Fowles. “I’m proud of myself. You have to give yourself credit but at the same time you have to give credit to your coaches and your teammates because without them I couldn’t have done it by myself.”

Head coach Cheryl Reeve has had a front-row seat as Fowles has grown from an incredibly talented young player to an MVP, two-time Finals MVP and three-time Defensive Player of the Year. Reeve knows that while Fowles will not be the first person advertising her achievements, they’re still important.

“I know for sure she’d love to be No. 1 in rebounding. You play this long you might as well be at the top. It’s something she’s really, really good at,” said Reeve. “She wants her legacy to be that she spent some time at the top of the charts of some of the greatest players, because that’s who she is.”

Of course Fowles wants to get to the top. She already set a single-season record for rebounding and as Reeve aptly points out, anyone who works hard at something wants to see the fruits of that success. While Fowles is loved in part for her humility and it is easy to latch on to the story of the superstar who does not care about the accolades, Fowles deserves the chance to cement her legacy in the WNBA record books and she deserves to want that for herself.

“She doesn’t talk about it, but when you invest this much, when you sacrifice this much of your life to something, you want to see yourself at the top, absolutely,” said Reeve.

The thing is, Fowles doesn’t need to be focused on breaking records in order to earn those top spots. There is so much going on in a WNBA game at any given moment there’s not much space for thinking about records. Fowles is hyper-aware of her performance on the court and she is always the first to criticize herself—she doesn’t need more things to worry about.

“I’m like, alright let me not pay attention to it too much because you don’t want to go out there and start trying to break these records,” said Fowles. “I just want them to happen naturally because when I start paying attention to it, I typically play my worst. Just being aware of it but at the same time playing my game.”

While Fowles will go down in history as one of the WNBA’s great centers and one of the most productive players ever, the numbers aren’t the main thing that concern Fowles when it comes to her legacy. There is one word in particular she is drawn to when asked what she wants her legacy in the league to be.

“Relentless. I’m one of those types of players that like to lead by example, but I also like to show people that I can do everything you say I can’t do,” said Fowles. “I’m more of a prover. Definitely I want to go down as one of those ones that is relentless.”

There’s little doubt she will get her wish. Ask anyone who has ever tried to get a rebound against her and they’ll tell you just how relentless Fowles really is.