After a decade in the WNBA, MVP Sylvia Fowles is ready for the spotlight

2017 WNBA MVP Sylvia Fowles hopes to lead to the Lynx to another championship. David Dow/Getty Images

Last week, before a semifinal playoff game against the Washington Mystics, Sylvia Fowles sat on a small stage next to WNBA Commissioner Lisa Borders, calmly listening to Borders announce that the votes were in and Fowles was the 2017 WNBA MVP.

While her teammates, coaches and media members applauded, Fowles, who was a front-runner for the prestigious award practically all season long, confidently walked up to the podium with no written speech or tissues in hand. She'd already cried earlier in the day when she found out the news. She thought she was done with the tears.

But her trademark composure didn't last long.

"Once I got out there and I said thank you, before I could even say what I needed to say, I started bawling," Fowles said.

This moment has been a long time coming for Fowles. At 31, she's only the second player in league history to win the award for the first time in her 30s. Though her talent has always been undeniable, she's had to fight to get to the top of the game, overcoming a rough childhood, a number of injuries early in her career and double, even triple teams every time she takes the court.

So it made sense that as Borders recited her 2017 stats — fifth in the league in scoring, second in rebounding and block shots, first in field-goal percentage (for the fifth time in her career), five-time Western Conference Player of the Week, three-time Western Conference Player of the Month, 35 of 40 MVP votes — that Fowles let her guard down.

"I'm emotional, I'm very emotional," she said when asked how often she's brought to tears. "I try not to get too emotional because not everyone can handle that too well. I try to act hardcore."

Fowles has been making headlines since she was a teenager — it's hard for a 6'6" center with elite talent to blend in. After a standout four years at LSU, she was drafted second overall in the 2008 draft by the Chicago Sky, one pick behind her perennial rival, Candace Parker. She was named to her first of four All-Star rosters in 2009 and named the WNBA Defensive Player of the Year in 2011, 2013 and 2016. She's won three Olympic gold medals, and alongside 2015 MVP Elena Delle Donne, she led the Sky to the WNBA Finals in 2014.

That's a résumé that would satisfy most greats, but two years ago, Fowles decided she wanted to get more out of herself, and she knew she wouldn't be able to do that until she was surrounded by people who would demand nothing less. And so, after the Sky initially denied her trade request in the 2014 offseason, Fowles sat out for half of the 2015 season, and the Sky eventually traded her to Minnesota.

With coach Cheryl Reeve at the helm and fellow Olympians Lindsay Whalen, Seimone Augustus and Maya Moore in the starting lineup, the Lynx provided Fowles with the opportunity to maximize her talents. It immediately paid off. The Lynx won the championship in 2015, and Fowles was crowned Finals MVP. Last year, they made it back to the Finals but fell in an excruciatingly close Game 5 to the Los Angeles Sparks.

Nneka Ogwumike, the 2016 WNBA MVP, made the championship-winning offensive rebound and shot right over Fowles in the final seconds of the game. So during the offseason, Fowles and Reeve decided it was time to take it up a notch.

Reeve told Fowles last fall that if she wasn't in the MVP conversation in 2017, Reeve wasn't doing her job as a coach.

"She wanted it," Reeve said. "She allowed herself to be coached and pushed in ways in practice that would be frustrating for her."

This year, Fowles has increased her aggression on offense, and the Lynx's high-powered offense has essentially run through her in the post. She was the biggest reason why the Lynx raced out to a 20-2 start on the season and earned the No. 1 seed despite dealing with injuries late in the year. Her footwork, patience and timing — as Reeve says, "Those things are just on another level." The statistics back that up. She averaged 18.9 points and 10.4 rebounds per game while shooting 65.5 percent from the field, making it the most efficient season of her career.

"I'm just really, really proud of her," Reeve said. "Because they say good things happen to good people. In this case it's a great thing happening to a great person."

Her teammates are certainly impressed, too.

"To have had so many years under her belt, and then not to settle, not to fade into the last part of her career, but to continue to stay hungry and dominant," Moore, who has won the MVP award twice herself, said when asked about Fowles, "and doing it game after game after game after game, when the other team's focal point is going to be her, it's really satisfying to see her get acknowledged."

Fowles is fully focused on getting revenge against the Sparks in the Finals this year. But she's also aware that as the MVP, she now has even greater responsibilities. She is now the face of the league — a league that has recently been at the forefront of fights for social justice, be it Black Lives Matter or LGBTQ equality. She's ready to use her expanded platform to continue those battles.

"It's just good to have a voice, just being aware of what's going on in the world, just being conscious of my surroundings, and not forgetting the outside people," she said. "Say hey, I'm here, I'm definitely seen as a basketball player, but I'm still me."

When Fowles was younger, such a platform would have felt more like a burden than an opportunity. But a decade into her WNBA career, she's ready to let the whole world see her greatness on the court and hear her voice off of it. She's ready to let people in, tears and all.

"Everybody has their time," Fowles said. "And I think this is the perfect time for me."

Lindsay Gibbs is the Sports Reporter at ThinkProgress, contributing writer at The Summitt, and co-host of the sports and feminism podcast, Burn It All Down. You can follow her on Twitter @linzsports.

PLAYERS: Sylvia Fowles
QUIZ: Name the all-time leading scorers in WNBA history

The WNBA began play in 1997. In that time, numerous legends have left their mark on the league. How many of WNBA's 25 all-time scorers can you name in eight minutes?

Good luck!


7494 / PHX*
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