Home-grown legacy A’ja Wilson is ready to bring down a new house in the WNBA

This story appears in ESPN The Magazine’s April 23 issue, NEXT. Subscribe today!

A’ja Wilson is rolling on the Gamecocks’ practice court, stretching her hamstrings over her head like a 6-foot-5 ballerina. She flips side to side, listening as her teammates debate the appeal of the various male leads in Black Panther. “Wakanda forever,” they chime in unison, breaking into giggles as they stand to run full-court drills — Wilson, 21, making short work of the 94 feet with her loping, jackrabbit stride.

The South Carolina forward is the best college player in the country, the projected No. 1 WNBA pick and the only three-time SEC Player of the Year — the rare big who can thread any needle. Wilson’s peers label her hard to guard, with weapons-grade versatility. She shoots from all angles, blocks shots the way a billboard blocks the sun. She is deceptively loose, smooth, slipping through any net like an oiled fish. On the surface, Wilson appears all rainbow-bright fun. In truth, she’s a shiv in a sequined pouch, a fairyland princess who can dunk.

“To be able to throw the ball up in the air knowing she’ll catch it, no matter how high, how far,” Gamecocks guard Doniyah Cliney says. “Her efficiency is ridiculous.”

Wilson is also the quintessential good sport, never failing to point out an assist, never one to gloat. Instead, she’s generous, good-humored, silly. On the bench, whenever Wilson is handed her water bottle, she says thank you. Every. Single. Time.

“She’s the mama of the team,” says Dallas Wings guard Allisha Gray, who roomed with Wilson at South Carolina. “She’s always like, ‘Calm down, it’s OK, everything is going to be all right in the end.'”

That emotional maturity and winsome, wise-beyond-her-years perspective only ups Wilson’s allure to the WNBA — GMs and coaches unanimously label her their first pick in this year’s draft on April 12. For all her aw-shucks humility, Wilson is already the biggest star entering the league, on and off the court, and she hasn’t even left her hometown yet.

Wilson recorded 3.2 blocks per game in the 2017-18 season, the most in the SEC. She also led the conference in points per game with 22.6. John Hefti/USA TODAY Sports

Practice over, a freshly showered Wilson settles onto a high stool in the Gamecocks’ player lounge. She’s dressed in a preppy maroon-collared shirt and fitted jeans, with pink lip gloss, a touch of liquid eyeliner, hair swept into a neat ponytail, a thin black headband taming any wisps. Her butt has barely hit the seat before she confesses, full-throatedly and with a hint of joy: “I hated basketball.”

Wilson widens her eyes, waiting a beat for the declaration to land.

“I didn’t want to play in the first place,” she continues. “So I would chill on the bench, my uniform falling off of me. My dad was the assistant coach, and I still didn’t play, which goes to show how bad I really was.”

She playfully blames her father, Roscoe, for forcing the introduction to the sport she would come to rule.

“I wanted her to play because she was a gifted athlete,” Roscoe explains. “And I could see she was starting to grow, and grow fast.” Also, basketball was in the Wilson genes, Roscoe having played professionally overseas for 10 seasons, Wilson’s older brother, Renaldo, logging a stint in Sweden.

Wilson’s courtship with hoops was more protracted.

“As a child, A’ja was always doing extra,” says her mom, Eva, a court stenographer. To keep Wilson stimulated, her parents enrolled her in art, dance and piano, as well as tennis, swimming, soccer, track, volleyball and, much to her chagrin, basketball. (She was also struggling with dyslexia, which would be formally diagnosed when she was a high school sophomore — a learning disability that, as she first detailed in a personal essay in The Players’ Tribune, she hid from peers and teammates well into college.) In 2008, Roscoe approached newly minted South Carolina coach Dawn Staley at a church luncheon, saying, “I’ve got a daughter who plays, and she’s going to be good.” Staley suggested he enroll Wilson, then in sixth grade, in a camp so she could get a closer look.

“She was awful,” Staley recalls, grimacing. “She was much happier handing out water during timeouts. And she was good at it. She could carry multiple cups.”

The only glimmer of glory to come was during outdoor team-building exercises, when Staley saw how much Wilson wanted to win the candy prize: “At least I knew she was competitive.”

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As middle school wound down, Wilson’s parents encouraged A’ja to focus all her energy on one passion, for her sanity and theirs. Wilson reluctantly chose basketball. “I gave her ‘the talk,'” Roscoe recalls. “I told her that to succeed at anything, you must commit and make sacrifices.”

Even as a freshman at Heathwood Hall Episcopal, Wilson’s height and overall athleticism attracted notice and, in time, recruiters. Staley speculates that’s when Wilson’s long dormant passion for basketball truly ignited.

“Once she started getting noticed, that tickled her fancy,” Staley says.

Wilson offers her own theory: “I got tired of losing.” She lets out a guffaw that jiggles the stool she’s perched on. “I’m a sore loser.”

Wilson says that something clicked in her senior year, her play elevating and deepening in each outing on the court. And then — during her final game, playing for the state championship — an epiphany.

“We’d never made it past the semis. Every season was a letdown. But that year we made it, and then we won. That last game showed me I could play at the next level. I know it’s late, but that’s where I really felt like, ‘Wow, OK, I could be pretty good at this.'”

What finally got Wilson excited about basketball? She says she got tired of losing. Gregory Miller for ESPN

Early on, Eva and Roscoe made the decision to parent their children like small adults, not to baby, sugarcoat or avoid reality. “That’s where A’ja’s maturity comes from,” says Eva, who stressed to her: “You are the prize.”

In high school, Wilson began getting approached for autographs at the mall and the grocery store. Wilson has since grown accustomed to being saddled with expectations — that she perform, that she be welcoming and available, that she smile, that she exude gratitude even when asked to pose for photos with a face full of Chick-fil-A.

Wilson says she enjoys people. She’s social, goofy. But, if she’s honest, there are drawbacks. “It’s kind of rough being 21 and always having to stay on your p’s and q’s.”

Wilson takes her responsibility seriously, never turning down a fan, understanding that her choice to stay in Columbia brought with it zero margin for error, scrutiny Eva still finds mind-blowing. When she watches her daughter sign autographs, she sees nothing so much as her mother, Hattie.

Hattie Rakes lived 25 minutes from the Wilson home. Every day after school, Wilson would visit her grandmother, sit thigh to thigh on the couch, building Legos or working puzzles, Judge Judy and daytime talk shows in the background, the two chatting until as late as 9 p.m.

“I was a really weird kid,” Wilson says. “My head was huge. I had a skinny body, long arms. My kneecaps were oddly big. I was awkward, quiet, shy. When I would smile, I would never really show my teeth.”

Wilson admired Hattie’s strength, independence, kindness. Graduating from nursing school, an Army veteran working multiple jobs, raising a family of four children on her own, Hattie fostered values of resilience and self-determination that paid forward through her daughter Eva, then Wilson, a generational legacy of will and “refusing to be denied.”

“She brought that out of me,” Wilson says. “The only time I showed the real me was around my grandmother.”

Hattie did not indulge her granddaughter’s self-consciousness. Instead, she gifted her with a string of pearls, telling Wilson, “Pretty girls always wear pearls.” (Wilson rarely took them off after that.)

It was Hattie to whom Wilson confided she was picking South Carolina. Not long after Wilson’s first home game, Hattie fell ill, unable to leave her bed. At the same time, Wilson struggled with the visibility that comes with being the homegrown phenomenon.

“I was 17 years old, I didn’t know what I was doing. I couldn’t go anywhere without being seen or known.” Wilson turned to Hattie for support. “I kept asking her, ‘Why can’t I be normal?'”

To which Hattie would say, “God didn’t put you on this earth to be normal.”

On Oct. 21, 2016, Hattie died at age 95. Afterward, Wilson thought hard about quitting the game.

“She kept me going so much that I was like, ‘Well, there’s no need for me to do anything at this point.'”

Wilson imagined herself dropping the ball on the court and never picking it up again, the feeling of the leather rolling off her palm one final time. “People forget that I’m human, that I have emotions. They just see me as a basketball player.”

Wilson stayed a basketball player. Tattooing her grandmother’s name, Hattie Rakes, on her wrist, she kept playing, improving, toughening up. During games, she runs her fingers across the letters.

Although staying in Columbia, South Carolina, left Wilson with zero margin for error, it also won her a deep appreciation from Gamecocks fans. Justin Tafoya/NCAA Photos/Getty Images

In the early years, Staley worried that Wilson, her “baby giraffe,” hadn’t been tested on the court. “I knew I’d have to rid her of 12 years of private school.”

During their recruiting one-on-one, Staley and Wilson walked laps around the Gamecocks’ office parking lot, the sun baking their necks. Staley did her level best to make Wilson understand what it took to go from good to great, educating her about the effort, the exposure, the time, more time than you think a day can hold.

“My communication with A’ja was always less about basketball,” says Staley. “I tried to be a place where she could let her guard down and just be.”

It’s an intimacy that has deepened through the years.

“A’ja allowed me to be a part of her open book,” Staley says, her voice thick with emotion. “Honestly, I didn’t know the depths of where she could go. I get the points, the rebounds, the blocks. But the pull she has on this community? Women’s basketball overall?”

Staley exhales.

“A’ja gave us an example of how you should operate. That’s priceless.”

At South Carolina’s senior night game this year against LSU, a string of faux pearls is draped over every seat in the Colonial Life Arena in honor of Wilson’s last regular-season home appearance. She’s leaving Columbia as the school’s all-time leader in points (2,389) and blocks (363), averaging 22.6 points and 11.9 rebounds per game during a dominant senior year. As the Gamecocks warm up, Wilson is repeatedly tugged aside for autographs and pictures, including from the house DJ. Wilson obliges, pulling a ridiculous face, cracking him up to the point of blushing.

Soon the team exits, Wilson waiting in the tunnel with her parents and brother Renaldo (wearing a custom jacket embroidered with “Big Bro Wilson, 22” on the back). They stand around uncomfortably, and it is here, behind the banks of seats holding thousands of fans eager to witness her collegiate farewell, that Wilson starts sobbing.

Eva throws her arms around her child, holds tight. Above them, on the JumboTron, Wilson’s face glows from her team photo.

“There will never be another, enjoy her now!” the emcee shouts as the entire arena erupts, chanting her name: “A’ja Wil-son, A’ja Wil-son.”

Wilson has no regrets about staying in Columbia, a place she will decamp postdraft, likely to the Las Vegas Aces.

“People don’t expect us to do what we do,” she says of her team — and of so much more. “We get it done. We show people.”

She says she still talks to her grandmother every day. Asks her what she should eat for lunch. About boys. About friend drama. About the miles ahead, how to travel them. Wilson feels her presence, her light. And in her head she hears her grandmother’s voice answer, “Well, A’ja, what do you want?”

“It’s hard to believe that I’ve made it this far, honestly. Because at 13, I wanted no part of basketball, and now I’m a national champion, a four-time SEC champion …” Wilson trails off, a faraway look settling in her eyes.

“I don’t know when it’s going to hit me that I am who I am.”

The applause is deafening when Wilson emerges from the Gamecocks’ tunnel to stand center court with Staley as her jersey is retired, her eyes still damp from crying. She puts her palm over her mouth, nails painted bubble-gum pink, as the mayor passes her a key to the city. A beat later, she drops to the floor in a series of dance moves as the crowd hoots and cheers.

Then she rises, takes a long, slow look around. She giggles. Cries. Beams. Sighs. It’s a lot. But she stands tall, before finally shuffling off the court, arms slung around her teammates, ready for her last home game.

As she reaches the edge, she skips out of sight.

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