January 19, 2021 

A’ja Wilson reflects on the new statue

"Little Black girls can come back here and look at that statue and say, 'wow'"

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On the same day that the nation celebrated the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., a 24-year-old instantly recognizable Black female athlete had a statue of her formally unveiled and dedicated.

An inspiration to say the least. 

“Of course, this is the day that we recognize the great Rev. Dr.  Martin Luther King, Jr. and to have something like this be brought to life today is definitely an honor,” Wilson said to media during a Zoom press conference on Monday, shortly after the unveiling.

“I mentioned it in my speech that my grandmother couldn’t even walk on this campus. She couldn’t even get to where she needed to go on a quicker route,” Wilson continued. “She had to walk around and if she were here today to see her whole granddaughter has a statue where she once could not walk, it goes to show how you just plant seeds and that’s what it’s all about and that is something we stood by last year in the Bubble.” 

Wilson said she was reminded by Angel McCoughtry that “change doesn’t happen overnight. But you want to be a part of something that plants seeds so that later on down the road, little Black girls can come back here and look at that statue and say, wow, she was her but at the same time she was in her community as well,” Wilson said. “I think that’s the beautify of it all and I’m taking it all in grace. It’s truly a blessing and for it to fall on MLK, Jr. Day is something that is truly special to me.”

South Carolina Athletics installed the statue of Wilson this week in front of Colonial Life Arena, celebrating the legendary career of the Hopkins, S.C., native who led the Gamecocks to the 2017 NCAA National Championship, 2015 NCAA Final Four, three SEC regular-season championships, and four SEC Tournament titles.

The bronze statue – which stands over 11 feet tall and sits atop a four-foot granite base – is one of just three on the University of South Carolina campus that represents a specific individual. The first woman of the group, she joins Richard T. Greener, the first African American faculty member at the University, and Heisman Trophy winner George Rogers.

“When I actually saw it, I was like, Wow, that’s my facial expression; that’s my hair!” Wilson said. “It’s truly amazing to see it all pan out. You see statues all the time but when it’s one of you you’re like, “Oh my God that is how my mouth looks when I shoot a basketball. It’s pretty amazing.”

The statue was made possible by private donations from the late Dodie Anderson, Darius Rucker, and legendary Hall-of-Fame Coach Dawn Staley. The figure was sculpted by Julie Rotblatt-Amrany of The Fine Art Studio of Rotblatt-Amrany in Highwood, Ill., which has done many athletic statues, including Michael Jordan, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Magic Johnson, and Scottie Pippen. The Wilson statue has been in development for nearly a year, and installation began on Thu., Jan. 14.

“A’ja was a powerful force in our program, our campus, and our community through everything that she accomplished on the court and the person she was off it,” Staley said. “This statue in front of this arena is an equally powerful force. Every young person, and especially young black girls, can see what is possible through hard work, passion, and dedication.”

Wilson said the statue was dedicated in part to Staley who recruited her and helped her grow into the woman she is today.

“She’s really like my second mother. She is one of the many people, but definitely, this statue is dedicated to her because without her there would be no A’ja Wilson; the one you see sitting here unapologetically,” Wilson said. “It’s a piece of her as well.

“She made me so comfortable to be who I am and to never back down. I find myself sounding and talking like her and I’m like ooh, but it’s the effect she’s had on me. It’s truly special to share this moment with her and all the coaching staff.”

Wilson had a storied career at South Carolina. She capped her four-year career (2015-18) by becoming the program’s first National Player of the Year, capturing the title from every entity that bestows it annually. She was South Carolina’s first four-time All-American, earning first-team status in 2016, 2017, and 2018, and its first four-time First-Team All-SEC selection. Wilson was the first three-time SEC Player of the Year in league history (2016, 2017, 2018), and was the inaugural winner of the Lisa Leslie Award in 2018.

She said Monday that she never expected her accomplishments to be rewarded with a statue but is grateful.

“I was pleased with the jersey retirement. I would go there and see my jersey hanging in the rafters, but to see a whole statue, it’s something that is just amazing,” she said. “And the fact that everyone was behind it 100 percent and gave it a go, I can’t even put into words.

“We actually talk about giving people their flowers when they are still here because we all have a bad habit of loving someone when they are gone but this is truly something special. I feel loved. I’m so grateful to be in the moment.”

As she reflected on her statue, Wilson said she is grateful for those closest to her.

“I appreciate the people beside me. I appreciate the village that helped bring A’ja Wilson together, the person I am today. They helped mold the statute out there,” she said. “That is something I am forever in debt to- everyone that’s been along this journey no matter what; the village that helped bring me up.”

Wilson said she looks forward to the day when there are more women basketball players who have statues for all to see.

“Women’s basketball is on the rise. It’s always been but it’s really starting to pop and cook now and now is the perfect moment to generate that good energy toward women’s basketball,” she said. “We go through so much. We get hit with everything in the book, but I would definitely love to see more women basketball statues. There’s a lot of people who deserve one before now. I would love to see that and I am grateful to have mine here.

“I definitely am blessed to be among the few that have one, especially here in my hometown. I don’t get home that often anymore but now, anytime you come home, to know I’m still kind of here is great.”

In the WNBA, Wilson made an immediate impact, capturing Rookie of the Year and All-Star honors in her first season (2018). Two years later, she was named WNBA MVP (2020).

Throughout her basketball career, Wilson has been a mainstay within USA Basketball, helping the United States to gold medals in the 2013 FIBA U19 World Cup, 2014 FIBA U18 Americas Cup, 2015 FIBA U19 World Cup, and 2018 FIBA World Cup. She is currently in the USA Basketball National Team pool, from which the 2021 Olympic Team will be selected.

Written by Dorothy J. Gentry

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