A’ja Wilson was more than just the best athlete to ever wear a South Carolina basketball uniform. She was a first-class representative of the school and someone who stood at the forefront of her program with class, grace, dignity and a smile.
She stood, and continues to stand, for more than just what’s happening on the hardwood.
Wilson, even minus her athletic brilliance and accolades, can be someone current South Carolina quarterback Ryan Hilinski aspires to be like.
Forget, for the sake of this column, the pressure each highly-touted prospect had coming to Columbia, S.C., and their athletic prowess.
Let’s just talk about them as people.
A’ja enjoyed being the pride of Columbia and chose her hometown over what may have been greener pastures. Hilinski, similarly, has adopted Soda City and embraced Gamecock fans with open arms.
I see the same camaraderie forming with Ryan and his fans that I saw with A’ja and hers.
There’s A’ja taking a selfie with a fan at Target at 10 o’clock at night. There’s Ryan attending a little girl’s virtual birthday party. There’s A’ja dancing with the Carolina Band. There’s Ryan slapping high fives with fans, granting every autograph request and taking time to chat with a mom and her young daughter after South Carolina plays Clemson.
They also both stand for more than just athletics. A’ja has fought for equal rights and has the A’ja Wilson Foundation. She’s an advocate for dyslexia education. Ryan has been a leading representative of Hilinski’s Hope, his family’s organization that helps to bring awareness to the importance of mental health.
There’s also a familial aspect.
The Wilsons were a fixture at South Carolina events — Eva and Roscoe in the stands, brother Renaldo the in-house D.J. at Colonial Life Arena. Eva routinely interacted with fans. They hugged fans and took selfies and became almost the figurehead parents of the women’s basketball program.
The Hilinskis have done the same. Mark and Kym are always there in the front row at Williams-Brice Stadium. Kym graciously walked over and thanked students who had Hope Never Sinks painted across their chests. I’ve seen Mark take a selfie with a fan (wearing a signed Jadeveon Clowney jersey) at Chipotle.
Both families, on a personal note, have been great to me.
The morning after the Elite Eight in Albany after A’ja’s final game as a Gamecock, I spent some time in the airport chatting with Roscoe. He was gracious, and thanked Spurs & Feathers for all the coverage we gave A’ja. A few months later, after the WNBA Draft, I rode along in a van with the Wilsons as they toured all the places in Columbia that have shaped A’ja.
It was similar to the morning after South Carolina’s game at Missouri earlier this year, when I bumped into Mark, Kym and Ryan’s older brother Kelley in the airport. Mark didn’t have to, but he chatted with me and Jeff Owens for a good 20 minutes. He genuinely cared about hearing what we do. Mark stopped at my table and shook my hand at Chipotle that day. He and Kym had just come from an event at the University promoting mental health awareness.
This isn’t about on-field stats and awards and a win-loss record.
A’ja Wilson and Ryan Hilinski, backed by their families and coaches and teammates and teachers, should be proud of who they are as people.
So should the University of South Carolina.
These are two fine young adults, and two fine young Gamecocks.