More Than an Athlete: Reigning WNBA MVP A'Ja Wilson Is a Winner Both On and Off the Court

Illustration for article titled More Than an Athlete: Reigning WNBA MVP A'Ja Wilson Is a Winner Both On and Off the Court
Photo: Harry How (Getty Images)

Prior to dominating the WNBA as its reigning Most Valuable Player and two-time All-Star—it would’ve been three-time, but the coronavirus had other plans—Las Vegas Aces forward A’Ja Wilson was kind of a big deal in college, too.

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A native of Hopkins, S.C., it was only right that she join the South Carolina Gamecocks after graduating from high school. While there, she routinely broke SEC records as a freshman, collected first-team All-American honors on three separate occasions, was the first three-time SEC Player of the Year in the history of ever, and threw in a national championship—the first-ever in school history—in 2017.

Oh, and she was named to the SEC’s first team not once, but four times.

Because like I said, she was kind of a big deal.

So taking all of this into consideration, as well as her subsequent dominance within the professional ranks, it makes absolute sense that her alma mater would erect a statue in her honor right in front of the school’s Colonial Life Arena in Columbia, S.C.

Illustration for article titled More Than an Athlete: Reigning WNBA MVP A'Ja Wilson Is a Winner Both On and Off the Court
Photo: South Carolina Athletics

And in speaking to The Root, the 24-year-old reflected on the magnitude of the moment, her impactful work both on and off the court, and how it feels to finally have somebody who looks like her—pearls, Chucks, and all—co-piloting the White House.

“I think it’s always an honor and a blessing when your state just glorifies you in that way,” Wilson said of her statue. “It was something that was truly special for myself and for my family as well. And for my supporters and my fans in South Carolina. That was big.

“And I think the significance of it is what you see: It is a young Black girl in the South that has left it all out there on the court for her school that she went to. And I think it’s just a matter of showing that young Black girls can look up to that and know that they’re fully capable of accomplishing whatever they want to. I didn’t go in there asking for anything. I didn’t go in there demanding or wanting much. I just went in there being me—unapologetically me. And just having fun with it and you just go wherever it takes you. I’m truly a blessed girl.”

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For all the time and energy Wilson pours into her craft in order to remain a transcendent athlete, the 24-year-old is equally as passionate about her charitable efforts and commitment to social justice. As a member of the WNBA’s Social Justice Council, she’s played a pivotal role in not only the league’s Black Lives Matter initiatives but the Georgia Senate runoffs too.

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The dedication ceremony for Wilson’s statue took place on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, and it’s important to her to carry on that legacy of being in service to others through her own activism.

“We really dive into the Black woman and that’s who we are. That’s fundamentally what our league is. Black women have to be protected at all times,” she said, in reference to the league’s powerful #SayHerName t-shirt campaign. “It seems like people pick and choose when we should be protected. But at the end of the day, we’re probably one of the biggest threats that get swept underneath the rug. And having the platform we have, we’ve been at the forefront of speaking about all different things and activism.

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“You want to be a voice for the voiceless. From wearing Breonna Taylor on the back of our jerseys. We highlighted a bunch of different women, women of color, that we need to say their name.”

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Wilson was tight-lipped about the league’s future plans to address racial inequity but was very clear that the WNBA is just getting started.

“It doesn’t stop now that we’re out of the bubble,” she said. “And it doesn’t only start when—if Lord have mercy—another person becomes a hashtag. It’s just so much deeper than who we are and what people see as athletes.”

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She also noted how America’s heightened racial climate inspired her to play on the court throughout the WNBA bubble, eventually allowing her to collect her first league MVP trophy.

“I honestly think my ancestors probably had my back,” she said. “A bunch of different times I was ready to give up, but I knew that I wanted to be a part of history. I wanted to be a part of something that’s so much bigger than me, that’s so much bigger than basketball, and it probably did fuel my play.”

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Lastly, in being a role model to countless Black women and girls, she expressed her excitement at finally seeing someone who looks like her as the vice president of the United States.

“This is something phenomenal. It really is,” Wilson stressed. “And it makes it 10 times better that Madam Vice President Harris is [also] my soror. So it’s super, super, super nice to see her at this level and I just love what she said in her speech. She said I may be the first, but I’m not the last. And I think that can touch so many Black girls out there.

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“It’s just a great feeling to know that she’s going to leave a legacy. We’re all leaving legacies for this next generation of young Black girls that have so many different role models and so many different levels. So it’s always great. I couldn’t stop smiling and that was just unbelievable.”

And with Wilson leaving an indelible mark on the world as both an athlete and activist, we can’t wait to witness her own legacy continue to unfold.

Menace to supremacy. Founder of Extraordinary Ideas and co-host and producer of The Extraordinary Negroes podcast. Impatiently waiting for y'all to stop putting sugar in grits.

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