Story and videos by Josh Hyber
A’ja Wilson wants a smoothie.
It’s four hours and 43 minutes into her emotional zig-zag tour around Columbia, S.C., and the 6-foot-5 bundle of energy needs a pick-me-up, so someone calls to place an order at Tropical Smoothie Café.
“Strawberry and banana,” A’ja says. “Just ask for a Bahama Mama. That’s all me.”
It’s 5:13 p.m. on Saturday, April 14 and Wilson is just over 40 hours removed from being chosen No. 1 in the WNBA Draft by the Las Vegas Aces. Then, she was in New York City. Now, she’s back in her home city to say goodbye to places that have shaped her life: North Springs Recreation Center, her grandparents’ houses, a grandfather’s church and Heathwood Hall Episcopal School.
She’ll complete the day with an autograph signing at ColaKicks and a sendoff party at Wild Wing Café.
Along the way, the South Carolina Gamecock great reminisces. She eats, dances, smiles, inspires, ducks (watch the doorway!), makes fun of others and gets made fun of herself.
Spurs & Feathers was given behind-the-scenes access to it all.
12:18 p.m.: A’ja, her parents Eva and Roscoe Wilson Jr., manager Jade English and a driver named Tony hop into a white van behind the SC women’s basketball offices. A’ja’s wearing thick-framed — almost cartoon-like — glasses, a white Las Vegas Aces T-shirt and black workout pants. Eva’s wearing a black WNBA Draft shirt. Roscoe wears a bright red Aces hat.
12:30 p.m.: Tony drives through the SC campus over to the Chick-fil-A in Five Points. He parks, and Jade heads in to get the family chicken sandwiches. A’ja loves her fans, but right now she doesn’t want to create a frenzy inside the busy restaurant.
12:43 p.m.: The Wilsons chow down on the sandwiches as the van turns right off Harden St. and onto Rev. Roscoe C. Wilson Sr. Drive. “Where are we going now?” A’ja asks.
12:55 p.m.: If there’s one thing for certain on this trip, it’s that Roscoe knows Columbia. He’s lived here for 50-plus years, so his navigation is often better than Siri. “Take Alpine to Polo and then to Two Notch,” he recommends. They pass by Polo Road Soccer Complex, where A’ja played soccer as a child. “I just played soccer because the practices were at night and I could stay up later,” she says. “I thought I was cool.”
1:08 p.m.: The family has been at North Springs Recreation Center — where A’ja played summer basketball — for a couple of minutes and Roscoe is already talking smack. A’ja, who grabs a basketball and starts shooting free-throws, misses her first two attempts. “The free-throw line, where I’m still better than A’ja,” Roscoe says.
“My third game [here], I finally got the ball … and went the opposite direction,” A’ja remembers. “Do you remember that Dad?? Everyone was like, ‘No! No! No! Go back! Go back! And that’s when — and some things never change — the bucket of tears came out.
“I was so embarrassed. I just dropped the ball and started crying … I dropped the ball and said, ‘This isn’t for me.”
But Roscoe, who coached the team, pushed her to get better and she eventually fell in love with the game. “Yes, there were times when I probably wanted to kill my dad,” A’ja says. “And I just went to my mom and was like, ‘You know what? I’m done with him. He needs to leave. He needs to move out. He’s not living here anymore.
“But hey, he got the job done.”
About 10 minutes later, Roscoe gives a demonstration similar to one he used to give A’ja.
“I always said, ‘Keep the ball above your shoulder. Keep the ball above your shoulder at all times,’” he says. “If you notice when she plays, she never brings the ball down.”
He bounces the ball to his daughter. “Show them how it’s done A’ja.”
Says A’ja, “Looking back at it, I’m sorry for yelling at you dad.”
1:27 p.m.: The group gathers to leave North Springs, but not before A’ja chats with an 8-year-old named William. He wants to play basketball at North Carolina one day, so A’ja quizzes him about Joel Berry. She then walks through a doorway she barely clears into a reception area. “Stay focused,” one worker says. She responds, “Always. I don’t have a choice.”
1:49 p.m.: A’ja and Eva sit in the second row in the back of the van and laugh over video A’ja just shot of Eva trying to make a jump shot or lay-up.
2:03 p.m.: Standing in the yard of her late grandmother, Hattie Rakes, A’ja reminisces. It was Hattie who gave A’ja her first pair of real culture pearls, something years later A’ja became synonymous with wearing. It’s Hattie whose name A’ja has tattooed on her left wrist. It’s Hattie who’s the reason A’ja ends her pregame prayer with, “In your name, I play, amen. Grandma, this is for you.”
A’ja gives a tour of the yard, where Hattie sat so often that A’ja called her the neighborhood watch. A’ja talks about Hattie’s towering Weeping Willow trees.
“This is where A’ja let it all out. This is where A’ja came to be her,” she says. “To be the normal A’ja she’s always wanted to be.”
A’ja came here after high school and college games, and Hattie was often waiting for her at the door. Grandmother and granddaughter would sit on the bench between the Weeping Willows and talk about “anything and everything.”
It’s where A’ja got her self-confidence.
“The Lord did not put you on this earth to be normal,” grandma would say. “So why want to be that?”
“This is where I got a lot of things off my chest,” A’ja says. “This is where I cried. I laughed a ton here … Leaving to go to Las Vegas, this is the spot I’m going to miss the most.”
2:13 p.m.: Roscoe points out landmarks as the van drives along. He points out a club called Fountain Bleau he used to frequent. “We used to just call it The Blue,” he says.
2:15 p.m.: A’ja slides out of the van and steps onto the former yard of her late grandfather, Rev. Roscoe Wilson Sr., who died days before Christmas in 2008. It was here, where her own dad grew up, where the Wilsons always came after church. She would eat grandpa’s cookies and pick roses in his garden and watch his “huge” television.
“He was my dude,” she says.
Wilson Sr. gave A’ja her first phone, and he was the only one who called her on it.
“He made me feel so important,” she says. “… I was granddad’s little girl, and he always took care of me.”
A’ja tells stories of Roscoe Sr. having so much energy during sermons he would get overheated.
“He just had that love and that grind and that passion to do what he loved,” A’ja says. “I think that’s something that rubbed off on me. … He just gave so much into what he loved, it literally took it out of him, and that’s something I try to do when I’m playing.”
2:33 p.m.: With the family en route to the Roscoe Wilson Sr. Family Life Center, Jade calls to make sure Wild Wing has the food the Wilsons want. A’ja wants a chicken wrap with no cheese and no tomatoes. “I once heard Blake Griffin doesn’t eat tomatoes,” she says. “Ever since then I stopped.” A’ja has been a fan of the now-Piston for a while, and two days ago he recorded a video congratulating her on being drafted.
2:40 p.m.: The family arrives at the Life Center, and the Queen of the Monkey Bars is clearly upset they took down her former hangout spot. “This is where things got down,” A’ja says. “This is where you solved a lot of arguments, if need be.”
2:54 p.m.: “A’ja’s done more in a he past 24 hours than I’ve done in my life,” Roscoe says between stops.
3:09 p.m.: The family is just minutes from pulling into Heathwood, where A’ja attended from first grade to her senior year of high school. The topic of conversation shifts to music. Says Eva, “I love Cardi B. She’s so animated. And I like Future.”
3:20 p.m.: “My main man Boyd!” A’ja shouts as she approaches a young boy in an Aaron Judge T-shirt. “I never wanted to leave this place,” she says, looking around at the sprawling Heathwood Hall campus. “… It’s something special. We’re not the biggest private school, but we have some big hearts here. It’s always something special at Heathwood.
“No matter what goes on, I am always a Highlander and it’s always, ‘Go Hall.’”
Before she leaves, A’ja leads a group of kids in a “One, two, three, Go Aces!” chant. She then invites everyone out to the desert to watch her play in a tone that practically says, “Come out to Vegas! I’ll have enough room for you on my couch!”
4:08 p.m.: A’ja greets a little girl named Kennedy, the first person in line at an autograph signing at ColaKicks — a buy, sell and trade apparel store on Shandon Street — with a lively, “Hey Sweetie!” Throughout the hour and 15 minutes, A’ja signs everything from rally towels to a graduation cap (“You did it! A’ja Wilson #22”). Everything but skin.
One lady gives her a scented candle. “You changed my mind about basketball,” another tells her. One shares that she has dyslexia. “I’m tackling it one day at a time,” she tells A’ja.
A red-headed girl approaches, and she stands on her tippy toes to see over the counter. “You really encouraged me to play basketball this year,” the girl says. A’ja beams before saying, “Well, stand tall and keep playing!”
4:28 p.m.: A’ja signs a dollar bill for a little girl with braids in her hair wearing a pink shirt with flowers. Why a dollar? “Because you’re number one,” the little girl says. She then signs an autograph for a deaf woman, and A’ja shows her the “I love you” sign language tattoo she has near her neck.
5:32 p.m.: The Wilsons board the bus one final time as a little girl cries nearby because her mom told her she couldn’t have the gummy bears A’ja was snacking on.
5:59 p.m.: A’ja arrives at Wild Wing Café, where South Carolina basketball legend Alex English later calls her “the greatest Gamecock of all-time.” “She has that personality that makes you just want to hug her,” English says.
“I think she’s going to be a superstar,” he says. “She’s definitely going to be the face of the Las Vegas Aces and one day will be one of the faces of the WNBA. … If she stays healthy, know she’s going to be one of the greats, probably one of the great Olympians.
“… 22 won’t be worn [at South Carolina] again.”
6:35 p.m.: “Aw, this is my last time doing media with you guys,” A’ja says to a group of four reporters with cameras and spotlights on her.
Moments later, Taryn Moyer talks about her “back” in the Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority.
“Getting to know A’ja last semester, you could see how ambitious she is,” Moyer says. “On top of that, she’s the most humble person I’ve ever met. It’s crazy to know her and see her on posters and billboards everywhere. You would think she’d be hard to approach, with all that she’s accomplished, but she goes out of her way to make everyone around her feel comfortable.”
8:03 p.m.: While dancing the Whip/Nae Nae and Stanky Leg with former Gamecock, reigning WNBA Rookie of the Year and good friend Allisha Gray, A’ja’s pulled aside to answer one final question.
How do you do it? The constant energy. The all-the-time grace and politeness.
“With a lot of prayer. That’s all I can say. It’s tough sometimes. I struggle with it a lot. I probably don’t show it, but I struggle with it a lot. It gets overwhelming. But just making people smile and the fact that people are happy, it really gets my motor running and I just push through.
“I treat it like a game. I don’t know what kicks in, but it’s something that just goes.”