WNBA star A’ja Wilson never dreamed of playing professional ball.
In fact, having a parent who put in 10 seasons in overseas leagues meant that a young Wilson was pointedly disinterested in stepping onto the court. She wanted to craft her own legacy, one that didn’t start (or stop) at the free-throw line. But in high school, Wilson began to realize that if she could perform well enough during a game, her shortcomings in the classroom might go unnoticed.
“Basketball started to make a lot more sense to me than school ever did,” Wilson wrote for The Players Tribune. “By the time I was a senior, I had been able to accomplish so much in basketball that no one was thinking about whether or not I was having trouble reading.”
Off the court, Wilson was battling dyslexia — a learning disability that can affect reading comprehension. She dreaded moments in class when she’d be called upon to read entire passages from a book. She spent hours cramming for tests only to struggle to make sense of the questions facing her on the page. Even ordering off a fast-food menu could trip her up.
Her teachers thought she was lazy. Worse, Wilson started to think she might be too stupid to ever excel at school.
“It’s funny — how do you prove to somebody that you’re trying?” Wilson said in the same Players Tribune article. “In most things, the more work you put in the better your end results, but that just wasn’t happening with my reading. No matter how many hours I spent in front of a book, sometimes I’d just end up taking away nothing.”
When she was finally diagnosed, there was relief, and then shame. For an elite athlete who wanted to be seen as independent and capable, the idea of admitting to any kind of weakness felt foreign … diminishing, in a way. But once again, basketball gave her an answer.
As a forward who had led her high school team to a national championship, and a McDonald’s All-American player, Wilson was bound to be a hot prospect for college recruitment. She chose to plant roots close to home, committing to play for Dawn Staley and the South Carolina Gamecocks. This time, Wilson was open about her dyslexia, informing her teachers ahead of time so that she could make adjustments during their classes to learn at her own speed.
But Staley, who found ways to push Wilson as a player — benching her for most of her freshman year until she felt she was ready to step up to the paint — had a trick for encouraging Wilson’s progress off the court too. She started tasking Wilson with reading a passage from scripture in the locker room before each game.
Wilson would leave the University of South Carolina as the No. 1 WNBA draft pick, bringing her on-court reputation to the Las Vegas Aces, but her time at USC also taught her the value of being transparent when it came to her personal struggles. In 2018, while still in school, Wilson detailed her journey with dyslexia in that Players Tribune essay. The response to sharing her story was so overwhelming, she decided to launch a nonprofit, The A’ja Wilson Foundation, to empower children with dyslexia to reach their full potential.
“I knew as soon as I became a professional athlete, I wanted to change the game in a way that could benefit myself but also [other] people,” Wilson said at the time in an interview with Pop Sugar.
Her foundation provides resources and grant money to help students find alternative learning paths that work with their dyslexia, a disability that 20 percent of children reportedly struggle with. She’s raising money for after-school programs to give kids the one-on-one time with educators and mentors that she found so beneficial when she was first diagnosed. And, she’s changing the game at a systemic level, working to give teachers the resources needed so that they can spot students who may have a learning impairment early on to get them the help they need.
In July of last year, Wilson’s foundation was recognized by the league for its work in the community — both in Las Vegas where she plays professionally and in South Carolina where her roots hold firm. She received the WNBA Cares Community Assist Award for her work with local high school girls basketball teams, organizations like Opportunity Village which works with adults who have disabilities, and the camps, workshops, and after-school programs her own nonprofit hosted in South Carolina.
More recently, Wilson’s performance at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, earned her a gold medal — another accolade to add to her overcrowded shelf of accomplishments. But for a player so invested in building a legacy away from the paint, it’s easy to guess which award might mean more.
“Having people recognize you on the court is great,” Wilson told WNBA.com when accepting the Cares award. “Having someone recognize you in the community if you take time to go out and talk to them, it’s a huge deal. Growing up, I had plenty of role models, but I never got a chance to touch someone like that. To be that person to step in for young kids today, the future of our game, but also our world and be there as a role model for them is huge.”