WNBA's A'ja Wilson on Her Nonprofit Organization and the Prospect of Tokyo 2020

Samantha Brodsky
WEST HOLLYWOOD, CALIFORNIA - NOVEMBER 20: Basketball player A'Ja Wilson poses for a portrait during the Team USA Tokyo 2020 Olympics shoot on November 20, 2019 in West Hollywood, California. (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
WEST HOLLYWOOD, CALIFORNIA - NOVEMBER 20: Basketball player A'Ja Wilson poses for a portrait during the Team USA Tokyo 2020 Olympics shoot on November 20, 2019 in West Hollywood, California. (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)

A'ja Wilson is one of the youngest members of the US women's basketball team, a group of players hand-selected from the WNBA to play in World Cup and Olympic tournaments. News flash: they've won six straight Olympic golds (1996 to 2016) - a task no group of women players has ever done worldwide and one more victory away from tying the US men's streak of seven. A'ja, a 23-year-old forward for the WNBA's Las Vegas Aces and the leader in South Carolina women's basketball record books for highest career points, told POPSUGAR at Nike NYC headquarters that being chosen for the national team is something truly special that she takes pride in.

As A'ja told POPSUGAR, she gets to be a sponge and absorb lessons from "future hall-of-famers" who remind her how valuable each game is. "I've never played the gold medal game," she said of the Olympics, but these players, greats like Seattle Storm's Sue Bird and Phoenix Mercury's Diana Taurasi, always tell A'ja, "we're going to get everyone's best because USA is across our chests."

Players won't find out until the Spring what the Olympic roster will look like, and, despite the fact that Team USA already earned a Tokyo 2020 berth due to its 2018 FIBA World Cup win, this pool of women will be heading to the Olympic qualifying tournament in Serbia come February. To prepare, A'ja is just trying to stay in the moment mentally, have fun, and be the best teammate she can. Physically, she's staying in shape and making sure to properly recover after practices and games (she uses NormaTec boots specifically). "Whichever way it goes," she said, "I'm just so happy to be in this pool of being able to compete at this level."

A'ja Off the Court: Building a Nonprofit For Dyslexic Kids

A'ja tries her best on and off the court. "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," she said. And, she's done just that with the A'ja Wilson Foundation, a nonprofit founded in 2019 that provides resources and grant opportunities for those with dyslexia. When A'ja was growing up, she struggled with reading large blocks of text. She wasn't diagnosed until sophomore year of high school but, even still, she hid it from most of her peers and teammates. It wasn't until 2018 that, in a personal essay published in Player's Tribune, she publicly talked about it.

In the essay, A'ja discussed her fear of "popcorn reading" with classmates and the fact that she'd always suggest going to the same restaurants (namely, Chick-fil-A) so that people around her didn't have to see her stumble on her words. "When we'd have to read long passages from books, I just - I'd get so mixed up. I'm not sure how else to explain it," she wrote. "One minute I would understand it, the next minute I would be all turned around."

But A'ja revealed that after her college coach Dawn Staley had her practice reading from the Bible before games, she started to feel better about her dyslexia. And, she told POPSUGAR, once her essay was published, she realized she wasn't alone. People with similar struggles and parents of dyslexic children reached out. This, in turn, made her want to start the nonprofit with the help of her own parents. It's not just about those with dyslexia, she said, "it's also getting teachers registered and clear to know how to scan kids with learning disabilities. Not necessarily the tree, but the root itself."

A'ja's goal is to start after-school programs for kids because, she said, one-on-one time is what helped her. For those struggling like she did growing up, she encourages them to be vocal when they need assistance. "I always was second-guessing myself when asking for help because I was like, 'I don't want people to think that I'm not capable.'" But, she said, "don't be afraid to need help because everyone needs it."

A'ja is going that extra mile to use her platform to assist and inspire others, and that, she told us, is something the late Lakers legend Kobe Bryant made his life all about. "That's what his legacy is," she said. "It's always going that extra mile, always giving more than what people may think on the surface."

Related: Oregon Star Sabrina Ionescu Dedicates Her Season to Friend Kobe Bryant: "I Do It For Him"

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