- Mechelle Voepel, espnW.com
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Chicago Sky center Sylvia Fowles is the youngest of five siblings in her family yet being a kind of older-sister type actually comes easily to her.
"It's funny, isn't it? I like it, though," said the 6-foot-6 Fowles. "I accept my role. If that's what it takes, that's what I'm willing to do."
"Big Syl" as "big sis"? Well, at the very least, she is that to rookie teammate Epiphanny Prince.
"I cook her food," Fowles said, chuckling.
And to sixth-year pro Cathrine Kraayeveld -- another newcomer this season to the Sky, although not to the WNBA -- Fowles is just a "sister" -- not necessarily the "big" kind. She doesn't need a protective instinct with Kraayeveld; instead they have bonded because of personality similarities.
"Cat and I are very, very close," Fowles said. "Actually, we do call each other sisters. We hang out a lot more than anybody on the team. We have so much in common; we are both goofy and outgoing, and we like people."
Kraayeveld and Shameka Christon both came to Chicago in the three-way deal with New York and Phoenix that sent the Mercury's Cappie Pondexter to the Liberty and the Sky's Candice Dupree to Arizona.
Dupree said earlier this season that she felt more a sense of camaraderie with the Mercury, and acknowledged she had been very ready to leave Chicago. Eager, in fact.
"I was sad to see her leave because I respected her as a player," Fowles said. "But at the same time, I felt that her leaving made things better. For me, now I get the ball more. I'm stepping up to my potential and doing things I haven't done in my first two years [in the WNBA]. I'm playing the way I'm capable of playing. I hate to say it was good that she left, but it worked out for the best for everybody."
Fowles, limited by injuries her first two WNBA seasons, is averaging 18.9 points and 8.1 for the Sky, a team that is 5-8 currently this summer and already has been down and up and down and might now be up again.
But Fowles, individually, has avoided that roller coaster. She has scored in double figures in all 13 of the Sky's games and finally feels that she's closer to fulfilling her potential.
The knee/ankle/shoulder injuries that held her to 17 games as a rookie and 24 last season were rough for her, no doubt. But she never got very down about anything.
"I got through it all OK thanks to my mom," Fowles said. "She told me if I keep working at it, things will always get better. I had a good season in Russia, and to come back healthy this year and get off to an OK start in Chicago I know I can do better, but I'm getting closer to where I should be."
In the winter, she played for Spartak, alongside fellow U.S. national team members Diana Taurasi and Sue Bird. And with former LSU mentor Pokey Chatman -- who left Baton Rouge under controversial (to say the least) circumstances in Fowles' junior season -- at the Spartak helm, Fowles had a comfort zone in Russia.
Still, credit goes to Fowles for making that comfort zone larger. She really loves traveling and experiencing life as it truly is in the places she has been. She acknowledged that the Russian winter was a bit more than she bargained for, but she was very grateful for the experience. This coming winter, she'll play in Turkey.
That will come after what Fowles hopes is a chance to compete in the WNBA playoffs and the 2010 FIBA World Championship. She was an important contributor on the gold-medal winning 2008 Olympic squad, but that was still with Lisa Leslie as Team USA's experienced anchor.
Since then, Leslie has retired, and the recent shoulder injury to L.A.'s Candace Parker is expected to keep her out for the rest of the WNBA season and the world championship. So Fowles' contributions inside for the Americans are, obviously, even more vital.
And Fowles laughs good-naturedly as she talked about the "UConnization" of the national team, which is coached by the Huskies' Geno Auriemma.
"To have Geno as a coach -- you know he's going to push you, and he's not going to settle for anything less than your best," Fowles said. "And to be around those players from Connecticut who know him and how he does things, it helps everybody else.
"I'm looking forward to it; we have some really great players. Everybody can score, rebound and run. I'm eager to see all of us in action."
Fowles thinks her main priority -- throughout the rest of this Sky season and looking ahead to the world championship -- is rebounding, which should be exactly what Sky coach Stephen Key and Auriemma hope to hear.
After being such a lockdown defensive presence in college, Fowles wants to extend that in full force in the WNBA and in international competition. And on both offense and defense, she still gets tips/critiques from former LSU assistant coach Bob Starkey.
"He's like my papa," Fowles said. "Even though we had a rough time my freshman year as I was getting used to everything, I know now he's always going to have my back.
"He'll hit me up after games, with texts or by e-mail, telling me what I did well and what I can do better. I might not want to hear it sometimes, especially when we lose. But I always respect he's going to be there through the good, the bad and the ugly."
Fowles believes that earning a playoff spot in the log-jammed-as-usual Eastern Conference is an attainable goal this summer for the Sky but she also knows the right way to talk about that possibility.
"We have the pieces to put together for the playoffs, but you can never jump too far ahead," Fowles said. "And you have to also be willing to learn as you go along."
Mechelle Voepel, a regular contributor to ESPN.com, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read her blog at http://voepel.wordpress.com.