From growing up on a quiet cul-de-sac in Hopkins, South Carolina, A’ja Wilson’s road to success included becoming the Women’s National Basketball Association’s number one 2018 draft pick, playing forward for the Las Vegas Aces, being named the league’s MVP, and landing an Olympic gold medal.
While A’ja did not always appreciate her quiet childhood surroundings, she cherishes the comfort of growing up in a neighborhood that was not crawling with people. Especially, she says with a laugh, on the day you just decide you can ride a bike without training wheels.
“I’m pedaling and I’m pedaling, and, of course, independent A’ja thought she had it on her own,” she says. After assuring her father that she “had it,” the confident first grader instructed her dad to let go. As she zoomed toward the steep hill leading away from their home, A’ja realized she did not have it. “I didn’t know how to stop,” she admits. “I thought I was going to die!”
A’ja’s father, Roscoe Wilson, Jr., a former All-American and 10-year professional basketball player in Europe and South America, always seemed to know when to let go and when to push. Even when she hated basketball as a child, he saw the potential for something she could not and took on her training himself.
To Roscoe it was obvious. “I was the father of a true athlete. As A’ja was developing, I could tell she was athletic and amazingly focused. Around 11 to 12 years old, she was towering over her classmates,” he says. “However, she was in love with soccer and volleyball, which she was very good at, I must add. Volleyball gave her excellent timing, and soccer gave great awareness of where her feet were without looking down.”
Her mother, Eva, who was not an athlete, had a different but essential role. “I have had to be the mediator many times when coach-daughter practices didn’t go as planned,” she says. “It was sometimes hard for A’ja to differentiate between Roscoe being her dad and being her coach, which I have come to find out is commonplace. I brought my communication skills to the table. There were a lot of discussions around the dinner table about life and athletics.”
It’s difficult enough for a young girl to navigate life as a teen, but to navigate it shouldering the added expectations and glass-ceiling-shattering possibilities that came with being A’ja Wilson really ratcheted up the pressure.
“I didn’t know how to separate my dad from my trainer,” she says. “I’m thinking I’m supposed to be daddy’s little girl — sweet, spoiled, and everything — but he really pushed. I am truly grateful for the relentlessness of my father, and of my mom as well. They both supported me through so many different things. When it came to basketball, my dad definitely didn’t let me let up.”
Nor did her Hopkins village. “I got so much support from everyone. It was such a small town that it always felt like everyone knew me,” she says. “There were days I hated basketball. It was just too much. I felt like I couldn’t take it.”
But those trying days built up a different strain of stamina. “I learned at a young age that I could push my limits and be uncomfortable.”
That confidence was essential in 2018 as she left the comforts of her hometown, as well as a record-obliterating career at the University of South Carolina, and emerged from the protective nest of Gamecock Women’s Basketball coach Dawn Staley as the WNBA’s top draft pick.
“You go into a whole new field of people, and there are people who are stronger, quicker, and better than you. You just have to understand that,” she says. “I think that’s the biggest thing Coach Staley taught me that helped my transition from college to pros. She’d been there. She said, ‘There are going to be people who are better than you, have a better basketball IQ than you. They’ll be quicker, stronger, faster, whatever, but they’re not you. They can’t do the things that you do.’”
A’ja credits Coach Staley and her village with helping her avoid the dreaded rookie wall. It may not have been a breeze, but she felt well prepared. If the glitz and glamour of the pro circuit barely phased her, one part of her first season as a forward with the Aces did make her head spin — being named the 2018 WNBA Rookie of the Year.
While the on-court accolades continue to pile up, A’ja is making time to explore other interests — like a love of candles that has literally ignited into an entrepreneurial dream.
“The Christmas of 2020, my mom came to my house and saw it was full of candles. She jokingly said I should start my own company. We looked at each other and I said, ‘I can. Let’s do it!’” That’s how A’ja’s luxury Burnt Wax Candle Company was born.
A’ja cherishes the opportunity to partner with her mother, Eva, in the business. A’ja serves as the brand’s president and CEO, and her mother is chief operating officer. “As athletes, we get going with the flow and we have our routines of life in what we do,” she says.
Her acumen has not escaped notice. In 2021, Forbes magazine named A’ja to its coveted 30 Under 30 list. “That was incredible,” she says. “You hear about the Forbes list all the time, but when you’re listed on there, it makes you take a step back.” While the pandemic prevented an in-person gathering, A’ja enjoyed a communal sign of the times — a Zoom gathering — with fellow nominees.
“We had an opportunity to communicate with one another because we all came from different places and different fields,” she says. “It was cool to see so many worlds collide.”
One pursuit that is especially close to heart is her A’ja Wilson Foundation. The nonprofit organization is dedicated to bringing awareness and resources to youth who struggle with dyslexia and bullying and their families. The foundation is the catalyst for camps, workshops, mentoring, and educational programming.
A’ja, who was diagnosed with dyslexia as a high school student while leading the Highlanders’ varsity team at Heathwood Hall, recalls the many frustrations that stemmed from her struggle.
“It was really hard for me to come to grips that something was ‘wrong’ with me. That I wasn’t normal,” she explains. That she received the diagnosis in her teenage years added more complexity. “It was really tough, especially in high school when things are changing, everyone is changing. It’s just a mess.”
After graduating from the University of South Carolina, A’ja knew she wanted to give back to families and children who also felt the pain she had experienced. “I wanted my foundation to help not only the child but the family around the child, the teachers, to help gear them in the right direction so they can succeed and know that they can succeed.”
A’ja is quick to share that being a professional athlete affords her no breaks with dyslexia. “I feel like I can disguise it a little bit better, and I know how to cope with it, but it’s tough,” she says.
What’s next for the Palmetto State’s pearl-clad prodigy?
“Personally, in the next five years, I would love to have a booming candle company,” she says. “I’ll be 30. Hopefully, start a family and just be healthy. I think that’s the biggest thing for me, is just being healthy and my family being healthy.”
While Roscoe has let go of his baby girl in many senses, his professional pedigree molded him into a student emeritus of the game. “It is still extremely surreal to watch her play develop right in front of my eyes,” he says. “I can’t explain how rewarding it is to talk strategies, game plans, and in-game experiences with her. I don’t think she realizes how excited and moved I am when we do that.”
And do they ever. Whether on the court or off, a solid strategy is never far from A’ja’s thoughts.
“I want to win a championship in Vegas. I want to bring one here. I brought one to South Carolina, which is pretty dope,” she says. “I want to win on every level.”
A’ja’s passion and determination are just as strong as they were those many years ago on her quiet Hopkins cul-de-sac the day the training wheels came off. She is still pedaling her heart out, just now looking ahead with the steely discipline and commitment of a professional athlete at the peak of her game. Unstoppable.
Sitting Down with A’ja Wilson
A’ja shares her perspective on must-have sneakers, her can’t-miss Columbia favorites, and her four-legged family headquartered in Las Vegas.
Q: What’s your favorite color?
A: Pink, any shade.
Q: Favorite ice cream flavor?
A: Oh, cookies and cream. I love Oreos!
Q: How often do you text Dawn Staley during an average week?
A: Gotta be at least twice in two days. At least.
Q: What’s your favorite Nike silhouette on the court and off?
A: On the court, the Cosmic Unity because that’s what I played in last year. Those are fire, and they’re good for the environment. Off the court? Some SB Dunk Lows, any color.
Q: Do you have a favorite restaurant in Columbia?
A: Big T’s Bar-B-Que or Harbor Inn Seafood. Harbor Inn was my grandfather’s favorite restaurant, and we would eat there almost every Sunday after he preached. I fell in love with it.
Q: If you could take a vacation anywhere, where would you go?
Q: If you could listen to only one album forever, what would it be?
A: Take Care by Drake. I can literally listen to that album for, like, ever.
Q: Favorite movie?
A: The Great Gatsby. I read the book in high school and fell in love with the story. The more up-to-date movie is just crazy to watch, and I love it. Just everything — the moving pieces, the love story, or the messed-up love story, I really enjoy it.
A: Two Aussiedoodles. Ace is my firstborn. He’s my sweetheart, my protector. He has a blue eye and a brown eye. He turned 2 in December. His brother, Deuce, is the complete opposite. Deuce is my hothead Leo child. He loves being in the camera, and he loves being in the mirror. I got Deuce when I got out of the bubble because I thought Ace needed a friend.
Q: Do they play well together?
A: No. They love each other but they fight almost every day. True brothers.
Q: What’s your top advice for young girls facing this world?
A: You don’t have to be a people-pleaser; just be you. That’s my life goal, and I didn’t learn it until I was 24 years old. Be true to you and have fun.