One on One: Napheesa Collier x Sylvia Fowles
On and off the court, two basketball stars make a connection across generations.
One On One is a series bringing you unscripted conversations between Nike's elite athletes.
The most surprising thing about Sylvia Fowles and Napheesa Collier somehow isn’t that two generational players from two distinct generations wound up on the same WNBA team, the Minnesota Lynx. The seven-time WNBA All-Star, two-time champion, 2017 MVP and Olympic gold medalist (Fowles) and the 2019 WNBA Rookie of the Year, two-time All-Star and now Olympic gold medalist (Collier) have successfully led the franchise together, finding a unique equilibrium that showcases both Fowles’ vast experience and Collier’s precocious basketball IQ. Their wins on the court, though, are made possible by their great connection — a connection that started when Fowles first began mentoring Collier during the younger player’s rookie-year training camp. That’s the surprising thing about Fowles and Collier: what genuinely close friends they are, as evidenced by the teasing tone that punctuated this conversation.
Recently, they had an opportunity to showcase their connection on and off the court on a much larger stage, as members of Team USA at the Olympics. Here, just before the beginning of the Olympics and some truly staggering achievements for both players, they spoke about the state of women’s basketball as a whole and what it meant to them to be representing their country together.
What’s your first memory of practicing or playing together, presumably after Napheesa was drafted by the Lynx in 2019?
NC: Honestly, I don’t remember the first practice just because it was such a blur. It felt like everything was happening at 100 miles per hour, going from the Final Four, to getting drafted, to arriving in Minnesota — and two weeks later, I have a game.
But I remember the feeling that I had meeting Syl, and the feeling that I had meeting the team — just how welcoming they were. She made me feel at home right away, and I appreciated that more than I can even put into words. Because it’s scary! You’re getting drafted, you’re at a new team, you’re playing alongside a legend like Sylvia Fowles. It’s really intimidating. And the fact that she just brought me under her wing, made it known right away that if I needed anything I could come to her, if I had questions I could come to her, it was amazing. Thanks, Mama Syl!
SF: Napheesa thought she was doing such a bad job at camp that she was going to get cut. I was like, “What?!”
NC: I thought I was not going to play.
SF: [Napheesa was like,] “I’m never going to make the team.” I was like, “What are you talking about?” I was like, “You’re doing good.” [Napheesa said,] “I’m not doing enough.” So that’s how you know Napheesa was going to be a great player, because what she was doing at camp was really good, and she didn’t even have the confidence enough to feel that she was going to make the team. That’s crazy.
NC: It was a rough training camp.
I mean, you probably have to have that “Welcome to the league!” moment at some point. Do you remember the first time you went to Sylvia for advice or guidance?
NC: During what was maybe our first week of practice, Coach Reeve was going over plays, and I kid you not, she put in like 15 plays in one day. I’m like, “How on earth am I supposed to remember 15 plays, at the four and the three?” I was like, “Syl, Sylvia Fowles.” She would get the team together before practice and go over the plays so that we were more confident. That was also so helpful because while we have a playbook, I’m more of a person that learns while doing it instead of looking at the playbooks. So it was really cool to come to her and be like, “Help me?” And she’s like, “I got you.”
SF: Cheryl has high standards for us, and she makes you uncomfortable — which is a good thing, because it makes it much easier in the games. So when guards are up there blowing by me, I’m just like, “Napheesa got my back.”
NC: No, I think those roles are reversed. When a guard’s going by me, I’m like, “Sylvia, can you get that block for me real quick? I am behind her, I’m not going to get her.”
SF: I’ve got you, girl.
Being at such different phases in each of your careers, what do you each spend the most time working on individually at this point? What are you trying to improve on?
NC: For me, it’s three-point shots. Get better at those.
SF: Na-three-sa. [Laughs] For me, I think it’s just a combination of different things. I don’t feel like I have anything to prove at this point. I think the biggest challenge for me is staying healthy and staying true to myself, not losing sight of who I am and what I bring to the table.
“What I do respect about the younger generation is they know how to market themselves, but they also speak up. They’re not going to let you tell them that they’re not good enough.”
Sylvia, obviously you have remarkable endurance because you’re still dominating in your 14th WNBA season! What do you think has helped you stay in the game and still be able to play so efficiently?
NC: I asked her this exact same thing about three days ago.
SF: It took me two years to put on 10 pounds…I have a hard time gaining weight.
NC: It’s a real hardship [Laughs].
SF: But last year when I got hurt, it was a wake-up call that I was bottom heavy. My legs already carry a lot of weight, and so adding those 10 pounds was not good on my joints. And so from last year to this year, there are things that I do differently. Pilates has helped me a lot. I really don’t eat all that healthily, but I do watch what I eat.
NC: Yeah, your amazing genes. “I can really eat whatever I want, I’m just…genetically blessed.”
SF: You see what I have to deal with? Biking has helped a lot too — anything that takes weight off my joints is pretty much a success for me.
NC: I’m trying to get some help, and the answer she gave me was, “I'm genetically blessed.” [Laughs]
SF: She asked me what I’ve done up to this point to keep my body right, and I told her I really didn’t start having aches and pains until this year. This is my first year really feeling like…
NC: Yeah, and what year is this, 14? That doesn’t help me, Sylvia.
SF: I’m sorry, but it took me 14 years to actually feel the pain. I’m sorry — I can’t help that!
Specifically talking about post play and being a big, how do you feel it’s changed, Sylvia, since between when you started and now Napheesa entering the league?
SF: When I first got to the league, we had a lot of back-to-back players, with the exception of Tina Thompson or Lauren Jackson, who could step out beyond the arc. So it was much, much easier trying to guard those girls. Today, everybody wants to step beyond the three-point line, and so you’ve got to work on your defense and move your feet because you’re not so close to the basket. That’s been the biggest change — not having true, true post players.
NC: The league is going toward positionless basketball. You have 6’8” players making two threes in a game, and you just didn’t really see that when Syl first came into the league. You don’t know this, but Sylvia knocks down three-point shots. I don’t know when you developed that. I know you didn’t have it when you first came in the league.
SF: I know I didn’t. Cheryl gave me the green light to shoot, but I just refuse to. I stick to my bread and butter. It works for me underneath the basket, so that’s what I’m sticking to.
NC: Sylvia doesn’t know this, but we’ve been talking about it; it’s in the works. We’re trying to get her to shoot one this year.
SF: I’m 100 percent for the three-point line, so I don’t want to mess that up. I got one in Chicago. Fourteen years, one for one. Don’t be messing up my stat line. [Laughs]
What do you see coming from the next generation of women’s basketball players? What surprises you about their games?
NC: I haven’t even been out of high school 10 years, but when I was there, you still didn’t see people doing the moves that they have now. Arike [Ogunbowale] is that kind of player. The moves that she could do, I was always like, “Oh my gosh, that’s so cool.” But now you see everyone doing that in high school. They’re so skilled, you can see them refining their game — and it’s not just athleticism.
SF: I think we’re now getting a whiff of what the WNBA can look like a couple years from now, just like what Phee said with the talent level coming out of high school, but also the quickness. They’re jumping higher, they’re moving faster.
NC: Dunking! Everyone’s dunking now.
SF: Yes! It was only me and Candace [Parker] dunking when we were in high school. But within the next five years in the W, we’re definitely going to have a lot more girls dunking. It’s impressive! Napheesa asks me to dunk every game. First of all, it takes too much out of me. I got three people hanging from me, and I don’t have the energy to even jump sometimes.
NC: Do it the first shot of the game, then, when you’re fresh.
SF: You’re selfish. You see what I have to deal with? Don’t think about nobody but herself [laughs]. But you’ve definitely got a lot of more talented and athletic young women that are just going to be tearing things up in the next five years. I don't think 144 [roster spots] is going to get it done for all the talent that we have coming up. I can’t wait to sit back and watch, because I’m not getting dunked on.
Where do you hope the WNBA is in 10 years?
SF: I hope we have at least 10 more teams in 10 years. We need more teams. There’s so much talent just sitting out there, and I just want everybody to shine.
This is sort of a big-picture question, but what do you learn from balancing international and WNBA play? How do you maintain that?
NC: I think people misunderstand how long it is. We start WNBA training camp in April, and we go until at least September for the regular season. If you’re into the playoffs, you go until October. You get 10 days off, max — and that’s only if you’re a good player. They’ll give you 10 days off before you have to be at your [overseas] team, and then the season lasts until the next April, where you might be late to WNBA training camp if your international team is still playing. You have less than three weeks rest in 365 days. That’s insane. I don’t think people understand how much wear and tear that is on your body, year after year after year.
SF: Yeah, even the mental aspect of it too. I was on autopilot for about 10 or 11 years playing year round, and the first break that I got at home — I think I didn’t have to show up until after Christmas — at that point, I knew I wasn’t going back overseas no more. I was like, “Yeah, no.” I don’t think people understand the sacrifices you have to make.
You have both been vocal about social justice and the importance of fighting inequality through the WNBA and outside of it. How do you want that work to translate into your play with USA Basketball?
SF: Your game is definitely going to have to speak for itself. I think when you’re winning and you’re getting attention that you need, those are prime moments to talk about the things that’s going on within our community, our society, our city.
NC: Everyone loves to hear from you when you’re winning, so that’s definitely an important part. We’re playing for our country, so I think it would be really powerful to talk about how we love our country, but it’s not perfect and there are things that we want to see change. I think it would be a good opportunity for us to speak about those things.
Napheesa, you’ve talked about some social justice issues on your podcast with A’ja Wilson, “Tea with A & Phee,” right? And Sylvia, you’ve been part of a few different panels on social justice and fighting for equality? What have you hoped listeners can take away from your conversations?
NC: The goal of that for us was to give people a peek into our lives, because we realized even though for us it’s just another day at the office or whatever, it might be surprising for other people. So we have conversations about where we see the league now and how it’s different for us as newcomers compared to what we saw when we were growing up. Of course, it’s called The Tea, so I always try to get a little bit of gossip in there.
SF: What I do respect about the younger generation is they know how to market themselves, but they also speak up. They’re not going to let you tell them that they’re not good enough. They amplify their voices and say, “Look, we are talented. We know we’re talented, so we’re going to make you pay attention.”
NC: It’s not just “shut up and dribble” anymore. I think social media’s helped with that a lot: People are able to speak out about what they believe in. You saw the difference it made last year in the bubble — especially when we came together as a group, the things we were able to accomplish were just amazing.
How do you even begin to meld players’ wide range of ages and levels of experience into one all-star USA Basketball in a relatively short period of time?
SF: You have the trials to get to know each other. But the focus is so strong once you get to USA, because you don’t want to be that team to disappoint. Everybody pretty much locks in and focuses on how we can win. There’s some pressure, because that’s when you’ve got to give your best performances. Once we get together, we all have that mindset that it’s not about self, it’s about team and how we can get that gold medal.
NC: In the league you have star players on every team, where you know they’re going to get the most shots and do X, Y and Z. When you get to USA Basketball, it’s really not about who the best player is, or if you think you made a good shot. It’s “Is this best for the team? Is this going to help us win, as a team?” USA does a good job of communicating that to us, and the players do a really good job of recognizing that and knowing that it’s not about “me” — we’re here to win a gold medal for us, for the USA, for our team.
What would a gold medal, or another gold medal, mean to you at this point in your career?
SF: Everything. I mean it’s funny, because when I think about it now, I never even pictured myself being part of USA Basketball. I just knew I had to work hard, and if I worked hard, things would kind of work out. It’s more of a laser focus now. Putting myself in that space and understanding this ain’t no joke and I’m really going to have to work for it is the challenge for me. Getting this gold medal, I think, would mean just as much as the first one.
NC: Like Syl said, everything. I’ve watched the Olympics ever since I can remember. To be on the team is such a blessing and an honor. I’m already so excited about that. So for us to go out and win gold, it would really just be a dream come true. It would be amazing, such a huge goal that I’ve wanted for myself. A gold medal would just be unbelievable.
SF: Icing on the cake.
NC: Icing on the cake.
Illustration: Alexis Eke