COLUMBIA — The water cooler discussions, or these days, the posts on an online message board, are always fascinating. They change daily, often hourly, because of the breadth of the topic.
Whose faces would be chiseled onto the Mount Rushmore of South Carolina athletics?
All candidates are worthy. No doubting that.
Sometime within the next three weeks, if they haven’t already, all should be bumped aside for the new No. 1, who will end her magnificent career with team and individual glory never before seen.
A’ja Wilson, take your place.
“Besides me. No, she’s done a heck of a lot more than I did, other than winning the Heisman Trophy. Winning the conference four times in a row? Who’s heard of that? She’s definitely one of the top.”
GEORGE ROGERS, 1980 Heisman Trophy winner
The accolades by themselves are astounding. Three-time SEC Player of the Year. Four-time All-American. Already named National Player of the Year by two publications with more coming.
Wilson has won nearly every award there is (Final Four most outstanding player, SEC Tournament MVP, SEC defensive player of the year, SEC freshman of the year), and that’s just in her college career. When it comes to high school awards, her parents’ Hopkins home nearly overflows.
“They’re all over at our house, part of our furniture,” father Roscoe Wilson said. “Her room at Carolina is so small, I think she just keeps some of her rings. Most everything’s she ever won is pretty much at our house. Her mother has it pretty well displayed.”
All are a constant reminder of how hard Roscoe worked with his only daughter, but it’s not the well-trod tale of a parent pushing his child to the breaking point. A’ja Wilson put herself there by her own choice.
“She knew it before I did. I knew she was going to be a good player because she had a good worth ethic, a good attitude, but to the level that she is?,” Roscoe said. “No. I didn’t dream of it going like this.”
The weighted vest she donned to improve her jumper, the hours she toiled until her gangly body became trained for any move, any contact she could absorb in the lane, all blossomed into a player so skilled one felt sorry for the others on the court. At South Carolina, surrounded by Dawn Staley’s first elite team, she was allowed to progress into her role instead of being thrown directly into the inferno, and that also paid off as she became the most complete player in the country.
Roscoe and mother Eva will watch their daughter bid farewell to a crowd that adores her as the hometown star that transformed the Gamecocks from good to great. Wilson’s Colonial Life Arena career will end after Sunday’s game hosting Virginia in the NCAA Tournament’s second round, but Wilson could have as much as four games left to play, in Albany, N.Y., and Columbus, Ohio.
Wilson is projected as the No. 1 pick in the WNBA draft, meaning her professional career would begin in Las Vegas and continue, during the WNBA offseason, overseas if Wilson chooses. Roscoe has had her so close for 21 years but is so used to following her to Russia, Lithuania, wherever his little girl was playing, that it’s going to be hard to pull back.
“An empty nest is an empty nest. I will miss her just like I miss my son,” Roscoe said. “She’s my daughter, so going anywhere, I’m always praying for her safe delivery. But realistically, A’ja can take care of herself.”
“She is now. But back in my day, I was. If I paved the way, I think I still am, because so much has changed. She’s the topping. She’s a wonderful player, a great person, taking nothing from her, but I think when you’re the stepping stone, you pave the way. That’s what I was.”
SHEILA FOSTER, USC career-leading rebounder and No. 2 career scorer (Wilson passed her this season)
Staley could claim a piece of USC’s Mount Rushmore after turning a 10-win bunch of tough believers into a talent-riddled squad that won a national championship in less than a decade.
It wouldn’t have happened so quickly without that phone call.
Staley loves to tell of Wilson’s name on caller ID and picking it up minutes before Wilson was set to announce her decision. Her breath held, Staley managed to breezily say “Hey,” then felt a stone drop into her stomach when Wilson sounded nothing like her happy-go-lucky self.
She was only fooling. With Staley hearing the somber tone and preparing to hear, “Coach, thanks, but I’m going to Connecticut/Tennessee/North Carolina (Wilson has never said who her No. 2 choice was, but during her recruitment, she was said to have really liked the way she looked in that orange uniform),” a burst of sun melted the clouds.
Wilson’s presence, even as a sixth woman that first season, turned USC into a Final Four team and a staple of the top 10. The Gamecocks have never stepped down with Wilson in uniform.
"Yes! I can say it, because look what she's done," Staley said. "And not look what she's done, you look at where she's taken this program and all the things that are synonymous with her in our program. Maybe I still need to be here another 10 years to figure out what everybody else has done for their respective sports, but to make us a nationally prominent program, sustained over her four years, is quite incredible."
It’s not to discount what others did — Staley’s first NCAA Tournament team, led by five seniors who got their teeth kicked in for most of their careers, laid the groundwork and a wave of local recruited talent kept the rocket pointed into space — but with Wilson, USC was just too much to handle.
The Gamecocks lost 71 games over Staley’s first six seasons. With Wilson, they’ve lost 15. From 1979-2014, USC had one 30-win season, and its highest ranking was seventh.
The past four seasons, USC has won 30-plus games three times and spent several weeks at No. 1.
“Yes, without a doubt. When you have accomplished what she’s done individually as a player and what her team has accomplished, she’s the best to ever put on a Gamecock uniform, hands down!”
BJ McKIE, USC career-leading men’s scorer
Cover the game for 34 years, and the list has to be constantly revised. It’s not held to four faces on a Mount Rushmore, it’s more of a top-10 of the best she’s ever seen.
ESPN’s Mechelle Voepel doesn’t have a number off the top of her head, but among the greatest? Oh, yeah.
“I put her on that top tier of players all-time because she has things she’s done that really separate her, even from other great players,” Voepel said of Wilson. “Don’t know if I’ve sat down and ranked them 1-10, but there is a tier, that group you always think about, and she’s in there.”
Diana Taurasi. Chamique Holdsclaw. Breanna Stewart. Sheryl Swoopes. Maya Moore. Brittney Griner. Candace Parker.
“When you think about their greatness in college, I add success of what they did as pros. I think A’ja’s going to be a No. 1 pick and it’s going to be a great pro career,” Voepel said. “That she’s doing things that nobody else has done in the SEC really stands out. That conference has many of the greatest athletes to ever play women’s basketball. Four tournament titles and player of the year three times? That sets her apart.”
“First thing I think of is I don’t know how she’s not, really. You hate to classify male-female, but there was George Rogers and the late Earl Bass, BJ McKie … but A’ja Wilson, you certainly can make the argument that she is. I don’t know how anyone can go wrong by saying she’s the greatest of all time.”
KIP BOUKNIGHT, 2000 Golden Spikes Award winner
The simple question was posed to the other greats of USC history, the top individual award-winners, record-holders and a number retirees who are always among that Rushmore discussion.
“Is A’ja Wilson the greatest Gamecock of all time?”
All had their own responses, but no one ever said, “No.”
“We got a lot of greats. I think it’s rare in major college athletics for a highly touted athlete in any sport that enters college as the No. 1 player in that sport, to live up to that billing that she has, on the court and off the court,” said athletics director Ray Tanner, up for Rushmore status as a two-time national champion coach. “So certainly she will go down in history as one of the greatest of all time.”
A’ja Wilson is a player who transcended the game, named the best in the country and someone who made her team reach its highest level. She never showed up in headlines for something other than her brilliance on the basketball court and her worldly, humble, friendly approach to anyone who ever came into contact with her. She represented the University of South Carolina in a manner every bit as first-class as the way she dominated courts across the planet.
“As time went on, she told me she wanted to be the best player in the country, in the world,” Roscoe Wilson said. “When I look back on it, who A’ja is, it doesn’t surprise me. A’ja goes after what she goes after, and what she goes after, she’s going to get.”
As her career ends, with that Rushmore debate forever to rage, many offer that A’ja Wilson is the greatest. It’s a monologue with no definite answer, just facts, opinions and thoughts.
Greatest by her family. Greatest by her coach. Greatest by a national eye. Greatest by USC’s other Greatests.
Not greatest female. Not greatest basketball player.