The significance of the dedication ceremony on Martin Luther King Jr. Day was not lost on A’ja Wilson. Nor was the location of the 11-foot bronze beauty in her honor.
Wilson, the reigning WNBA MVP with the Las Vegas Aces, went back to her alma mater over the weekend for the official unveiling of a statue in her honor in front of Colonial Life Arena at South Carolina. A top-ranked recruit out of nearby Hopkins, South Carolina, she stayed home to play for head coach Dawn Staley and was drafted by the Aces only three years ago.
Wilson honors MLK Jr., societal change in speech
The 2017 NCAA national champion and 2018 national player of the year delivered a speech that was quintessentially A’ja at a small invitation-only ceremony on Monday that streamed live on YouTube.
She closed it with a quote by Martin Luther King Jr., and a story of how societal norms can change, even if it happens slowly.
“To quote Martin Luther King Jr. in honor of his day: ‘Not everybody can be famous, but everyone can be great because greatness is determined by service. You only need a heart full of grace and a soul generated by love.’
“As I close, my heart is very, very full. My grandmother, Hattie Rakes, grew up in this area. Actually four blocks from the governor’s mansion to be exact. When she was a child, she couldn’t even walk on the grounds of the University of South Carolina. She would have to walk around the campus just to get to where she needed to go. If only she was here today to see that the same grounds she had to walk around, it now is the same grounds that houses a statue of her granddaughter.”
The statue was installed on Thursday and is one of three on the South Carolina campus representing a specific individual. She is the first woman in that group. Wilson told reporters afterward it was an honor to do the ceremony on Martin Luther King Jr. Day.
Wilson: Statue shows ‘if you plant the seeds’ there’s change
When Wilson mentioned the story of her grandmother again to reporters in a video call, she added that it shows that change can happen when someone gets the ball rolling.
“It goes to show how you just plant seeds,” Wilson told reporters. “And that’s what it’s all about. That’s something that we stood by last year in the bubble.”
The saying is often used by teammate Angel McCoughtry, who spoke of it throughout the summer in regards to social justice initiatives. She told Yahoo Sports in July that putting Breonna Taylor’s name on the WNBA jerseys was one of those planted seeds. The WNBA players worked tirelessly, as they usually have, for social justice reform while playing in Bradenton, Florida.
“Change doesn’t happen overnight,” Wilson said, “but you want to be a part of something that plants seeds so 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.’ And I think that’s the beauty of it all, and I’m taking it all with grace hopefully. It’s just truly a blessing, and for it to fall on MLK Day is just something that’s truly special to me.”
Staley gave brief “off the cuff” remarks and said there was no player that “graced” Colonial Life Arena the way Wilson had.
“It was the right thing to do for the right person at the right time,” Staley said.
The 11-foot bronze statue was made possible by donations from Dodie Anderson, Darius Rucker and Staley. it was sculpted by Julie Rotblatt-Amrany.
Wilson was the program’s first National Player of the Year and first four-time All-American. She was a three-time SEC Player of the Year (again a first for the Gamecocks) and won the first Lisa Leslie Award in 2018 for the nation’s best center.
She was the Aces’ No. 1 pick in 2018, later earning the Rookie of the Year award, and earned league MVP honors in a surprise moment that had her emotional. The Aces lost in the WNBA Finals to the Seattle Storm, which featured former MVP Breanna Stewart and veteran point guard Sue Bird.
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