South Carolina celebrates A’ja Wilson with statue at Colonial Life Arena

Photo Credit: Lamar Carter

If one has driven or walked past Columbia’s Colonial Life Arena, one may have noticed its newest feature in addition to the building itself and South Carolina’s signature palmetto trees.

Monday, January 18, 2021 – Martin Luther King, Jr. Day – was a historic day in the history of Gamecock athletics as the university held an official statue unveiling commemorating the career of one of its greatest athletes.

The career of A’ja Wilson is already an illustrious one dating back to her college days at South Carolina. It was a career that culminated in 2018 with Wilson leading Dawn Staley’s Gamecocks to that year’s national championship.

While she’s certainly one of the greatest to ever play basketball for the Gamecocks and helped the program reach unprecedented heights, she also impacted the athletics department as a whole, the game of women’s basketball, the city of Columbia and this community as a whole. She is all that and she did all that.

–Brad Muller, South Carolina women’s basketball radio announcer

My youngest daughter was a student at Heathwood at the time and she came one night and she said, ‘Dad, you’ll never believe it. I got A’ja Wilson’s autograph.’ I said, ‘You need to hang on to it, she’ll be famous one day.’ She said, ‘Dad, she already is.’

–Ray Tanner, South Carolina athletics director

Wilson played her high school basketball at Heathwood Hall Episcopal School in Columbia before joining South Carolina in 2014. Current South Carolina president Bob Caslen was also present – as was Harris Pastides, who was the university’s president during Wilson’s time at UofSC.

A’ja is and has been an inspiration to so many Gamecocks and she’ll continue to be a beloved champion for generations to come thanks to her legacy and impact on women’s collegiate basketball.

–Bob Caslen, president, University of South Carolina

When talk of a statue first surfaced, Wilson’s coach in Columbia, Dawn Staley, even announced she would pledge $100,000 toward the project.

Caslen described Wilson as a “role model” and remarked that the statue outside Colonial Life Arena symbolizes not only what she did on the court at South Carolina but what she accomplished (and continues to accomplish) outside of basketball as well.

A video was also aired featuring sculptor Julie Rotblatt-Amrany detailing how the Wilson statue came to be reality.

Unlike the two previous speakers in Tanner and Caslen, coach Dawn Staley decided not to speak from prepared remarks, saying she is better at that than reading off of a script. Among those she thanked were the Pastides family, Rotblatt-Amrany and the South Carolina Board of Trustees.

There’s not a player that has graced Colonial Life Arena the way A’ja Wilson has.

–Dawn Staley, South Carolina coach

Staley also acknowledged Kevin O’Connell, the chief operating officer for South Carolina athletics who recently announced he was retiring from the university.

Anything in and around facilities, and I know he was a big part of making this happen. So, thank you Kevin. If that has to be your last hurrah, what an incredible one and it will link us up forever.

–Dawn Staley, South Carolina coach

Staley thanked Wilson’s grandparents for being part of the development that made her into the women’s basketball superstar she is today. If there was one word that she could use to describe her it would be “authentic.”

If you really stop and get to know her, I mean, look at what she posts on social media because that’s been a big part of her life. But if you just look at what she posts and if you could find it in your heart to just not even, don’t take side, don’t look at the University of South Carolina, don’t even look at South Carolina women’s basketball. But when you have a young person that can stand and be strong and who she is, you have to believe that she’s got what it takes to lead beyond the basketball court.

–Dawn Staley, South Carolina coach

Staley said Wilson’s statue represents “women’s basketball as a whole.” Prior to Wilson speaking, a video montage played with several noteworthy figures from inside and outside of basketball showing their appreciation to Wilson, including ESPN’s Maria Taylor, South Carolina’s very own Bakari Sellers and WNBPA executive president Terri Jackson as well as several of Wilson’s Gamecocks and Las Vegas Aces teammates.

Wilson said she first heard about the idea of a statue from Pastides at graduation and did not believe it could be done – until, of course, it became a reality.

This moment is bigger than me. This moment is for all those who have sacrificed for me to stand here today. This moment is for every girl who was told she wasn’t enough. Wasn’t strong enough, wasn’t smart enough, was too short, too skinny, too fat.

–A’ja Wilson

As expected, she gave thanks to her family and coaches – including Staley who she described as her “second mom.” The speech overall was filled with her signature personality as well as emotion. Among those who donated to the statue effort was one of South Carolina’s favorite sons in Darius Rucker aka Hootie.

To every woman who’s paved the way, Wilma Rudolph, Althea Gibson, Billie Jean King, Cheryl Miller, Ann Meyers Drysdale, Jackie Joyner-Kersee, Nancy Lieberman, Pat Summitt, Lisa Leslie, Sheryl Swoopes, Tina Thompson, Cynthia Cooper, Becky Hammon, Dawn Staley, just to name a few…

–A’ja Wilson

To every girl, especially every Black girl, remember you can do anything you put your mind to. Have faith, work hard. Haters are going to always hate, but always keep your eye on the prize and be unapologetically you.

–A’ja Wilson

As she prepared to close her remarks, Wilson delivered unarguably the most moving part of the speech when she told the story of her grandmother who grew up in South Carolina at a time when the country was plagued by the ills of segregation.

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.

–A’ja Wilson

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