A’ja Wilson learned from her mom to never sugarcoat her message.
In a new biography released Tuesday, titled Dear Black Girls: How to Be True to You, the two-time WNBA champion forward and MVP shares personal stories from her life and experience as a Black girl growing up in America, and how she got to where she is today.
As she shares her insight with other Black girls, Wilson wants to deliver her message with the honesty she experienced growing up in South Carolina. Many of the lessons Wilson writes in her book were first learned from her mother Eva.
“My mom never really sugarcoated anything for me. I really appreciate that because later in life when I’m facing a Becky Hammon or a Dawn Staley, they didn’t sugarcoat anything,” Wilson said. “[The book] came from the honesty and truthfulness that my mom would share with me [and] is now something that I love to share with other people.”
The bond shared by Wilson and her mother is one that has only strengthened through Wilson’s ascension in life and basketball. It’s a mother-daughter relationship that has evolved, as Wilson says, from one of “I’m not one of your little friends” to “my mom being my best friend.”
“It’s something truly special.” Wilson said.
One of the first lessons Wilson learned from her mother growing up in South Carolina: Stand up for yourself. It was a lesson instilled in Eva Wilson from her mother, one that she believed was vital for her daughter, particularly as a Black girl growing up in the South.
“There’s always going to be people around that will always be trying to make you feel lesser than, and you are not lesser than,” Eva Wilson told Andscape. “I made sure that A’ja understood that. I knew what adversity would be coming towards her and if you can’t stand up for yourself, call me. I will.
“Times were a little different in my era but not so different when it comes to being from the South and what you’re faced with on a daily basis.”
Adversity arrived in the Wilson household when 10-year-old A’ja returned home from school after experiencing racism for the first time. Wilson had been invited to a birthday sleepover by a classmate, but was told by that classmate that she would have to sleep outside because her friend’s dad didn’t like Black people.
It was her first realization that she wasn’t just a girl, but a Black girl, she wrote.
“When she brought that incident to Roscoe [Wilson’s father] and I, we had to really think about how to handle it.” Eva Wilson said. “We wanted her to understand this is life, this is going to happen but you need to make sure that you react to it in a positive way.
“I just wanted to make sure A’ja understood these are things that are going to come up in your life from now on. Don’t run from it, face it head-on. … that comes with the whole racism part as well. We knew that this day would come for her. I’m kind of glad it did happen that early because now she knew how to handle it.”
A’ja had gone to a predominantly white, private school but had grown up in a predominantly Black environment – from church to preschool.
“I think at such a young age, we’re so innocent,” Wilson said. “We think everything is so green. After that incident and then from then on I was like, ‘oh, no. It’s different. There’s people out here that really don’t rock with me.’
“It kind of knocked me in the chest a little bit to say, ‘no, this is the world that you’re really about to walk into — how are you going to make your way through it?’ … I hate that it had to happen but at the same time I love that it happened because it showed me like, ‘girl, you gotta keep your guard up.’ ”
While many of the lessons A’ja learned from her mother were relayed verbally, some were also picked up by example.
Growing up, it was well established in the Wilson household that when mom wakes up, everyone wakes up. Wilson said the phrase is printed on a kitchen magnet in the family home. Oftentimes, that wake-up call would come in the early hours, when Wilson watched her mother begin the daily grind. As she watched her mom attack each day, Wilson gained a new perspective on those early mornings.
“Later on in life, I’m like, I can’t just sit around and expect things to fall into my lap. I have to work hard every single day,” Wilson said. “That lesson in itself was very hard for me to digest. When I was a teenager I just wanted to hoop and kick it with my friends. That’s cool, but it was like what are your big goals in life, what is your purpose. You can’t get there just being chill.”
That work ethic has guided Wilson as she has ascended through the ranks of women’s basketball. She won a national championship at South Carolina, became the No. 1 pick in the 2018 draft, and has won multiple championships and MVP awards with the Las Vegas Aces. Wilson, 27, sits atop the women’s basketball world, a place that she now claims confidently.
“I think I’m there,” Wilson said. “I really think I’m in that space where I have now established myself in the league. I think even after our first championship I was still like, ‘eh, all right, it’s cool, I’m getting there.’ But now, for sure, I feel like I have established myself in the W to be who I am.”
Despite her lofty resume, Wilson believes if she settles or is satisfied with her accomplishments she will set herself up for disappointment.
Wilson said that, particularly as a Black woman, she has programmed herself to brace for “the defeat” of someone diminishing her moment. Wilson has dealt with racist comments following South Carolina’s national championship win in 2017 or not receiving adequate recognition for her on-court achievements in the WNBA. Thus, she doesn’t allow herself to get too high or too low but, instead, she coasts.
“I hate that I have that [feeling], but I just kind of do that at this point,” she said. “I’m not surprised when things go one way, because I’d be surprised if they didn’t say these things because that’s the way the world goes, the way agendas are pushed and the way they push certain things.”
Wilson pointed to the 2023 WNBA MVP vote as an example. She averaged 22.8 points, 9.5 rebounds, 1.6 assists and 1.4 steals for the Aces, but finished third in MVP voting. One balloter voted Wilson fourth. It was one of the lowest points in her career.
“The moment I’m like, ‘oh, I feel really good with where I am, I’m so peaceful,’ then it’s like, bam, I get hit with the stab of the MVP vote. I’m disappointed but at the same time I’m like I have that much more work to do because there are a lot of people out there who are doubting me. And I use that.”
For Eva Wilson, seeing her daughter endure and overcome any adversity that comes her way during her career serves as another uncomfortable life lesson.
“You’re going to have setbacks, you’re going to have failures, you’re going to have all these things – all these things will prepare her for where she is right now. I think that’s why she has been able to withstand a lot of criticism,” Eva Wilson said. “I’m there for her. We’re there for her. Through it all.”
Wilson’s hope for future generations of Black girls aspiring to play in the WNBA, or pursue another profession, is that they can show up and succeed by being their authentic selves. Wilson has established herself as a personable and unapologetic superstar. Wilson, a proud member of a Black sorority, dances in the middle of All-Star Games and speaks candidly on matters ranging from social justice to advocating for the improvement of the league.
“When people see me, it may not be your stereotypical way of what you think of how a women’s basketball player should look,” Wilson said. “I love that. I want to show other young Black girls that you don’t have to look or talk or be a certain person to be successful in what you want to do. I try to bring that to the W every single year and have fun while doing it.”
Eva Wilson has been the one who pulls her daughter away from the world of basketball and has always provided balance when it’s needed most. When Wilson searches for guidance, she can rest assured that her mother will always provide it unfiltered.
“It’s something truly special,” Wilson said. “I think that honesty and bond that we’ve formed over these years has really helped me in life and just how to be honest with people and just be real. It’s a bond I hope everyone has with any person in their life.
“ I don’t look like her, but that’s still my dog,” Wilson said as her mother laughed.
For years, Wilson has tried to retire her mother from her job in education, where for the last 16 years she has worked for the Richland County School District 1 in Columbia, South Carolina. Each year, Eva Wilson would tell her to focus on developing her career and own future. In the meantime, she would refer to an app on her phone that contained a retirement calendar, occasionally showing her daughter how much time was left in the countdown.
This past Christmas, though, Wilson wouldn’t take no for an answer.
“It was very hard to convince her to let it go,” Wilson said. “You’re good. Just let it go. Everything you’ve needed to do, you’re fine. I got to the point like, ‘enough is enough, you’re done.’ ”
Her mother ultimately relented.
“I had no choice but to burst out in tears. It was tears of joy for sure, but for your child to want to give you another life, a whole new chapter, that was just overwhelming for me. It really was,” Eva Wilson said.
“Honestly, I never would have imagined that it could have even brought me to tears, but it was just truly special to actually see her be done with work,” Wilson said. “She doesn’t have to clock in anymore. Every time that following week, she would call and say, ‘just letting you know I’m retired. Yeah, I’m retired.’ ”
Being retired from her 9-to-5 hasn’t fully kept Eva Wilson out of office, however. She remains hard at work, now able to focus her full attention working with her daughter as a business partner. She is the executive director of the A’ja Wilson Foundation as well as the chief operating officer of Wilson’s candle business, Burnt Wax Candle Company.
“Retirement was the best gift of the next chapter of my life,” Eva Wilson said. “It gives me more time to help [A’ja] build generational wealth for her family. That’s what it’s about for me – making sure A’ja had all the tools she needed to be successful.”
The fulltime partnership has surely been an adjustment for mother and daughter.
“It’s the most annoying thing ever and it’s something I would tell people don’t ever do. Don’t ever go into business with someone that birthed you, because it’s constantly something,” Wilson joked. “It’s kind of hard to separate mom from business, I’ve learned. Two stars, wouldn’t suggest.
“But I do love it. We have a lot of fun with it. I think at the end of the day when we see people happy with our product, that’s what brings us together. All that cussin’ out and, look at us, selling candles.”
Through her stories, Wilson hopes that her book not only serves as a valuable resource for Black girls but also as a source of positivity and joy, something she says is not seen enough.
“It’s focused on letting people know they’re not alone and we’ve all been through it,” Wilson said. “Little nuggets that I share with people to help them like, ‘this is how I got through it,’ and hopefully that can help you.”
Even though Wilson is a two-time WNBA champion, her mother hasn’t stopped relaying lessons. As Wilson thought about the most recent lesson passed down from her mom, her mother interjected a remark.
“She didn’t really learn it,” Eva Wilson said. “The last lesson I attempted to teach her was to make sure you’re paying attention to your surroundings.”
“She’s been trying to teach me that for 27 years,” Wilson said. “Be aware of your surroundings. There’s a lot of noise but just be true to yourself and block it out.
“I’m still trying to learn that lesson. I like the fact that I’m still learning it.”
“She’s doing better,” her mother said.
Said A’ja jokingly: “I got pepper spray now.”