MINNEAPOLIS - Clarity about the end of her exceptional WNBA career came for Sylvia Fowles last year through a feeling of resistance familiar to everyone from elite athletes to average fans.
The 2017 league MVP who helped the Minnesota Lynx win two WNBA titles knew her interest in working out was waning. The former LSU star leaves as the league's career leader in field-goal percentage, rebounds and double-doubles.
"Being in shape is one thing, but being in basketball shape is something totally different. I got to that point when workouts were just getting harder and harder, and you take into consideration how many times I've been hurt over the last couple of years, too," said the 36-year-old Fowles. "I just don't think physically I want to do it to my body anymore. That's how I knew."
There are only two games left in the regular season for the Lynx, who've leaned hard on Fowles and her commanding 6-foot-6 presence in the post for eight of her 15 years in the league. They've been relishing her scoring, rebounding, defense and leadership - the club created a marketing campaign dubbed " Syl's Final Ride " - and enjoying a remarkable rally from a 3-13 start.
The Lynx (14-20) aim for one of the final two unclaimed spots in the playoffs, one of five teams still alive. They got a boost this week from star forward Napheesa Collier, who shortened her maternity leave so she could play next to Fowles a few more times.
"It felt so good to be on the court at the same time as her," Collier said after contributing to a win over Atlanta in her return on Sunday just 10 1/2 weeks after giving birth to daughter Mila.
Fowles moved into third place on the WNBA's all-time blocks list after Minnesota beat Phoenix on Wednesday to take a major step toward extending this final ride by at least a few more days.
If the Lynx reach the postseason, they would be the road team in the best-of-three first round against either the No. 1 or the No. 2 seed. With the league's new format, their first two games would be on the road with no guarantee of returning home. That means Fowles could play at Target Center for the final time on Friday when the Lynx host Seattle.
The farewell tour will arrive at the apex with an elaborate postgame ceremony. All fans at the game will get a commemorative bicycle license plate, a clever nod to one of Fowles' favorite pastimes. Her extensive community service this summer included bike rides with local kids.
"It has not gotten comfortable. As a matter of fact, it's gotten worse," Fowles said during a video interview this week, reflecting on the season-long attention. "But I will say through the mix of it all, I do appreciate the love and the support that I've been getting in every city. It's definitely fulfilling knowing that you have true fans behind you who've been there since day one and that acknowledge the things that you've done throughout this league, so that makes you feel good."
Fowles was acquired in 2015 in a trade with Chicago, which drafted the Miami native with the second overall pick in 2008. The four-time Olympic gold medalist has four WNBA Defensive Player of the Year awards in in her vast trophy collection, and she was named league MVP in 2017. She also won the 2015 and 2017 WNBA Finals MVP awards while helping the Lynx earn their last two of four titles in a seven-year span.
"The best center in the history of our league," general manager and coach Cheryl Reeve has said many times.
Fighting a lingering injury to her right knee all season, Fowles returned after missing five games with cartilage damage earlier this summer. She played 30 minutes on Wednesday, contributing seven points in the fourth quarter to help the Lynx overtake Phoenix, one of their competitors for those final playoff spots.
Fowles has no desire to stay involved in sports after this. She has nearly completed her degree in mortuary science, only needing to pass the national board exams, and has two funeral industry job offers waiting for her in Florida. That's on hold for now, until the Lynx are done playing.
"I wouldn't have expected our season to go like this, but at the end of the day, I am grateful to go through these challenges, because I'm also, too, still learning about myself and how I can be better," Fowles said. "For me, I think it makes it easier, only because I'm leaving on my terms. I think if it was the other way around, if I had to be pushed out the door a little bit, it probably would be hard. But I'm very content with the decision that I've made, and I'm happy to look at what life brings after basketball."
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