WNBA playoffs give Las Vegas Aces’ A’ja Wilson chance to cement her status as an icon

WHEN A’JA WILSON stepped into the Las Vegas Aces’ meeting room in the WNBA bubble in Bradenton, Florida, she thought she was attending a meeting with referees ahead of the 2020 WNBA Finals. She had finished her media obligations for the day, and a jitters-laden adrenaline rush was bubbling up before her first finals appearance.

Wearing red shorts, an Aces T-shirt, and a string of pearls around her neck, Wilson took a seat on a couch in the front of the room. When Cathy Engelbert walked in, Wilson figured a visit from the commissioner must be what happened before every Finals.

Engelbert strolled to the front of the room and started talking about how difficult the bubble season had been. Wilson felt the truth of that. Not seeing her family had been especially hard. Normally they see each other at least once a month. That hadn’t been possible this year. She missed her parents, her house and her dogs, Ace and Deuce.

Then, Engelbert pivoted. She started reading a stat line, and it was then that Wilson realized what was happening. It was her stat line. She covered her eyes with her right hand as the tears spilled. She pulled her shirt over her face. Engelbert was announcing that she, A’ja Wilson, was the 2020 WNBA MVP.

Wilson stood to accept the trophy, and her teammates belted out “MVP” chants. “I can’t thank you all enough, honestly,” she said, the emotion making it increasingly difficult to get the words out. “I wouldn’t be this without you guys.”

Wilson was preparing for her first Finals appearance last season when commissioner Cathy Engelbert surprised her with the MVP. Ned Dishman/NBAE/Getty Images

After the surprise award ceremony, A’ja FaceTimed her parents, Eva and Roscoe. “Hey Dad, you can’t tweet anything, but I got MVP,” she said, showing off the trophy.

Eva screamed in the background, an elongated, joyful siren of pride. She had prayed for this moment for her daughter; she knew what it had taken for her to get here.

Not all that long ago, Wilson had been a happy-go-lucky water girl. Now 24, she was the youngest Black WNBA MVP since Tina Charles in 2012 and the first since Sylvia Fowles in 2017. At a time of racial reckoning in the United States, at a time when the WNBA led the way in social-justice causes, at a time when 80% of the WNBA is Black, the face of the most prominent professional women’s sports league in the country also is Black.

From stardom at her high school in South Carolina, to a national championship and a bronze statue on South Carolina’s campus, to her commitment to social justice and raising awareness around learning disabilities, Wilson is an icon in the making. She has gone from hometown hero to a beacon for Black girls across the country. She has launched her own business. She has started her own foundation. On social media, she has danced.

Now there’s just one missing piece for Wilson as the Aces open their 2021 WNBA playoffs: A ring.

A’JA RIYADH WILSON was born at Prisma Health Baptist Hospital in Columbia, South Carolina. Her first name came from the Steely Dan song “Aja,” one of Roscoe’s favorites when he played basketball overseas. “He always said if he had a daughter, he wanted to name her A’ja,” Eva said. Riyadh is the capital of Saudi Arabia, and it is where Eva’s sister was stationed during Desert Storm.

On Aug. 8, 1996, Eva delivered A’ja by caesarean section, and because Eva couldn’t go up and down stairs, they went to her mother’s house after they left the hospital. Eva and A’ja stayed with Hattie Rakes for three weeks after A’ja was born. And they all quickly learned that A’ja had her quirks. She would cry for what seemed like hours. “She would be hollering and screaming and carrying on like she ain’t got no good sense,” Eva said. “So we just said she was somebody else.”

They’d call her A’ja Marie Anderson.

“Because you are not A’ja Riyadh Wilson,” Eva said. “This is not the baby we just brought home from the hospital.”

When she was particularly fussy, Roscoe clipped off the top of the bottle nipple and dropped a little bit of crushed cereal in the mixture. Then he’d let A’ja gulp down the milk until she’d fall asleep on his chest.

A’ja Riyadh Wilson didn’t have much interest in basketball, until she saw how much joy winning brought to her friends. Courtesy A’Ja Wilson

WHEN IT CAME time for the cranky baby to begin first grade, the Wilsons chose Heathwood Hall Episcopal School. The private day school is south of downtown Columbia, but the stands of Williams-Brice Stadium arching to the sky are visible from the mile-long road through the dove fields that lead to the Heathwood entrance. From first grade until she graduated from Heathwood High School, Wilson was one of a handful of Black students.

It took a bit of ingenuity on Roscoe’s part to lure A’ja onto a basketball court. He had played professionally overseas for a decade, and her older brother, Renaldo, also played in high school and overseas. But as a kid, A’ja wasn’t interested. She did everything else: ballet, tap, swimming, tennis, soccer, volleyball and even karate.

“Only sport that she didn’t get into was softball,” Roscoe said.

When she was 11, Roscoe convinced her to go to a basketball practice at 9 o’clock on a Saturday morning after giving her a new pair of basketball shoes on a Thursday. Unbeknownst to A’ja, Roscoe and Jerome Dickerson had put a team together. Dickerson had a daughter who was A’ja’s age. Problem was, A’ja wasn’t good. At all.

“I absolutely sucked,” A’ja said. “I was the best teammate ever. You needed water, Gatorade, anything, I was there for you.”

“We didn’t have to wash her uniform,” Roscoe said.

“She wasn’t as good as the other girls. She was just there,” Dickerson said.

None of that stopped Roscoe from talking up his daughter to Dawn Staley, who had just been hired as head coach at the University of South Carolina. Staley kept running into Roscoe around town. And every time he saw her, he would bring up A’ja. “He talked about how good his daughter was, and how tall his daughter was,” Staley said. “So we’re thinking, ‘OK well, just bring her to camp.'”

Roscoe did bring A’ja to camp that summer. The players were loosely separated by skill level, as Staley told it.

“We got the good gym, we got the OK gym, and then we got the bad gym,” Staley said. “A’ja qualified for the bad gym. Players who really aren’t interested in basketball, but they’re socialites. And that’s where we found A’ja damn near breaking backboards.

“Not from dunking,” Staley added.

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Wilson stuck with basketball, though, mostly because of the friends she’d made on that AAU team her father tricked her into joining.

Each game she’d watch them play from the bench and hand them water when they needed it. She’d see the celebration when they won. And she wanted to be part of it. “I was like ‘Oh my gosh, I really want to play,'” Wilson said. “‘I really want to get out there so I could feel happy too.'”

So Wilson went to work. She decided that she wanted to put in a little extra effort. “Of course my dad just loved that,” Wilson said.

Before AAU practice, Roscoe would work with A’ja. They’d do drills on the beat-up hoop in the driveway. Then, when she started playing at Heathwood, he’d work her out after those practices too. “I’d be on her,” Roscoe said. “She’d go crying to Eva, but I knew that she wanted to work hard. And I wouldn’t give her a break.”

“I was just so done with him, because I couldn’t separate coach from father,” Wilson said. “There would be times where I thought, ‘God, I can’t stand this man.’ This is my dad, but yet he’s making me run. Who does this?”

But there was something there. She kept getting better. Dickerson once brought in a college-aged guy to play against Wilson. He was faster and quicker than Wilson was used to. Dickerson stuck him on defense. And he brought the heat. The frustration of not being able to get by him brought Wilson to tears. After the workout, Dickerson told Wilson that the same guy would be back next week. “Most kids would just back away like, ‘Man, he’s just too fast. He older. Why are you putting this older guy on me?'” Dickerson said. “She like, ‘Coach, teach me how to beat him.'”

Wilson torched him the next week.

“He was going, ‘Man, how’d she learn that quick?'” Dickerson said, laughing as he told the story.

Word started to get out about A’ja Wilson, who made varsity as an eighth-grader and averaged 35 points, 15 rebounds and five blocks per game as a senior. And the letters poured in. Roscoe still has several tubs full to the brim of recruiting letters sitting in his garage. Every program wanted her.

But only one would become the place where her legacy would be forged in bronze. The same place she was breaking backboards as an 11-year-old: The University of South Carolina.

There are far more references to A’ja in the South Carolina record book than there are in a certain Steely Dan song. Ben Solomon/NCAA Photos/Getty Images

WHEN WILSON CALLED Staley to tell her she was coming to South Carolina, screams boomed through the phone from the other end. It was just minutes before she would announce the decision on live television, and she barricaded herself in an office to pray for guidance about the decision.

“God felt it would be good for me to go to South Carolina,” she said to Roscoe.

Roscoe called Connecticut, Tennessee and North Carolina to let the schools know A’ja made a decision to play elsewhere. But A’ja called Staley and South Carolina herself. And after the announcement, she went right over to celebrate.


— dawnstaley (@dawnstaley) April 16, 2014

It was the beginning of a relationship that would become one of the most important in Wilson’s life.

“My whole world changed, and I didn’t think I was going to have that experience because I was at home,” Wilson said. “Coach Staley made that possible.”

Wilson opened up to Staley in ways few players had. If she was having boy problems, Wilson went to Staley’s office. If she had a question about how to handle a situation with a teammate, Wilson was in Staley’s office. “She was the first to come in here and sit down to talk,” Staley said. “We talked, we laughed, we cried.”

It mattered to Wilson that Staley is a Black woman.

“When you’re coached by somebody that looks like you, it helps you even more because you’re not giving me the runaround,” Wilson said. “You’re going to be real with me and I can connect with you on another level because you’re a Black woman and I’m going to be a Black woman.”

Learning from Staley offered the opportunity to not just grow as a basketball player, but to receive guidance from a former professional athlete and a coach who reflected back to Wilson the kind of person she could become. Staley was a mirror for Wilson. “I remember telling my parents, ‘Coach Staley has gone through everything that I want to go through,'” Wilson said.

A’ja Wilson developed a special relationship with Dawn Staley, and the duo together has won an NCAA championship and an Olympic gold medal. Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Wilson and Staley also had their share of adventures, including a trip to Gucci in the Moscow airport in the summer of 2015 when Wilson was playing for Staley at the U19 FIBA World Cup. While shopping with Staley, Wilson called her parents, waking them in the middle of the night to see if she had money in her account. When Eva asked her why, A’ja mentioned she was in the Gucci store.

“Well you better get out,” Eva playfully shouted through the phone. “You don’t have Dawn Staley money.”

While at South Carolina, Wilson was SEC Player of the Year three times, the 2018 consensus National Player of the Year, four-time all-SEC, and she won a national championship. At her graduation, university president Harris Pastides announced a statue would be built in her honor.

“Throughout her four years here at South Carolina, she found herself,” Staley said. “And she lived in her truth, and not very many young people can do that between the ages of 17 and 22.”

The seeds of strength, of confidence, had been planted in pearls years before.

THE ONLY TIME her grandmother ever saw A’ja play in a game was her first at South Carolina, an exhibition against Coker University. Rakes never even watched the games on TV. “My momma couldn’t handle the physicality,” Eva said. “‘They pushing on my grandbaby.’ I told her, ‘Momma, she’s pushing on people, too.'”

Wilson started the game and played 17 minutes, scoring 18 points and snagging 10 rebounds in a 100-25 South Carolina rout.

Basketball was practically the only part of A’ja’s life that Rakes missed out on. After recuperating from childbirth, Eva went back to work — running her own court stenographer business — and Rakes watched A’ja for three years. She picked up A’ja after preschool. For most of A’ja’s childhood, if she wasn’t at home, she was likely at her grandmother’s. She taught A’ja different skills like how to repot a plant, and they’d work on puzzles together. “I could talk to her about anything on Earth,” Wilson said.

The situation at Heathwood Hall, for one, was challenging.

“It was hard because I felt like I was in the middle,” Wilson said. “I’m not biracial, so I’m like, ‘How am I in the middle?’ But I always had to be this A’ja when I went to school, because a lot of my friends were white, and then I went on the other side when I played my club basketball team, and all of my friends were Black. It was a time when I didn’t feel good about myself because I didn’t want to feel like I was going against my race. It was very hard for me to come to grips about who I wanted to be growing up and finding myself.”

Wilson told her grandmother of her closeness with one of the women who worked in the Heathwood cafeteria, one of the only people at the school who looked like her. “I’m pretty sure she picked up on what I was saying, but I worded it in a way a kid would word it.” Wilson said.

In addition to her ear, Rakes also gave Wilson her first pearls, telling her that “Pretty girls always wear pearls.” Rakes always did — it didn’t matter if she was going to the doctor or a funeral or to church. “It was just a sense of elegance and class,” Wilson said.

The message came at a time when Wilson was feeling unsettled in her body. “My body was shaped weird,” she said. “I was kind of tall, kind of wasn’t. I was lanky. I looked a mess if you ask me.”

The pearls also came to represent Rakes herself. Rakes died on Oct. 21, 2016, the fall of Wilson’s junior year, at the age of 95. Eva and Roscoe drove to A’ja’s building in the middle of the night to tell her. They called Staley after.

“I really thought that once my mom passed that A’ja was just not going to make it,” Eva said. “But she did and she is. But I don’t think she will ever totally get over it. And I know this is probably going to sound crazy, but I don’t know that she wants to.”

While in college, Wilson was rarely seen without pearls — it didn’t matter if she was wearing a dress or sweats. “That’s the impact she had on my life,” Wilson said.

Wilson’s statue was unveiled on the South Carolina campus on Martin Luther King Jr. Day. “It was the right thing to do, for the right person, at the right time,” Staley says. David Becker/NBAE/Getty Images

BACK IN JANUARY, the night before her statue dedication outside of South Carolina’s Colonial Life Arena, Wilson had a sleepover. Two of her best friends, who don’t play basketball, and fellow Gamecocks national champion Allisha Gray crashed with Wilson at her parents’ house in Hopkins. They stayed up too late talking and eating.

“I felt like I was a high-schooler again,” Wilson said.

A’ja worked with Eva on her speech. She wrote down the bones of what she wanted to say, and her mom helped her flesh out those ideas. A’ja added a few lines late, after her uncle reminded Eva of something important.

Statues don’t come around often, especially for female athletes. “I’m very proud we were doing a female athlete, because I think 90 percent of the sports figures [statues] out there are men,” sculptor Julie Rotblatt-Amrany said to Gamecocks Online.

Staley herself contributed funds to make the statue a reality. “We needed something tangible to keep reminding ourselves of her impact, not just women’s basketball, this university needed to do this,” Staley said. “She represents all that’s good.”

When Wilson arrived and saw her statue for the first time — on Martin Luther King Jr. Day — she was overwhelmed.

Almost everyone who shaped Wilson’s career was present. Her parents. Staley. Her friends. Dickerson was there too, standing in the crowd, wiping tears from behind his shades.

As she stood on the stage, wearing pearls, Wilson read the speech with the lines she added the night before.

“My grandmother, Hattie Rakes, grew up in this area. Actually four blocks from the governor’s mansion to be exact. When she was a child, she couldn’t even walk on the grounds of the University of South Carolina. She would have to walk around the campus just to get to where she needed to go. If only she was here today to see that the same grounds she had to walk around, it now is the same grounds that houses a statue of her granddaughter.”

On the base of the statue is an inscription honoring Rakes. “I wish my grandmother was here to actually see it because I know she was, of course, the person that planted the seed so I could even be able to even attend the University of South Carolina,” Wilson said later. “But at the end of the day, I know that she’s there.”

Hattie Rakes might not have been physically present that day, but she wasn’t far away. Rakes was buried a few miles away at a modest cemetery honoring members of the armed services. Rakes graduated from the South Carolina State Hospital School of Nursing for Negro Women as a registered nurse. She served as a second lieutenant in the United States Army Nursing Corps from 1945-1946. There are no headstones in the cemetery, just rows and rows of plaques, each with a small vase.

Resting on her vase, nestled among flowers and an American flag, was a single strand of pearls.

Since the Aces used the No. 1 pick on Wilson in 2018, she has become one of the most important players, and voices, in the WNBA. Juan Ocampo/NBAE/Getty Images

WHEN THE ACES received the No. 1 pick in the 2018 WNBA draft, coach and then-general manager Bill Laimbeer knew exactly who he was going to pick. “That was a no-brainer,” Laimbeer said.

For Wilson, that meant packing up and moving away from home for the first time. Even though she went to school a stone’s throw from her parents, she wasn’t home all the time. But this move was different. And it came with some bright lights.

“When she first moved to Vegas, team housing was on the Strip,” Eva said. “She did not like it at all.”

“She hated it,” Roscoe said.

The Strip was noisy and bright, full of sprawling hotels packed to the gills with drunk tourists. Wilson couldn’t wait to move. After her second year, she moved into a house in a quiet neighborhood with nice neighbors and space for her dogs.

Adjusting to life as a professional athlete was hard. Balancing fan expectations with her own. Learning how to lead her teammates as a young player.

“I felt like I wasn’t good enough,” Wilson said. “I felt like I wasn’t meeting the standard of every single A’ja Wilson fan. And I had to look at myself and be like, ‘A’ja, that is freaking impossible for you to reach the standard of Susie May and Johnny Appleseed.’ I was so busy trying to please everyone that I lost myself.”

“There’s a ton of other stuff that comes with the responsibility of being a franchise player, and she had to learn that,” Laimbeer said. “It’s tough. It’s hard. I watched [former Detroit Pistons teammate] Isiah Thomas do it, and I’m fortunate I didn’t have to do it. It’s baggage, and it’s a responsibility, and it wears you down.”

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On Aug. 23, Mohegan Sun Arena was empty except for the Aces. The team walked through the game plan for the Connecticut Sun. As the season wound down, playoff seeding was at stake. It was also an important game in the race for league MVP — Wilson vs. Connecticut forward Jonquel Jones was being watched like a heavyweight fight.

In a 5-on-5 scrimmage to end practice, Wilson missed every shot she took. Instead of the familiar sound of the net swishing, the sound of the ball bouncing off the rim filled the arena each time she shot the ball.

Wilson slapped her hands together when the buzzer signaled the end of the scrimmage. “Damn!”

That cold streak bled into the game the following night. Wilson didn’t touch the ball for the first three possessions, and when she finally did, she missed. And missed. Each miss piled on the frustration. She drove into the lane for a pull-up. Miss. She caught a pass at the elbow for a wide-open jumper and missed that too. The Aces pounded the ball into Wilson three consecutive times in the middle of the fourth quarter, to no avail. She got stuffed twice by DeWanna Bonner. On the block. After taking a seat at the end of the bench, Wilson groaned and wiped her face with a towel.

“I think of every possession as, I need to execute it exactly the way that it needs to be in order to produce for my team,” Wilson said. “So when I don’t do that, I really get on myself because that’s unacceptable.”

Wilson shot 1-for-15 from the floor and scored four points in the Aces’ 76-62 loss.

“Heaven help ya next game,” Roscoe said. “She going try to tear their behinds to pieces.”

Heaven did not help the Atlanta Dream. Wilson had 21 points, 12 rebounds, 7 assists and 3 blocks in the Aces’ 78-71 victory.

The road to Wilson’s first championship is likely to go back through Mohegan Sun Arena and Connecticut, but first up is fifth-seeded Phoenix, a team the Aces went 2-1 against this season. The Sun swept the regular-season series against the Aces and are the top seed in the playoffs. The second-seeded Aces might have opened the 2021 season as the favorites, but the Sun have captured the momentum. Wilson doesn’t mind being underestimated. “I’m the underdog and that’s OK,” Wilson said. “Please keep it that way. Don’t tell them my secret.”

What’s no secret is Wilson’s growing influence in the league and beyond.

Wilson stands out on a basketball court for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is her single leg sleeve. David Becker/NBAE/Getty Images

IF THERE IS a visual representation synonymous with Wilson’s on-court style, it’s the single leg sleeve. It’s something that she unveiled during her rookie season because her left leg is “my dominant leg and needs to be nice and warm,” she said. The side effect of such a decision is that it stands out. It’s a thing.

Sparks second-year guard Te’a Cooper wears a single leg sleeve. So does Connecticut rookie DiJonai Carrington. And New York Liberty rookie Michaela Onyenwere, too.

The leg sleeve is just one example of the way Wilson has developed her own personal style, both on the court and off. She has been editing her outfits since she was a student at Heathwood.

“There’s only so much you can do to a uniform, but she would find a way to jazz it up,” Eva said.

At South Carolina, she often tucked the shoulder straps of her jersey into the straps of her sports bra, a practice she has continued as a pro. Lots of players alter their uniforms by rolling their shorts or tucking the sleeves and accessorize with headbands, shooting sleeves, compression shorts, and the like.

But a single leg sleeve? That pops.

Off the court, Wilson is active on social media and co-hosts a podcast where she often discusses life beyond the game with athletes from a variety of sports. Jeff Bottari/NBAE/Getty Images

For her pregame attire, she’ll often call her brother to get his advice. “So she’ll be like, ‘Yo bro, how does this look? What’d you think? What’d you think I should wear? Which shoes should I wear with this?'” Renaldo said.

Those outfits often end up on social media, a space where Wilson is active with an openness not found among many of the other WNBA stars. It was her video of the Olympic gold-medal celebration that went viral. She started a mock Twitter beef with her teammate Dearica Hamby that trolled media and fans alike. She also published a video on TikTok dancing with Staley. It was in a Gucci.

And her visibility doesn’t stop there. She has a foundation that focuses on education around dyslexia and bullying prevention. She was in a music video for rapper Saweetie. She does a podcast with Minnesota Lynx forward Napheesa Collier. She sits on the WNBA’s social justice council, and she wrote a moving tribute to Black girls in The Players’ Tribune to tell them that she, a WNBA star, saw them. She even started her own candle company.

In an alternate universe where A’ja Wilson grew to be 5-foot-5 instead of 6-foot-5, she might be living next door to her parents as a candle-maker. As it stands, Burnt Wax Candle Company is just a side project sparked from a comment Eva made when A’ja was stocking up on candles at Bath & Body Works.

“She said, ‘A’ja, you could start your own candle company,'” A’ja said.

“She was keeping Yankee Candle and Bath & Body Works in business!” Eva said.

The idea stuck. So Christmas 2020, A’ja squirreled away some of her Christmas money and started a business. Every Thursday, Eva, who is also the director of the A’ja Wilson Foundation, ships the candles from her home in Hopkins. The initial supplies sold out in hours. New scents for fall are set to drop in October.

“I think sometimes it takes her back by how popular she is and how much of a star she is,” Staley said. “But beneath all that, she’s just an old country girl.”

She might be a country girl at heart, but after winning a gold medal at the Tokyo Olympics, being named to Forbes’ 2021 30 Under 30 and signing sponsorship deals with Nike and Mountain Dew, she’s becoming a transcendent star. And it couldn’t have come at a better time for the WNBA.

Wilson averaged 16.5 points and 7.3 rebounds on her way to winning her first Olympic gold medal in August. Next on her to-do list is winning her first WNBA title. Erick W. Rasco/Sports Illustrated/Getty Images

A’JA WILSON IS a Black woman in a league composed of mostly Black women. And yet recently, many of the faces elevated as stars of the league belong to white women.

In a report published in the Sports Business Journal, researchers at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst analyzed media mentions of white players and Black players during the 2020 WNBA season. White players received more than double the mentions that Black players received even though 70% of the all-WNBA selections were Black and all six of the individual awards went to Black players. Wilson, the season’s MVP, was the most-mentioned Black player, but she was mentioned half as many times as Sabrina Ionescu, who played three games.

The reality is that the long careers of legends Sue Bird and Diana Taurasi and the emergence of younger white stars in Elena Delle Donne, Breanna Stewart and Ionescu have created a cluster of white superstars. In 2021, four of the top five jersey sales belonged to white players. Wilson, at No. 4, was the lone Black player in the top five. Imagine what the list might look like with fair coverage across the league.

“For me, A’ja is seeing that Black women rise to the top again in star power of our league,” said Lynx guard and social justice council member Layshia Clarendon. “I love that A’ja is a strong, Black woman who is not afraid to speak out.”

To be sure, other Black stars have broken through. Lisa Leslie, Sheryl Swoopes, Candace Parker, Maya Moore and Skylar Diggins-Smith paved the way.

But Wilson’s time is now; she’s just getting started. The one championship that has eluded her could be hers within the month. She’s six wins away from a WNBA ring.

“She’s capable of doing whatever she puts her mind to,” said the Sky’s Parker, a two-time MVP. “She’s showing Black women and girls today that they can accomplish whatever they put their mind to.”

With the WNBA’s emergence as an important voice in racial justice, it matters that its most ascendant star is Black. It matters to the fans. It matters to the players. It matters to the star.

“I love every ounce of my body. I love everything about me, because everything is so powerful,” Wilson said. “Growing up, I was a young, Black girl who had no clue what I was going to become, but I love who I’m becoming. I love who I am.”

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