June 25, 2021 

Five Aces players are Tokyo bound

Representing Team USA, Australia and South Korea

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A’ja Wilson, Kelsey Plum and Chelsea Gray strike a pose. Photo via USA Basketball.

By now, you’ve surely heard about the stacked 2020 U.S. Olympic Women’s Basketball Team. From seasoned vets like Sue Bird and Diana Taurasi to first-timers like Jewell Lloyd and Skylar Diggins-Smith to the three-time gold medalist leading the charge (Dawn Staley), this team is just oozing talent.

But if you’ve been keeping up with the WNBA this season, you already knew that.

The Las Vegas Aces, who boast three Olympians on Team USA (A’ja Wilson, Chelsea Gray and Kelsey Plum), one on Team Australia (Liz Cambage) and one on Team South Korea (JiSu Park), are off to an especially strong start: 10-3 so far and sitting pretty in second place.

So what does earning a spot in the Tokyo Games mean to these players that already are seeing so much success? A lot, actually. In fact, it’s a whole different ball game.

Team USA: A’ja Wilson, Chelsea Gray, Kelsey Plum

Wilson already has quite a few impressive accolades racked up: FIBA World Cup gold medalist, 2018 WNBA Rookie of the Year, 2020 All-WNBA First Team and, of course, 2020 WNBA M’VP. And now, USA Olympian.

Wilson was actually driving when she got the call saying she made the team. She saw who was calling, and had to pull over and put her car in park to receive the news because she “just didn’t know.” But once she heard that she’d secured a spot, a sense of pride overcame her.

This is an achievement Wilson has been chasing since U19, and while she is proud to don the red, white and blue in Tokyo, she’s just as excited to be doing it alongside some of the people she’s closest with, like Team USA head coach Dawn Staley.

“To be back with Coach Staley now is truly amazing. I honestly remember being in college the day she was named head coach of the team and I just started crying, like I could not hold back the tears because I was just so proud of her and to be a player of hers. To play alongside her in Japan is definitely going to be a big honor for me, just to play underneath her again because this is a huge stage. The biggest stage of them all.”

And there’s another bonus to look forward to besides just getting to watch the reigning MVP ball out on the sports’ biggest stage. If you’re a fan of Wilson’s podcast with Napheesa Collier, get ready for the special Olympic edition. She says there will be Tokyo Tea with A and Phee.

The road to Tokyo hasn’t been a straight and narrow one for Gray. Her path had a few bumps on it — injuries over the years have prevented her from being able to attend USA trials.

But her time has finally come, and Gray is ready to answer the call. Though when she got her literal phone call, she says she didn’t hear much past “congratulations.” Then the tears started flowing and the rest was a blur.

Gray embraces that bumpy path though, and feels this achievement to be chosen as one of the 12 greatest in the game is a representation of all her hard work over the years.

“A lot of people didn’t pick me to be where I am today. So I’m proud of that. I’m proud of the journey that I’ve had in these last few years and to see my hard work and dedication to this game and be able to wear that jersey… There’s been a history of legends that have worn that jersey… I’m ready to embrace it all.”

Gray also touched on the sense of responsibility as a Black athlete playing under a Black coach on the Olympic stage, and how important it is for little girls and boys to see someone that looks like them achieve what is considered to be the most elite honor an athlete can accomplish.

Plum is coming off an injury season this year, but not just any injury. She spent last year rehabilitating an Achilles injury, but after helping Team USA qualify for three-on-three this year and her impressive performances off the bench for the Aces, it seems like she’s back and better than ever.

It’s no secret in the basketball community that KP is one of the hardest-working players out there. Coaches, players and fans alike will tell you she’s one of the first ones on the court and the last one to leave.

Plum attributes her undying energy and positive outlook to her injury and the recovery process she went through.

“A goal for me was to be part of Team USA. So when I tore it, I set that goal. It was pretty lofty, it meant to come back in about nine months. I basically told myself I’m going to try everything I can to get to that date, and if I don’t get there I don’t get there, but it’s not for lack of effort or intention… I feel like the injury has given me a new perspective on life, a different approach in the way I see things. How much gratitude I have for day to day little things… Doing daily practices of gratitude have helped me a ton, and to see the fun in life.”

Plum also feels the more aggressive playstyle three-on-three offers has helped her grow her game in new ways, which has seeped into her bench role for the Aces. Head coach Bill Laimbeer often credits her as being the crucial spark of energy and grit for his team. No doubt she will carry that same intensity and physicality with her to Tokyo.

Team Australia: Liz Cambage

Cambage has been an anchor for the Aces this season. She’s power in the paint, she’s blocks at the basket, she’s buckets when it counts, she’s 6’8 of extra attitude and spunk that can’t be stopped.

Cambage’s effect on her team goes well beyond numbers and what happens on the court. She’s constantly seen on the sidelines hyping up her squad. She’s unashamedly herself in the evolving world of women’s sports that embraces athletes’ personalities (even when they stir up some tea).

In fact, according to Wilson, Cambage already commented in the locker room saying, “how excited she was to go get a gold medal.”

Talking to Liz throughout the season, she’s made her love for her Aces well-known, but she’s also made it clear how much putting on the green and gold in Tokyo means to her.

“I’m going to play with my sisters that I’ve been playing with since I was a wee little thing and I’m going to ball out for all those young brown kids back in Australia watching me, baby. I’m going to do it for you.”

Cambage doesn’t shy away from speaking her truth, and one truth she’s stood up for this year has been diverse representation of Australian athletes (or lack thereof). She hopes to help change that.

Team South Korea: JiSu Park

Park actually secured her spot on the South Korean team over a year ago in Serbia, when the team earned its first Olympics berth since the 2008 Beijing Games. Before heading to the States for the 2021 WNBA season, Park was dubbed the Women’s Korean Basketball League MVP.

Though Park is averaging 2.1 points in 9.1 minutes per game so far this season, she has a much higher output on her national squad — averaging 22 points and 15 rebounds.

Unfortunately, I haven’t had a chance to speak with Park since the announcement, but Wilson did mention her in her press conference.

“I’m excited for everyone. When it comes to Ji, what she’s done with South Korea has been amazing. I remember getting so excited seeing her in Serbia, just to see the way that she is with her team. I think we’re all bringing different pieces to our teams.”

At just 19 years old, Park was drafted by the Minnesota Lynx and became the first Korean player to enter the league in 15 years. She may only be 22, but she has a lifetime of basketball experience behind her. And with big dreams of growing the women’s game at the Olympics this year, you won’t want to miss her.

Written by Sydney Olmstead

Pac-12 and Las Vegas Aces reporter.

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