The Perfect Score
It only takes a few seconds to get over the neck-bending reality that Gulliver Prep senior center Sylvia Fowles stands 6-foot-5. And that's entirely due to the way she carries herself.
Fowles, who transferred to Gulliver this year after winning two state titles in three seasons at Miami Edison High, is a towering presence as one of the nation's top scholastic girls' hoop players. Yet she embodies grace — on and off the court. You want swagger? You want the blue-chip brush off? Look somewhere else.
"The most amazing thing to me is that she's so humble," says Gulliver sixth-year head coach Gary Armstrong, 40, who, like every other coach in Florida, watched enviously last winter when Fowles averaged 21.1 points and 15.6 rebounds per game as Edison fell just short of winning its third consecutive Class 6A state title. "She doesn't walk around here with her head in the air, and I'm elated about that. She handles every little detail so gracefully. It's about how she treats people. Even when little kids come up to her to get a glimpse, she just lights them up with her style."
While good nature has plenty to do with the fulfillment Fowles gets from life, it doesn't count much on the basketball court. Especially once she gets a load of the SEC next season as LSU's top recruit. Fortunately, ever since she dunked twice in a game as a high school freshman, she's built a reputation for having a little toughness as well. And the story behind that goes back even further.
"I was a total tomboy growing up," says Fowles, 18, the youngest of five kids. "Two of my older brothers (Morris, 21, and Jeremy, 19) used to push me down all the time. What was I gonna do, cry?"
Fowles got her first true taste of basketball playing pickup games against all-male opposition on the outdoor courts at Little River Elementary School and Turner Tech growing up. She credits that early exposure to quicker, more physical players for giving her the rock-solid basketball foundation she's built upon.
"It made me more aggressive always playing against boys," she says. "All these years later, my game is still about attacking the basket."
The returning All-Dade first team selection has made plenty of headlines with her aggressive roots. A fourth team Parade All-American as a junior, Fowles was chosen to play in both the USA Basketball Development Festival and the Nike All-America Camp last summer.
This year, the academic preparation a season at Gulliver could offer her was too attractive to resist transferring. Meanwhile, the Raiders' talent level represented a unique opportunity with returning second team All-Dade guards De'Sha Mosley, a sophomore point, and Cherisse Buddy, a junior transfer from Greater Miami Academy, in the fold along with 6-foot-2 sophomore forward Elisa Carey.
Not that putting on a new uniform was instantly easy.
"I got off to a slow start (this season)," says Fowles, who helped Edison win three straight Greater Miami Athletic Conference titles and might have led Edison to a third straight state title if not for a left ankle injury suffered during the postseason last year. "Coming into a new environment and fitting in with other kids was the hardest part of the adjustment."
Before long, mind you, Gulliver began firing on all cylinders.
"You've got to have unity to be successful," says Armstrong, who guided the Raiders to a 26-4 record and a loss to two-time defending Class 3A state champ Monsignor Pace in the Region 4-3A finals a year ago. "The attitudes the kids took after her arrival was most surprising, and Sylvia deserves a lot of credit for that. Her enthusiasm is like a disease. Her intensity when she's cheering from the bench is sensational. She deserves anything she gets."
Deserving as she is, Fowles does owe a certain measure of gratitude. First, to her mom, Loretta, who wouldn't stand for her kids lounging around the house during Fowles' formative years. And also to her cousin, Tasha Hunter, who often dragged Fowles along on Saturday morning beach runs.
"I had no other choice," recalls Fowles, who plays in the offseason with the AAU Miami Suns. "My mom wouldn't let us sit around the house. Not with all those kids. I have it easy now, I guess, as the youngest. I can talk back a little and just chill out on the couch. But back then, it was get out and sweat."
Fowles hasn't stopped putting the work in. She drives herself to improve her game. She refuses to become self-satisfied merely because she's more aggressive than most top recruits her age thanks to her basketball upbringing.
Sylvia Fowles is not one to read her own press clippings.
"I don't consider myself as highly rated as you see my name appearing out there," says Fowles, who passed the 2,000-point milestone for her career earlier this season. "I definitely have a lot to learn and a lot to improve on. My jump shot is not where I want it to be, for example. I push myself because I know what I want to do. I know I want to make it to the pros.
"Don't get me wrong, there are days when I say, ‘I don't want to do this. I want to go home,'" she admits. "But then I think about the other people out there working hard and I figure I'm already here at the gym, I might as well work."
It has been time well spent. Her final scholastic season has been a highlight reel of her patented big-small game — power moves to the rack in the low post mixed with lightning-quick, seam-splitting cuts from the wing. So aggressive. So, well, Sylvia.
"She's so big, but so agile," says Armstrong. "She's 6-5, but she's got the agility of a little guard the way she moves and runs. The way she bangs and shoots the 3, it's easy to see she was playing with boys growing up. But it's more than that. Sylvia has this leadership quality. She can just look at you a certain way and you know it's time to step your game up."