Everyone sees the pearls. The ones A’ja Wilson is almost always wearing — around her neck, on her wrist, as earrings — a habit she picked up from her grandmother and never lost.
They’re a part of her brand, her look. For her Senior Day game at South Carolina, imitation pearls were strung over every seat in the lower bowl of Colonial Life Arena.
“Pretty girls always wear pearls,” Hattie Rakes, who passed away in 2016, told her granddaughter years ago, as she gifted her a set.
“I haven’t let them go since,” Wilson said.
It was, for a self-admittedly awkward young girl, an instant confidence boost. And as Wilson’s basketball career took off — top high school player in the nation, All-American, national champion, No. 1 WNBA draft pick — she kept wearing her pearls, and people kept seeing a confident young woman who seemed almost incapable of failure.
But up until recently, few had heard about the other gifts Rakes gave Wilson — a strong sense of right and wrong, and the confidence to make her feelings known.
When Wilson committed to South Carolina with Rakes and her family by her side in 2014, she instantly ascended to hometown hero status. Over the next four years, that status only increased as she rewrote the Gamecocks’ record book, took the program to a national title and arguably became the face of all women’s college basketball.
All that inevitably meant pressure. Pressure to be great at basketball, first and foremost, and also pressure to be the perfect role model and representative for her city and state.
“Being at home, with all eyes on you, they watched you grow up. So you had to be on your Ps and Qs at all times,” Wilson said. “But it really formed me into the human I am today, and I greatly appreciate that. But it was tough kinda being that one and always being that one and having to be that one.”
With an engaging social media presence, goofy personality and dominant performances, Wilson met expectations and then some. She didn’t talk much about the pressure, and she didn’t talk about the other challenges she faced.
That is, until her senior season, when the Gamecocks were in the NCAA tournament. The day USC won in the Sweet 16, an essay by Wilson published in the Players’ Tribune. In it, she detailed her struggle with dyslexia, a struggle she said some of her teammates didn’t even fully know.
“A lot of people saw that I had all the accolades ... but they never really saw the struggle in A’ja. They thought A’ja was kinda perfect,” Wilson said. “They kinda saw her as, something like she gets it, she gets everything, but they don’t understand the backstory that I’ve gone through. I don’t have that hardcore backstory, I have the simple one, the real one, and that’s what I wanted to share.”
Wilson’s decision to share her story as her college career wound down came after extensive discussions with her parents and coach Dawn Staley, she said. After helping lead the Gamecocks to a national championship in 2017 and then acting as the unquestioned senior leader in 2018, she felt the timing was right.
“We just had to figure out good timing to let the world know, because it could have backlash to it,” Wilson said. “Everything has a backlash, a negative to it, so my biggest thing was how can I have the timing and also myself, how can I move forward in a way that I can handle the backlash or I can handle the things that come with it?”
Dealing with backlash has been key for Wilson as she increasingly speaks out on off-court issues she cares about.
Dyslexia and bullying remain issues close to Wilson’s heart — shortly after her graduation in 2018, she formed A’ja Wilson Foundation. It is still very much in its infancy, but Wilson’s hope is to partner with the newly-formed Lakes and Bridges Charter School in Easley, one of the few free public schools in the nation specifically for students with dyslexia.
Gender equality, especially equal pay, is another topic about which Wilson has become increasingly vocal. In the summer of 2018, her tweet about LeBron James’ $154 million contract with the Los Angeles Lakers, comparing it to the comparatively low pay for WNBA players, went viral and drew the attention of the New York Times, Bustle and other national media outlets. She has since spoken at a Women’s Rights and Empowerment Network conference in Columbia, reiterating that she won’t back down in the face of insults on social media.
“I think being a basketball player, being an elite player, has given her confidence to say, listen, I can use my platform to push other issues that are important to her because A’ja knows she’s not just an athlete. She’s a person, a human being, so she has other responsibilities,” her father, Roscoe, said.
The decision to reveal a deeply personal issue and the confidence to keep speaking on controversial topics both have their roots in the lessons Rakes imparted on Wilson as a child.
“My grandmother, she always really helped me to always kinda my foot down when right is right and go for it,” Wilson said. “If you don’t talk about it, who else will? And so she really helped me in that way, and for me to talk to her in all those ways and get things off my chest, she helped me build that confidence to talk and say, you know, someone out there could be asking the same thing. It’s kind of like sitting in class, you know, always ask questions. You never know, someone else could have that same question. So she really helped me out and molded me in that way.”
The depth of that relationship between Rakes and Wilson goes beyond anything anyone else could understand, Eva Wilson, Rakes’ daughter and Wilson’s mother said. But the traits she sees in her daughter now mirror those she saw in her mother.
“My mother was the type of woman that was really independent-thinking and very confident, and so I think that the relationship she had with A’ja, she kinda instilled that in her,” Eva said.
As a pro athlete, Wilson’s voice is only growing louder, and it comes at a pivotal moment in the history of the WNBA. Now, it’s her instilling values into the next generation. It starts with the pearls and goes far beyond that.
“I see little girls all the time (say) ‘I got my pearls on Ms. Wilson!’” Eva Wilson said. “You don’t know what that does for them. If A’ja can wear it, it makes her feel a certain way, I can wear it and it can make me feel a certain way. That’s what A’ja wants to do, continue to impact the lives of as many people as she can, however she can.”