Six months ago, Las Vegas Aces forward and WNBA MVP A’ja Wilson wrote a letter in The Players’ Tribune that mapped her off-the-court mission statement: Show Black girls that they are needed and heard.
Since then, Wilson has been at the forefront of the league’s social justice efforts, speaking out against racism and police brutality as a member of the league’s social-justice council. On Wednesday, she spoke virtually to more than 500 Bay Area girls alongside fellow WNBA players Kelsey Plum, Natasha Cloud, and Jewell Loyd, and in partnership with the Golden State Warriors, to celebrate National Girls and Women in Sports Day.
Along with her off-court work, Wilson is preparing for the follow-up to her most successful pro season to date. Three years after a banner career at South Carolina, she won her first MVP and led the Aces to the WNBA Finals before losing to the Seattle Storm—all amid a pandemic and social unrest, without Plum and star center Liz Cambage, and while sequestered in a bubble at Florida’s IMG Academy. Now, with free-agent signee Chelsea Gray in the fold and Cambage “cored” (the WNBA’s equivalent of a franchise tag), Wilson will lead one of the deepest rosters when the league returns to play, at a date still to be determined.
With another championship run looming, the 24-year-old discussed her MVP season, Aces free agency, the WNBA bubble, how the league is covered, and her quest to inspire the next generation of Black women. (This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.)
LM: You said in September that you want “young Black girls to understand that they are needed and cared about in this world by other Black women.” How are you trying to make true on that mission statement?
AW: I think the biggest thing, and I’ve been starting to say it a lot is, “If you see me, you can be me.” And it doesn’t necessarily mean me as A’ja Wilson, but when you see someone that looks like you doing what you want to do. I think if you want to be a lawyer and you see a Black lawyer somewhere, you’re like, “Wow, I can accomplish it,” and I think that’s the key in how you can shape and mold young people, the next generation. Everything is kind of what they see. I think that’s key and I’m making sure that I’m seen in a good light, of course, and showing young girls that want to play basketball that they can still be them through and through, and still play at a high level.
What was it like getting a statue at your alma mater?
Oh, man, it’s still surreal to even think about it, but it was definitely a big moment. Of course, just thinking naturally, I thought the statue was a joke, so to see it brought to life was definitely huge for me. And it goes back to just kind of what I said. It’s for those young girls, those young boys as well, that walk into Colonial Life Arena, a place where I played for four years, and just see that they’re fully capable of achieving their dreams. I was once a little girl that didn’t even want to play basketball, but here I am. So I think that’s just a key part of being immortalized because people will always see you. So I am truly grateful for that and I’m glad to still be alive to live it and to be in it.
What was last summer’s bubble like for you?
It was different. It was just so, so different. No matter what we could do, I don’t think any athlete was really, really prepped for how it was going into a bubble. But I’m grateful for the bubble. I learned a lot about myself. I learned a lot about my teammates and it gave me a chance to just reflect and look within and just pick out, what am I proud of? What am I not? I think that I really don’t have time to really do that because we’re constantly on the go, always going, always traveling, but when you’re in the bubble, you have nowhere to go. It gives you a lot of time to just think, and at the same time, gives you a lot of time not to think because you’re focused on the next game, of course, because things happen so quickly. So I don’t know if we’ll ever have another bubble. Fingers crossed we don’t, because it was definitely different, but I was proud of how we performed in the bubble.
What was the biggest thing you learned about yourself in the bubble?
The biggest thing that I learned about myself had to be that I tend to pay attention to people that don’t matter. I think I try to win over someone, try to change someone’s mind, instead of just focusing on the people that really believe in me. And I think that goes for any human. We really just don’t think that we want to tell the truth about it, but I honestly think that’s what I found. I got so caught up in, “Oh, I’m about to prove them wrong. Oh, I’m about to change their mind,” that I missed out on how many supporters I truly have. If I can just make them happy and connect with them, I’m doing well as an athlete. I don’t have to change your mind as a, whatever, a hater or whatever, troll, to make my legacy live on.
Whose mind were you trying to change?
Just tons of trolls and you know how you don’t want to read stuff, but you read it and then it just makes you so mad and things like that? It’s just little things like that. I don’t think it was any type of person that I’m like, “Oh, that’s a hater.” But just people just talking because they got lips and typing because they got fingers. It’s just like, whatever.
What was the biggest thing that motivated you then of the trolls? What criticism motivated you the most?
I think the biggest thing [is] just motivating myself to just say, “Hey, you got to be the best player. You got to leave a mark on this league every single year you play.” I think that was key. But also a lot of people counted us out because we lost some pieces on our team that people just thought that we were not going to be a good team, and I was just like, “You know what? That’s disrespectful to me because I do this for a living. I love this game. I love my team and I’m going to try my best to make sure that we make it to the top.” When I heard that, I’m like, “OK, we’re not even in conversations anymore.” That just kind of fueled me into making sure that I performed at a high level every single day in that bubble.
How did you feel about the WNBA’s support following the killing of both George Floyd and Breonna Taylor?
It was great. I think when you’re around women that are so ... We’re independent, we’re boss women, we’re just badasses that you got to support. It’s funny that you say that. So many people I saw, it seemed as if they were playing catch-up to the world we’re in today, like, “Oh, we need more people in these places. We need more diversity. We need this, that for the Black people,” and it’s just like, WNBA been about it. We weren’t trying to play catch-up and trying to put together things. No, we’ve just really been for it and for our people, for our fans, and that’s who we are.
Some people may be hesitant to speak out because of what their league may say or what it may think, but when it comes to the WNBA, they’re like, “Go ahead, speak your mind. Be you. Be true,” and that’s why the WNBA has always been at the forefront of all social issues, I feel like, or something that we really care for and want change. So it was great to be a part of it. I’m glad I was a part of the social-justice council, and I’m excited to see where this takes us. It’s not going to stop. It wasn’t a trend. This isn’t like, “OK, Black Lives Matter only in 2020 because that’s what was popping.” No, that’s not good. It’s going to continue on within our league.
Well, you see in some other leagues, or even some other entities, sometimes it seems like the support for Black Lives Matter is being scaled back. How do you make sure, and how do the WNBA players make sure that this message is still going? It’s not going to end. How do you make sure that happens?
I think it’s just continue to use our platforms. I can’t really control the WNBA, how they’re going to put it out, or what’s going on with their social. But for me and every time I have an interview or anything that I want to speak on, I can use my platform and speak out on it. Because I don’t like to wait till things hit close to home to be like, “Oh my God, I care about it.” No, this could be my mom, my dad, my brother, it could be me. That’s hitting close to home enough right there. So I think just the more we speak on it, the more we don’t cut slack from anybody is how we’re going to continue to push this movement.
How do you feel about how the league is covered now?
I think it’s been better. I think it can be a lot better. I think that the growth is cool. It’s nice to see the up-and-coming. But I think a lot of things, it’s just continuing to do it. It’s not just a trend because everybody’s doing the orange hoodie. That’s a trend. That’s cute. But at the end of the day, yeah, you can rock the hoodie. But support us. Come watch games. Bring somebody else to watch a game. I think a lot of people are just like, “Well, how can we grow the games?” I’m sorry we don’t dunk every other possession. That’s something that I see, and everyone’s like, “Well, you can’t dunk.” And I get it, but at the end of the day, we work so hard on our craft, to perfect our craft, to play at an elite level, so just give it a chance. And if you are a basketball fan, if you love it and showcase it—I think that’s the biggest thing that journalists can do is just showcasing enough in a good light, versus just talking about the same staged thing that may be just circulating on the headline. Dig into stories, dig into the women that we really are. A lot of us are businesswomen, on top of our foundation and different things like that. We have so many different stories and [are] so diverse that it could be truly special for a lot of people to know.
In a perfect world, how would the game be covered? Is it a full pre- and postgame show? Is it Skip and Shannon debating? What do you want to see?
I’m trying to think now. I think the way that it was in the bubble where it was everywhere. We were on CBS, we were on ESPN, and we were talking, you got our stories about how we partner with Say Her Name. I don’t think it’s necessarily having the debates of the TNT crew or Shannon and Skip. I don’t think it’s to really debate and like, “Oh, let’s talk about this person.” That’s cool, but that’s only going to hold the attention span of a bunch of people that morning. So I think it just goes deeper and to just continue to use y’all’s outreach or y’all’s platform and putting it on different women in WNBA.
Let’s talk about the Aces. What went wrong last season? Was it lack of firepower? Was it injuries?
Oh, I don’t even want to say that something went wrong. Sounds like we’re a car and we just stopped working. I just think Seattle had their pieces together and they were a well-oiled machine and they were working and they’d been there before so they knew the feeling. And I think for us—it was just kind of like we were new to it. We flat-out just did not have it, and then we tried to give it our all. I can say that each and every last one of us left it all on the floor, and that’s what I’m truly thankful for. I don’t think anything is wrong when you give it your all. I think if we were hesitant or if we felt like we just didn’t give it enough, then I’d be like, “OK, well that was our issue.” But no, I think we gave it all that we got. It just was not enough, and sometimes it’s like that. It’s a game and someone has to lose. We were just on the other end. But I’m excited to kind of take that bad taste that I have in my mouth, that chip on my shoulder, and rally up my teammates again this year and go for it and try it again.
What is your reaction to the signing of Chelsea? And the team just cored Liz. What is your reaction to those moves?
I think that’s huge. I wish I could understand what “cored” meant, but I don’t understand. It seems like every time I think of cored, the definition changes, but I’m pretty sure that that’s a big deal. So I think that’s going to be key for us as a franchise. But signing Chelsea is, of course, is a big deal in itself because we needed a point guard. She’s been there before, she’s been in the Finals, she’s won the Finals. She’s won it, so it’s kind of cool to have her be the head of our train. We’re going to keep trying to play together, of course, form chemistry, and go from there.
Is it championship or bust right now? What are you expecting with all this firepower? Is it like, “We need to win a ship this year”? Is that how you’re feeling?
Yes, of course. I think I would say that if we didn’t have firepower. But at the same time, I’m honestly not going to know until we get on court and we form this chemistry, because it doesn’t really matter what the big names or how it looks on paper. It’s about: How does it work in the locker room, in those little moments, the trust, the things that we have to build in order to win a championship? Because I think that’s kind of like Seattle. They have great team chemistry. They play, they know each other to a tee, and I think that’s key. So yes, it looks great on paper. Oh my gosh. If I saw our roster on paper, I’d be like, “How did this even happen?” But it goes deeper than that when you’re talking about the game of basketball. So I don’t know if it’s championship or bust, but right now my main focus is just building that championship chemistry so we can go from there.
What about you personally? You just won MVP. What is something that you want personally this year on the floor?
Of course I want that MVP again. I’m a competitor, of course I would love to go back-to-back. But for me, it’s just to continue to grow my game and just go from there and just have some fun with it. I think the bubble, I was just strictly locked in to just work, work, work, and now I have to kind of look back and reflect and it kind of took me out of the moment. But just staying in the moment and having fun and growing my game and just expanding it, in a way, and just going with the flow.
How do you want your legacy to be when it’s all said and done? What do you want to be remembered for?
I want to be remembered for ... A’ja, she was a great person, but she was [also] a great player. She did her best. She was all this. But at the same time, I think my legacy is going to be, “She’s a great teammate, a lot of people trusted her, she was dominant on the court, but she’s also in our community giving back whenever she had a chance and just being an all-around good person.” Because that’s kind of how I was raised: The basketball’s going to stop bouncing, but what are you going to do after that? Who are you as a person when the basketball is taken away? That’s something my parents instilled in my mind and that’s how I want my legacy to be, is just the good person that she was and tried to help as much as she could.
I really just want to get my foundation up and going. The A’ja Wilson Foundation is already up and going. It’s about kids with dyslexia, because I am dyslexic, and making sure they have the resources, they and their families have the resources, to succeed and know that they can achieve any goal that they want to. It doesn’t matter if they have a learning disability. That’s kind of how I see my off-the-court legacy, is just continuing to be in my community and helping the next generation.