It was June 26. Two weeks before the U.S. Olympic women’s basketball team would convene in Las Vegas to prepare for the Tokyo Games. A’ja Wilson sent Dawn Staley a text message.
“If we learn to obey by being corrected, we will do right and live at peace,” she wrote, quoting a verse from the Bible — Hebrews 12:11. “Literally thinking about how grateful I am that you taught me discipline in college.”
For it was that discipline that helped Wilson become a national champion at South Carolina. The No. 1 overall pick in the 2018 WNBA Draft. The 2020 WNBA MVP.
“She constantly lifts me up,” Wilson said. “She’s the reason why I am who I am.”
Wilson and Staley are rekindling a component of their relationship through USA Basketball. The one where Wilson is a basketball player and Staley her coach — albeit this time with Team USA instead of South Carolina. The Aces star is making her Olympic debut as the starting power forward, and Staley is serving as head coach after winning three gold medals as a player and two as an assistant coach.
The Americans will open pool play July 27 against Nigeria.
The rest of their relationship extends well beyond the confines of the basketball court — and is bound by more than a decade of trust, vulnerability and humility.
In Staley, Wilson has a “second mom” she can always turn to. “She’ll be the godmother of my children,” Wilson says. And through Wilson, Staley has maximized her impact as a mentor, guiding her on and off the court from afar as she navigates the perils of her professional career.
“She gave me realness,” Staley said. “She’s just super authentic, and she gave me a great example of what I want our players to be in my life.”
Just gonna leave this here 😂 pic.twitter.com/FjpZl1sWLz
— A'ja Wilson (@_ajawilson22) July 19, 2021
Building a bond
Their connection was first forged at a youth basketball camp on the campus of South Carolina, where Wilson now has a statue commemorating her legacy.
And where she was once relegated to a secondary gym among the other middling players.
She was still finding her footing as a player, having resisted the sport for much of her childhood. But Staley was intrigued by her potential and offered an introduction at the conclusion of camp when Wilson received her participation certificate.
“She was like, ‘A’ja Wilson. OK, I’m going to remember this name,” Wilson said. “And I was like, ‘Yeah, OK, whatever.’”
But Staley stayed true to her word and spent the ensuing years recruiting Wilson while transforming South Carolina from a Southeastern Conference cellar dweller into a national powerhouse.
Wilson didn’t play for the most prominent club program, but Staley would always find a courtside seat for her games as she blossomed into the No. 1 recruit in the 2014 class. She would make two weekly phone calls to the Wilson household in an effort to learn about the person instead of the player.
Ardent communication within the confines of the NCAA rules.
“She approached our family in a very personable way,” said Eva Wilson, A’ja’s mother. “No fluff. … We really appreciated her being that way.”
So much so that she revealed to Staley that her daughter was dyslexic, allowing for South Carolina to begin tailoring an academic profile that would meet her needs should she sign with the school.
Wilson considered the other powerhouse programs, but knew by the end of her senior year that she couldn’t reject Staley. Wilson’s parents had helped her handle some of the other schools, but if she was going to go anywhere but South Carolina, she was going to have to tell Staley.
“I couldn’t gather myself to do that … I felt like I was going to let her down,” Wilson said.
“If Coach Staley was in Alaska, I would be going to the University of Alaska. And this was before we even started our bond that we have now.”
Bigger than basketball
Staley points to Wilson’s collegiate debut as a seminal moment in their relationship.
It was Nov. 15, 2014, and South Carolina had secured a 70-61 victory over Southern California. But Wilson had four points, five rebounds and three turnovers in 16 minutes, prompting a difficult decision.
Staley pulled Wilson from the starting lineup as a way to shield her from some of the pressure and criticism that accompanied her stature as an eventual hometown hero.
She came off the bench for the remainder of her freshman season.
“I talked to her mom, and her mom was like, ‘You sure?’” Staley said. “I basically said, ‘You’re going to have to trust me with this decision.’ Our entire relationship with the whole family was built on trust.”
Wilson acknowledged that she was resistant to the idea, but Staley allowed for an open course of dialogue and the move transformed the nature of the relationship. Wilson still achieved her goals as a reserve, capturing SEC Freshman of the Year honors, third-team All-America honors and helping the Gamecocks to the Final Four.
The achievements validated Staley’s decision.
Wilson would soon find herself in Staley’s office daily, talking about everything besides basketball.
When she needed coaching after a poor play, Staley would keep her accountable by reminding her of her greatness. When she contemplated quitting the game after her grandmother Hattie died before her junior season, Staley drove to her home to be alongside her while she grieved.
“She saw me at my lowest point, which allowed me to open up to her because I’m like, ‘Wow, Coach Staley really cares. This isn’t the fluff. This is for real,’” Wilson said. “What people may see on the court is not who I really am. Coach Staley allowed me to be who I really am. We just gained that trust over time, and our bond just got closer and closer and closer.”
Wilson would go on to lead South Carolina to its first national championship as a junior in 2016-17, becoming the greatest player to don a Gamecocks jersey.
She said the trust Staley instilled in her off the court helped her play freely during games.
“I didn’t have to hold everything back. I could just play,” Wilson said. “She taught me ‘Don’t blend. Don’t be average, because that gets you nowhere. … Without those moments, I would probably be average.”
They don’t talk as often now. And that’s a good thing, Staley said. It means Wilson is “living.” It also makes the random text messages or FaceTime calls that much more meaningful.
“Because you know that she doesn’t need you in that way anymore,” Staley said. “And I’m happy, because she’s growing up.”
That said, there’s a surreal nature to their reunion in the Olympics. Wilson crashed Staley’s news conference Sunday after a 93-62 victory over Nigeria at Michelob Ultra Arena.
Staley couldn’t help but smile as she answered questions, knowing her protege was only a few feet away.
Wilson’s father, Roscoe, estimated that 80 percent of the banter between his daughter and Staley is personal. “Soul-searching,” he says. The other 20 percent is based on basketball. But that might shift given the implications of their reunion.
Wilson is dead set on winning her first Olympic gold medal, and Staley is seeking her sixth as one of the most iconic figures in basketball history.
Gold, silver, or bronze, they’re in it together.
Just like before. Just like forever.
“Priceless,” Eva Wilson said. “To be coached again by your college coach, I think for A’ja, it’s the top of the top.”