Friday October 2nd, 2015

Make a list of the worst sins a pro athlete could commit against the spirit of competition. Somewhere among those offenses, there will be The Holdout. The mere suggestion of such an act quickly calls up a set of images in the mind: of a star player acting selfishly, of a stubborn team at wit’s end. Before long the fan’s blood starts to boil, even though it rightly shouldn’t. This is a boardroom drama that still unfolds against the backdrop of capitalism, after all.

Yet those images, however much ingrained, are hard to reconcile in the WNBA, where the sisterhood is real and the relationships within are largely positive and everlasting. Those images don’t strictly line up with the Minnesota Lynx’s standout center—a big-hearted, soft-spoken, 29-year-old named Sylvia Fowles.

A 6’6” plastic woman whose dominion over the paint is great at both ends (her 2015 averages: 15.3 points on 50.7% shooting, 8.3 rebounds, 1.5 blocks), Fowles will play in the WNBA finals for the second straight year when her Lynx team (representing the Western Conference) faces off against the Indiana Fever (representing the East) on Sunday, the first game in a best-of-five series (Game 1 starts at 3 p.m. Eastern and airs on ABC). 

Five days before tipoff Fowles was giddy. “It feels good to be back,” says the eighth-year veteran, “especially being here in Minnesota with the group of young women that we have. I really have no complaints.”

How can Fowles, one of the game’s great ringless players, be so satisfied at a stage of the season where feelings of contentment can get a team sent home empty-handed? Because she’s the only woman playing in the Finals for a second straight year. Because neither the Fever (going for its second title) nor the Lynx (going for its third) made it this far in 2014. Because she engineered this outcome by staging a holdout, by committing a cardinal sin that should’ve doomed her to sports hell for ever and ever.

WNBA
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What’s more, she couldn’t have transgressed against a nicer team, the Chicago Sky. The upstart franchise is guided by fifth-year coach Pokey Chatman, one of the game’s fertile minds and a woman that Fowles played college ball for at LSU and shared great successes. (Their peak: four straight Final Four appearances.) The Sky also have Elena Delle Donne, a rising superstar who was just named league MVP two weeks ago. Together, the three women led the Sky to a franchise record 24 wins in 2013 and its maiden WNBA Finals appearance last year. 

Ultimately a hobbled Delle Donne (by a nagging back injury) kept the Sky from putting up more of a fight against the Phoenix Mercury (who swept the series by an average margin of 18 points). Fowles, though, was no worse off from the experience. When she was selected by Chicago with the second pick in the 2008 draft, the franchise was still in its infancy. But in five year’s time she helped build it up from a league pushover to a title contender, all the while distinguishing herself as an All-Star (in ’09, ’11 and ’13) and the league’s top defensive player (in ’11 and ’13). 

Fowles had no complaints. Or at least she didn’t until the following spring, when she began intimating that she wanted out of Chicago. “I had a good run,” she says. “I had really good teammates, played with some good coaches. But it wasn’t nothing personal. It was more so about me. It was about growth. I succeeded and fulfilled my time there.”

So what if Fowles had given Chicago seven years. So what if her contract was up. WNBA stars aren’t supposed to hopscotch around like their NBA brethren. They’re supposed to stay home. To wit: Tamika Catchings, the biggest of the remaining obstacles in the Lynx’s title march, has played her entire 14-year career in Indianapolis. Still, she couldn’t resist taking crack at luring Fowles across the border. “Believe me,” she says, “I tried to get her to Indiana. A player like Syl is a once-in-a-lifetime in terms of what she’s able to bring to a team.” 

The stay-home premise is both core to the league’s efforts to cultivate brand loyalty and key to its economics—which, alas, are not yet substantial enough to incentivize players to shop around. 

Fowles easily commands the full veteran going rate for the 2015 season—which is set, by CBA edict, just north of $100,000—in more than a few places outside Chicago. (That figure is also a fraction of what she makes playing overseas in the offseason.) With all things being just about equal, she wasn’t looking to test the market as much as try a different one—like Los Angeles or Washington D.C., or the Twin Cities, where her low-post presence could be transformational.

There was just one hitch: Chicago still had a hand to play. It had, essentially, the franchise tag, which they could use to keep Fowles for another season. When the Sky slapped her with it, Fowles exercised the only leverage she had. She said “trade me,” took her ball and went home—to Miami, where she grew up and still lives in the off-season.

As great moments in sports business history go, Fowles’s stand wasn’t as much of a Curt Flood moment for pro women’s basketball as, say, the season-long timeout Mercury star Diana Taurasi just took. But it stands out nonetheless for its brazenness and its civility. “It’s not what you want or ask for,” said Chatman back in early July of Fowles’s holdout, “but so much of sports is about adjusting and absorbing these things.”

While Chatman, who is also Chicago’s GM, worked behind the scenes to accommodate her soon-to-be former franchise player, Fowles hung back in Miami and stayed in shape by playing pickup games and cycling. In between she could never really relax as the prospect of a being shipped to a new town and having to play right away hung over her. 

The tension was especially great during a Fourth of July weekend visit to San Francisco. Not long after touching down and settling in with friends, Fowles got word from her agent of an imminent deal with Minnesota. She was told to take the first return flight to South Florida and start packing up. “I ended up getting to Miami and nothing happened,” says Fowles, who wound up missing fireworks shows on both coasts too. “I didn’t get to see any! At that point I just felt that I wasn’t going to be traded, and I wouldn’t be playing all summer.”

Her suspense was finally broken on July 27, two days after the All-Star game. Chicago shipped Fowles to Minnesota as part of a three-team, five-player deal. For keen observers of the Lynx—a ludicrously deep and talented team led by the Olympic gold-medal winning troika of Maya Moore, Seimone Augustus and Lindsay Whalen—the trade smacked of yet another case of the absurdly rich hitting the Powerball jackpot. But in retrospect the Lynx were far from flush at the time. Sidelining injuries to Augustus (knee, foot) and Whalen (eye) had knocked the team off-balance.

What’s worse, the injuries hit as Minnesota entered a manic stretch of the regular-season schedule in August that featured a mere three dates out of 12 in Minneapolis. All told, “we were home only nine days in August,” says Lynx assistant Jim Peterson. “Syl was having to learn on the fly.”

She was having to form a sudden rapport with two other mid-season replacements: Renee Montgomery, a reserve guard the Lynx acquired in a swap 10 days before Fowles; and Anna Cruz, another reserve guard who rejoined the Lynx in early July after helping her home country of Spain claim third place at this summer’s EuroBasket tournament in Hungary. Thrown together, the backup troika played .500 ball—good enough to hold onto Minnesota’s catbird seat in the West standings. “It was nice to be needed,” Fowles says.

She set the tone, impressing coaches with her stamina. So they kept piling up her minutes, to the point where she concluded the regular season with the fifth-highest average (28.9) in 18 games—all of them starts. “It wasn’t until the end of August, when we had four games and two weeks at home, that we were able to get Syl up to speed and figure out how to use her.”

With the Lynx full arsenal on the floor, Fowles has emerged as the team’s postseason X-factor. On defense in particular, her length allows Minnesota to defend opponents straight up and rotate strategically. Such was the case in the best-of-three conference semifinal-round series against LA, which the Lynx escaped in the last game. And such was the case in the conference finals series against Phoenix (also best-of-three), which pitted Fowles against a 6’9” interior menace named Brittney Griner.

Griner, though, wasn’t so menacing with Fowles pushing her off her sweet spot on the right low block and denying her entry passes. And when the Lynx would switch Fowles out and sic the shorter (by seven inches) Rebekkah Brunson on Mercury’s second-leading leading scorer (15.1 ppg), Griner was often at a loss to come up with many counter moves that did not land her in foul trouble. 

In Game 1 she was held to nine points. In Game 2 she did slightly better, dropping 15 points—but just two in the second half. Fowles’s defensive effort on Griner in Game 2 freed up space for Moore to score a playoff career-high 40 points—the last of which scored on a free throw with 1.5 second left to seal a 72-71 road victory and book the Lynx’s fourth finals trip in the past five seasons.

In the Finals, Fowles—who has averaging 9.6 points, 10.0 rebounds and 2.2 blocks through five postseason starts—faces another tall task. Not so much against Indiana’s relatively undersized front court but in their swarming defense. “Indiana the way they play they get you into chaos,” says Peterson. “They switch. They trap. They pressure. They rotate and flood the paint. In order for Syl to be able to be effective offensively, she has to be able to deal with people trying to strip the ball out of her hands inside. She’s gotta play strong.”

She knows. “It all about weathering the storm,” says Fowles. Surely the fact that she’s already come out of the end of a big one—call it a consequence of her sin against competition—gives her a distinct advantage. And if she should wind up netting a championship from her holdout, well, who couldn’t forgive her for that?

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