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Hometown Hopefuls: A’ja Wilson credits success to church and community, where her story is a beacon of hope

South Carolina is home to A’ja Wilson; it’s always been. Wilson, a two-time WNBA MVP and Tokyo Olympic gold medalist, has said that South Carolina is the glue that holds her together.

“They raised me,” Wilson said. “Columbia has raised me. So many people have been a part of the village to help raise me. When it comes to me and my upbringing, I am Columbia. And I will always stand by that.”

Wilson grew up in Hopkins, South Carolina, about twenty minutes outside Columbia, the capital city of a state whose slogan is “Smiling faces, beautiful places.” It’s those faces throughout her hometown and her home state that raised her: one big family, as the 27-year-old Wilson describes it.

That family includes her grandparents and her parents. But it also includes godparents, aunts and uncles, and friends who feel just as close as family, people woven together across generations in the community.

Seventy years ago, when A’ja’s paternal grandmother Ethel Wilson was teaching at Benedict College in Columbia, she taught a course that Ben Duncan’s mother was enrolled in during the 1950s. Forty years later, after graduating from Benedict College himself, Ben was looking for a church to join with his wife Stephanie Duncan. They followed his mother’s trusted teacher to Saint John Baptist Church in Columbia, where Ethel’s husband (A’ja’s paternal grandfather) Roscoe C. Wilson Sr. was the minister.

“Immediately that connection happened,” Ben Duncan recalled. “And we were part of the Wilson family.”

It was through Saint John that Ben’s wife Stephanie met Eva Wilson, an instant lifelong friend for whom she threw a baby shower when Eva was pregnant with A’ja. Stephanie and Eva’s friendship strengthened the bond between the two families, as the Duncan boys Trey and Joseph were like brothers to A’ja and her brother Renaldo.

“They have really helped me be who I am,” Wilson said of the Duncans. “They’ve always allowed me to just kind of be their kid… They’re not blood, but they dang sure feel like it.”

Weekly Sunday dinners were a recurring theme as the Wilson and Duncan children grew up together, as was A’ja and Joseph’s chasing each other around the church pews as young kids at Saint John. Even with their children grown, Eva and Stephanie still talk every single day, and Ben is now a deacon at the church.

Aja wilson baptism

A’ja Wilson and Joseph Duncan at baptism at Saint John.

Stephanie Duncan

A’ja’s grandfather ultimately preached at Saint John’s for more than 50 years. A’ja attended the preschool at the church and she later worked with the schoolchildren through an internship when she was a young teenager. So strongly tied to the program is A’ja that she attended the funeral services for her former preschool teacher a few years ago.

The church was located 10 minutes from grandparents on both sides of her family, so as Wilson says, “all roads lead to Saint John Baptist Church.”

Those roads continue to lead Wilson back home. Last November, through a collaboration with Microsoft and the A’ja Wilson Foundation, Wilson returned to Saint John once again to give young kids tablets to work and learn on. Wilson’s foundation focuses on providing resources to children with dyslexia and provides additional educational opportunities.

“I love going back when I can to give back when I can, because there’s been a lot of people in Columbia [who have] helped me be the person that I am today and that everyone sees,” Wilson said. “It’s a lot of fun to go back and see how things have never changed, and also to see things change and grow.”

Once a young girl playing in the pews and singing in the choir at the church, Wilson is now a mentor to the youth attending Saint John.

“She’s always giving back, whether it’s monetary, or when she comes home, she’ll go over and she’ll go into the preschool and the kids are just losing their minds when she walks in,” Stephanie Duncan said. “Because they all know who she is. They all know that at one point, she was a little girl going to this same preschool.”

Wilson was diagnosed with dyslexia when she was in high school; she worked hard in school but never got the results she felt she deserved. And she would watch her parents working to make ends meet to send her to a private high school and to keep up with the latest equipment and supplies that she needed to excel.

Aja Wilson kid photo2

Wilson with her godson, one of Ben and Stephanie Duncan’s grandchildren.

Stephanie Duncan

Wilson says that work ethic comes from her maternal grandmother, Hattie Rakes.

Rakes was a single mother of four who always made sure that her children had doughnuts and dessert, working hard to make sure her kids wouldn’t see the struggles she overcame to give them a comfortable life.

“It just fuels me,” Wilson said. “I felt like it was just always instilled in me. But at the same time my parents -- they would allow me to have things, but they never really gave it to me. I had to work to get it, and to have a good reason as to why I needed it.”

Work ethic isn’t all that’s reflected in Wilson’s achievements. When Wilson had a statue erected in her honor on campus at her alma mater, the University of South Carolina, in 2021, she noted that Rakes was not permitted to walk on that campus at her age.

“If only she was here today,” Wilson said at the time, “to see that the same grounds she had to walk around, now is the same grounds that houses a statue of her granddaughter.”

Even Wilson’s own parents didn’t have the same opportunities to attend South Carolina that A’ja did: her dad, Roscoe, an elite basketball player himself, entered college the same year that the first Black student-athletes enrolled at South Carolina. At the height of the Civil Rights Movement, schools and universities were only just becoming desegregated; USC was integrated in 1963.

Coming to terms with being revered today in a state that was racially segregated just a few decades ago is something Wilson thinks about with an eye on the future.

A'ja Wilson kid photo1

A’ja Wilson and Joseph Duncan at Frankie’s Fun Park as kids.

Stephanie Duncan

“I take it all with a grain of salt, just knowing and understanding that there’s things that need to be planted to help flourish the next generation,” she said. “And it is one of [my] duties to do that. And if that means that I can have that statue there, and people know, and kids can go and see and say, ‘Oh my gosh, she can do it, I know I can,’ that’s all a part of it. Yes, the change is coming, but we still have a lot more work to do, and I’m totally down with helping us continue to speed the growth process up as much as we can.”

Wilson still has a long career ahead of her, but she does think about returning to South Carolina one day and helping the community that shaped her.

“[I’m] looking forward to just bridging the gap of different people at different levels: going from high school to college, college to the pros; bridging those gaps, and having people prepare not necessarily just for the basketball side of it, but everything in between. The life side of it, and having resources be accessible to young kids that may not have that, but still want to play the game,” Wilson said. “I think that’s just where my lane is.”

Wilson’s affection for the community and the church is mutual. Saint John’s celebrates every one of her accomplishments on the basketball court; with every award comes a moment of recognition at Sunday service.

A'ja Wilson church graphic

One of the many graphics Saint John Baptist Church has made to celebrate A’ja’s achievements.

Stephanie Duncan

Even so, A’ja’s awards are often an afterthought for the congregation.

“When people ask me about A’ja,” Ben Duncan said, “I tell them: She’s a better person than she is a basketball player.”