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Statue unveiling becomes monumental day for Aces’ A’ja Wilson

Updated January 18, 2021 - 11:58 pm

After she cut a big red ribbon officially unveiling a statue in front of Colonial Life Arena on the South Carolina campus Monday honoring the depth of her basketball skill and character — and her late grandmother Hattie Rakes’ role in developing the latter — A’ja Wilson said that the dedication occurred on Martin Luther King Jr. Day was wholly appropriate.

“The same campus my grandmother couldn’t walk on is the same campus that houses the statue of her granddaughter,” the ace of Aces said.

The approximately life-sized sculpture — including base, it stands more than 11 feet tall — not only is a testimonial to show how far Wilson has come as a player but also speaks volumes of the long, winding and progressive road traveled by the major institution of higher learning in her hometown of Columbia.

The bronzed likeness of Wilson, cast by Chicago-based sculptor Julie Rotblatt-Amrany, is one of three on the South Carolina campus. The others are of George Rogers, the former Heisman Trophy winner, and Richard T. Greener, the first African-American faculty member at South Carolina.

Points and pearls

That was during Reconstruction in 1873, before segregation was reimposed. The university didn’t desegregate again until 1963, when Robert G. Anderson, Henrie Monteith Treadwell and James L. Solomon courageously climbed the steps of the Osborne Administration Building to register for classes amid the kind of scrutiny Rogers and Wilson could not have imagined.

“To have something like this brought to light today is definitely an honor,” the 2020 WNBA MVP said about the statue that shows her in midflight, about to shoot a basketball. An inscription on the marble plinth reads: “When I was 10 or 11, my grandma gave me my first set of pearls. She told me ‘A pretty girl always wears pearls.’ I haven’t let them go since.”

She was wearing those pearls Monday along with a business suit and eyeglasses that made her look even more introspective. When the cuff of her jacket slid up, it revealed a small tattoo of her grandmother’s name. She had the ink injected just below where the sleeve on her shooting arm falls, so one could always see it.

“If my grandmother was here today, to see where her granddaughter has a statue where she once could not walk, it just goes to show how you plant seeds,” Wilson said.

Monumental occasion

It is only a 10-minute drive from the Heathwood Hall Episcopal School, where Wilson averaged 24.7 points for her career, to the South Carolina campus, where she averaged 17.3 points and 8.7 rebounds and led the Gamecocks to the 2017 NCAA national championship.

The Aces selected the 6-foot-4-inch power forward with the first pick in the 2018 draft, after which she quickly became the transplanted franchise’s best player and star attraction. Wilson averaged 20.7 points en route to being named WNBA Rookie of the Year in 2018 and 20.5 in the COVID bubble in 2020 when she led the Aces to the WNBA Finals and was named the league’s MVP.

At age 24, people already are placing her on a pedestal. When it was mentioned that Kamala Harris, a member of Wilson’s sorority Alpha Kappa Alpha, will be sworn in as vice president on Wednesday, Wilson’s response was almost more incredulous than her coach Bill Laimbeer’s headband.

“It’s amazing just to be part of something like that, to be living in the moment, to see the change that we are about to see and go through,” the ace of Aces said of a day that seemed monumental in more ways than one. “It doesn’t necessarily have to be an athlete. It could be a lawyer or doctor or vice president. So many young black girls have so many role models now.”

Contact Ron Kantowski at rkantowski@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0352. Follow @ronkantowski on Twitter.

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