- Mechelle Voepel, espnW.com
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Remember the old Jimmy Dean classic "Big, Bad John"? It plays in my head, lyrics altered, when I watch LSU.
"Every night at the game, you could see her arrive,
She stood 6-foot-6 and weighed two-oh-five,
Kinda broad at the shoulder, narrow at the hip,
And everybody knew ya didn't give no lip to Big Syl."
OK, college media guides don't list weights, and USA Basketball's roster says Sylvia Fowles is 6-5 and 200. But
She has been 6-6 at LSU all along, and it matches the song. Big John weighed 245, and I figure Big Syl won't mind if I add on five more pounds (of muscle) for the sake of the rhyme.
Fowles, in the midst of another splendid season for LSU -- her last -- is also like Big John in that she can "seem" quiet and shy. Truth is, she says, she is not what folks on the outside assume.
"I'm not very shy. I'm really not," Fowles said. "People have thought I was, because I didn't say much. But around my teammates, I'm one of the class clowns.
"I have to say I came out of my shell a lot. And that has a lot to do with my coaches, helping me gain that confidence. I know now I don't have to be so uptight and always serious."
In fact is it true she can she be one of the goofiest players on the team?
"Yes. She's really funny," fellow senior RaShonta LeBlanc said. "You've just got to get to know her."
Big John had a "bad" reputation. Although it might have been totally fabricated, because no one knew what to make of him and he didn't fill in the blanks. Supposedly, he might have killed a guy in a fight over a woman in New Orleans. Whether he did, nobody wanted to mess with him.
But Fowles, despite her size and dominant ability, doesn't carry any bad vibes. She isn't known for rough play. She seems universally respected. Yet nobody wants to mess with her, either.
They just don't have any choice. Opponent after opponent tries and fails. Her latest victim was Alabama on Thursday, when Fowles posted her 73rd career double-double with 24 points and 11 rebounds.
That victory against the Tide moved LSU to 19-3 (8-0 SEC). Their losses were against Maryland, Rutgers and Middle Tennessee and Fowles didn't play in that last game after having surgery on her knee.
She's averaging 16.9 points and 9.1 rebounds, and will lead LSU against two big rivals next. On Sunday against Georgia (ESPN2, 2 p.m. ET), LSU hosts its annual "Pack the PMAC" game, in which they hope to fill the Maravich Center in Baton Rouge.
Then Thursday, LSU will play at Tennessee, a showcase of two of the top stars in the country in Fowles and Candace Parker.
"I really don't know her personally, but I really respect her game," Fowles said of Parker. "When I play her, I just try to better myself. She's a great player, and who else would you want to go against? She's a big player who can bring the ball up the floor, she can shoot the 3, she can drive -- just to have all her abilities with her height, that's special."
Fowles is the prototypical center, and she's good enough at that to merit consideration on the national team for the Beijing Olympics in August. Van Chancellor, who was the Olympic coach in 2004, said the chance to work with Fowles certainly helped convince him to take over at LSU.
"They brought me down to make sure -- was I going to take the job, and did they want me?" Chancellor said of a visit to LSU. "And I was trying to make up my mind. Sylvia walked in, hugged my neck and told [athletic director] Skip Bertman, 'This is who I want to be my coach.'
"And I didn't tell anybody, but I said to myself then, 'I'm taking this job. If one of the best players in the country wants you to be her coach, I want to be her coach.'"
That LSU needed a new coach in Chancellor was due to the resignation/firing/whatever it truly was with Pokey Chatman in March. LSU's players were left in an unwanted spotlight that had nothing to do with them as players. They had to adjust to Chatman's absence and answer a lot of difficult questions about her behavior.
LSU's players showed grace and maturity, handling those distractions while working their way through the NCAA Tournament. LSU earned its fourth consecutive Final Four bid, advancing to Cleveland with a 73-50 victory over Connecticut in the Elite Eight.
Fowles had 23 points, 15 rebounds and six blocked shots against the Huskies, and UConn coach Geno Auriemma called it one of the best individual performances any of his teams had ever faced.
Yet somehow, the storybook ending once again eluded LSU. The Final Four has meant four consecutive defeats in the semifinal: to Tennessee, Baylor, Duke and then Rutgers last season.
For Fowles, the loss to Rutgers was particularly difficult because she didn't play anything like the Big Syl that had toppled UConn. She shot 2-for-10 from the field against the Scarlet Knights, finishing with five points and seven rebounds.
"We had a good run, but it just still wasn't our time," said Fowles, who added that a visit home to be with her mother, nieces and nephews over the summer helped her decompress after last season. "Now we're fighting to get back to that point this year."
Fowles has battled some knee problems. However, like Big John saving his fellow miners, Big Syl often has been like a giant oak tree supporting her teammates. Her consequences are less dire, obviously but hey, Big John was a fictional character. Big Syl is the real deal.
"What I've learned is she's a great player -- but by 10 times a better person," Chancellor said. "She is a wonderful human being who has overcome a lot."
And maybe not the least of her obstacles personally was the very thing that has helped her on the basketball court: her size. It's a much better world than it used to be for such a tall, strong woman but the pain of being a girl that big was still sharp when some idiots opened their mouths.
"I remember growing up, it was kind of tough," Fowles said. "And me being me, I was very soft-hearted. I never understood why people could be so mean and cruel. After awhile, you have to just suck it up and deal with it. Now it's to the point where I can just block them out and barely hear what they have to say.
"I overcame a lot, dealing with my height, but I put it in perspective. With so many big women -- there comes a point where you think about all the negative aspects of your life being big, and you know that it all paid off. You realize the positives outweigh the negatives. I'm comfortable with the way I am."
A native of Florida, Fowles said that she's grateful about coming to LSU -- both for the good times and the bad. There has been value in both.
"Personally, I've grown just because of the obstacles we've had to face," she said. "It's taught me that there's nothing I've experienced in college that I can't deal with in the real world. So I'm pretty sure I'm ready for that."
Mechelle Voepel of The Kansas City Star is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.