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  • The Minnesota Lynx star talks about balancing her basketball responsibilities while working toward a degree in mortuary science.
By Joan Niesen
August 08, 2019

On every off day of the 2017 WNBA season, Minnesota Lynx center Sylvia Fowles woke at 6 a.m. There would be no team activities, no media obligations, no film study with teammates. Fowles went dark. By 6:30 a.m. she was in her car, merging onto I-94, the highway that would take her north and west out of the Twin Cities metropolitan area, two hours into rural Minnesota.

Around 8:30 a.m., Fowles would cross the Douglas County line, and soon thereafter, she’d park outside Lind Family Funeral Home, a craftsman-style building with gray stone and white pillars. Basketball was the farthest thing from her mind those days; she was no longer a WNBA champion, not an All-Star or a EuroLeague Champion. She was just Sylvia, an intern studying for a degree in mortuary science.

In nearly every spare minute she had during the 2017 WNBA season, and again during much of 2018, Fowles set to work earning her “embalming credits,” a crucial element to the online degree program she began in 2015 through the American Academy McAllister Institute, one of the premier mortuary schools. Because so much of the work is done solo, in front of a monitor, the school requires online students to work at funeral homes to complete at least 10 embalmings—a difficult proposition for someone with no ties to an industry rife with family businesses. That’s how Fowles found herself in Alexandria, Minnesota where Lynx trainer Kate Taber had a connection: A funeral director there, Sari Lind, had played guard for the University of Minnesota from 2010-14, when Taber was a Gophers trainer. Lind was more than happy to serve as a mentor for a player she’d grown up admiring. “Oh my gosh,” Lind recalls thinking, “an Olympic basketball player, a professional athlete, wants to hang out with me.”

So in 2017, as the Lynx won 19 of their first 21 games, Fowles stuck to a dedicated and militant schedule, never wasting an off day. No matter how exhausted, she made the trip to Alexandria weekly, helping with everything from cosmetic application to embalming. At 5 p.m., then, Fowles was back in her car, hoping she wouldn’t hit much traffic, fingers crossed she wouldn’t be too tired in the morning. And so it went, each week, as the Lynx won a championship, as Fowles was honored as the league’s MVP at age 32 for the first time in her career—the very career she’d already begun to plan beyond.

Death has fascinated Fowles for as long as she can remember. But it wasn’t a morbid fixation for the youngest of Arrittio Fowles’s five children; rather, she recalls spending time pondering what heaven might look like. She’d run around her yard, arms outstretched, and imagine she was flying in the afterlife. Then, when Fowles was five, her beloved grandmother, Dorothy Fowles, passed away. After the funeral, Fowles’s siblings decided they wanted to give Dorothy kisses goodbye. Fowles tagged along, and afterward, she felt her face begin to itch. Now, she realizes she had a reaction to the embalming fluid. Then, her little-girl brain assumed something had been done wrong, and in the car on the way to the cemetery, Fowles turned to Arrittio and told her she was going to be a mortician when she grew up. Arrittio nodded and forgot.

Eventually, Fowles did too. Her imagination moved on, and by the time she was an All-American at LSU, she’d decided to major in sociology, thinking she’d someday want to work with children. Then, in 2011, Fowles became unsettled with her career, and she began to think again about the day of Dorothy’s funeral. Her agent helped her research mortuary science programs, and the two settled on AAMI. Fowles enrolled in classes briefly before realizing she didn’t have the bandwidth, putting things on hold until 2015, when she was traded to Minnesota. There, coach Cheryl Reeve had no clue about her new center’s academic commitments—not that they existed, and certainly not how peculiar they were. Teammates caught on quickly, though, when Fowles explained her strict schedule, when instead of going to the pool with them or watching Netflix, she buried her nose in books and spaced out staring at her computer."You have to know everything: anatomy, chemistry, pathology, biology, how to run a business, management,” she says of the program. “Everything you could possibly need to know about how to run your own business, you need to know. And chemicals, which I'm not too fond of. You have to learn everything."

Seimone Augustus, the Lynx’s longest-tenured player and Fowles’s former LSU teammate, admits she had no idea about her friend’s interests away from basketball. Still, she and other teammates held Fowles accountable through their sustained interest. "They ask a lot of questions, and that allows me to process what I've read, to explain,” Fowles says. Her most captive audience arrived in 2018 in the form of point guard Danielle Robinson, who began to pose the most outside-the-box questions Fowles had yet fielded about her studies. Robinson says her “eyes got so wide and mouth got so big” when she learned about her center’s post-career plans, and she checked any sense of propriety or squeamishness. Robinson wanted to know about bowel movements. In the cold tank, during Fowles’s microbiology trimester, the two had a long talk about communicable diseases and whether a mortician might catch one from a corpse. (It’s possible.) “It’s fun to see the happiness on her face and to know she’s doing something she’s so passionate about,” Robinson says. “Syl, when she puts her mind to something, she’s going to do it—whether it’s basketball, whether it’s off the court, whether it’s school.”

Fowles is a master of scheduling and compartmentalization. Practice, then media, then a nap, then studying. She’s told her family not to call until 7 or 8 p.m., lest they interrupt. The whole thing might sound vaguely militaristic, but it works, and Fowles has never felt her studies tugging her away from basketball, or vice-versa. “Wherever she is, that’s what she’s focused on,” Reeve says, and the coach remains in awe of what Fowles did in 2017, especially. It wasn’t just that she was interning at Lind. It wasn’t just that the team was winning. It was that Fowles was traveling back-and-forth without a hitch while her team worked her into a bigger role than she’d yet seen in Minnesota. “We lost the championship in 2016, and we thought we needed to make Sylvia a focal point,” Reeve says. “We identified ways that she could be even better. We wanted to put more eggs in her basket.”

And Fowles took it on without a blink, without a dropped class or an extra nap. She averaged 30.8 minutes, 18.9 points and 10.4 rebounds, won a title, won an MVP, went to China, kept on studying with the aid of a hot-spot her translator provided for when the Chinese Internet was “sucky-sucky,” which it often was. Now, Fowles is just a few credits away from an associate’s degree. She finished pathology and accounting in June, microbiology in July. She’s thinking about which jobs at a funeral home she’d like to do—embalming and cosmetology—and she’s listening to job offers from acquaintances in Chicago, Minneapolis and back home in Miami, where she thinks she wants to return.

If Fowles were to keep up a full course load, she could finish her degree in January, but with the postseason looming, she thinks it’s best to take things slow when classes pick back up in September. For the second straight winter, she’s planning to stay in the United States, to spend time with family and get to New York for two weeks of required on-campus work at AAMI. And then, almost 20 years after losing her grandmother, nine years after first enrolling in school, Fowles will likely be finished around the time she picks up a basketball next summer for her 13th season as a pro.

For now, though, she’s content with her dual identity, cramming for a final before the WNBA All-Star game, worrying about grades and her team’s playoff push at the same time. (Minnesota hasn’t missed the postseason since Reeve’s first year, 2010, but after appearing in six out of seven WNBA Finals from 2011-17, the team lost in a single-elimination first-round game last summer to the Sparks. If the season ended today, Minnesota would be the last team in the playoff field.) Even during her internship in Alexandria, Fowles embraced the fact that she was more than just another student padding her resume; she and Lind would often talk hoops over lunch, and occasionally a member of a grieving family would notice the 6’6” woman and make the connection that yes, that was the Lynx center helping out. 

Last summer, as Lind met with a family just before a funeral, the deceased’s husband mentioned offhand that his wife had been a huge fan of the Lynx. Fowles had already departed for Minneapolis before the proceedings had begun, but she’d played a big role in preparing for the day. Lind was disappointed she couldn’t introduce Fowles, whom she says is the “nicest person I’ve ever met” to the family, but she did the next best thing, informing the husband that Sylvia Fowles—yes, that Sylvia Fowles—had been instrumental in preparing for the service. 

The man was surprised, touched. He told Lind that his wife would have loved to know that. The funeral went on, and Fowles prepared for her next game, living the weirdest and most wonderful double life in sports.

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