In late September amid a hard-fought WNBA semifinal series against the Connecticut Sun, third-year forward A’ja Wilson stepped into frame for a Zoom press conference with reporters. Tied 1-1 with Connecticut and facing what would be her first WNBA Finals berth in the league’s south Florida Bubble, Wilson was locked in. Just a week earlier, she’d been named WNBA MVP for the first time in her career after helping her Las Vegas Aces surpass analysts’ most optimistic expectations. Everything was lined up for Wilson’s coronation.
But there was a sinister mood that day. Because the basketball accolades, even the thrilling WNBA playoff rematch between these two teams, that all was happening atop a backdrop of injustice. When Wilson came forward to speak with reporters that day, less than 24 hours had passed since a Kentucky grand jury failed to charge the officers who killed 26-year-old EMT Breonna Taylor while she was asleep in her apartment in March, the latest in a ceaseless wave of empty decisions in police violence cases in America. There was no way Wilson was just talking ball.
“No one cares, and that’s the thing that does not sit right with me, is when will people care and understand that this is a human rights thing?” Wilson pleaded to the camera. “Black Lives Matter isn’t this big thing of taking money and this, that and the third. It is a statement. It is the life that I live. I am a Black woman. You take everything that I have away from me and I am a Black woman. And I fear for my life.”
Stuck away in a Bubble that represented a growing league’s only chance to pull off a season and watching the injustice pile up around her, Wilson was struggling to keep going. She called the decision day “my 9/11.” Still, she reiterated that she had plenty of strength left to keep competing with her Aces teammates and to keep fighting until Black people were treated fairly in their communities. After all, while the decision on Taylor’s case was tragic, it followed a nauseating pattern as old as our shared history.
“I can’t be angry at this because I saw it coming,” Wilson said. “The element of surprise is out of my mind at this point. I’m disgusted and I hate that Breonna Taylor didn’t get justice.”
The grand jury’s decision was also a reminder of the purpose of the 2020 WNBA season in the first place. There was competition to be had, yes, but also a higher calling. The players made it clear early in the summer that without a dedication to social justice and in particular female victims of police brutality, there would be no season at all.
Without the pandemic, the league’s opening tip-off would have taken place the same weekend that George Floyd was killed by Minneapolis police. While the women of the WNBA are pioneers when it comes to activism in sports, there would be no subtle statements or unplanned gestures this time around. Unified within the Bubble and their shared identity in an 80 percent Black league, these tremendous athletes stood together to draw attention to the Say Her Name campaign and America’s violent brand of systemic racism.
As Wilson continued her pregame press conference, the weight of the year threatening to crush her, she received a question from Pepper Persley, a skilled elementary-age reporter who was a breakout star of the so-called Wubble (women’s Bubble) in her own right. Persley, who is 9 years old, asked the MVP what her message was to young Black girls who were “confused, scared and angry” about the decision in Taylor’s case. Hearing Persley’s voice had a clear impact on Wilson, whose tears welled with emotion. Yet it also seemed to give Wilson strength — a reminder of who the work is for.
“My message is to keep fighting,” Wilson said. “We cannot stop fighting at all for young girls like Pepper, for young girls like myself. This fight does not stop. It gets harder as you get older … but it’s people like me and this generation that’s going to help fight this fight alongside you.”
Though many in both pro basketball Bubbles said it was hard to feel part of the fight from afar, Wilson kept that defiant energy all summer. She penned an essay in the Players Tribune titled “Dear Black Girls” that spoke directly to the discomfort and pain of growing up misunderstood — what Wilson called “a double minority” in a world that doesn’t value them. She started a podcast alongside fellow young MVP candidate Napheesa Collier to highlight the swagger of the WNBA’s younger generation of stars. And Wilson finished out the year being named to the Forbes 30 Under 30 list after working with LeBron James’ More Than A Vote campaign and becoming the first WNBA player to be endorsed by Mountain Dew.
In terms of on-court brilliance, few can match what Wilson did. Las Vegas entered the Wubble without two starters, including 2019 All-Star Liz Cambage. Yet Wilson slowed the game down, improved her efficiency and defense, and played off her teammates to become a one-woman wrecking ball all summer.
“I’ve had a lot of great players, lots of All-Stars, but no one with an individual performance that carried a team like A’ja has this year,” said Aces head coach and four-time WNBA champion Bill Laimbeer when Wilson won MVP.
Many times this year, watching the WNBA was cathartic and enlightening. Wasn’t this what sport should always have been? Not an escape from the realities of the people wearing our favorite teams’ jerseys, but a reminder of them? After all, as the women of the WNBA made sure to remind us every night on the hardwood, they are all Breonna Taylor. In many cases, there is no distinction between what happens in our communities and what happens to our favorite athletes.
It would have been easy for Wilson to look at 2020 as a lost year. Instead, she stepped up as a leader for her team, her league, and all of us to deliver an unforgettable performance on and off the court as she continues an inspiring career.