It was around fourth or fifth grade when Las Vegas Aces forward A'ja Wilson went outside in the chilly South Carolina air to find her Christmas present. The shiny new basketball hoop was set atop bricks so it would sit evenly on the slope of the yard, and it was immediately put to use.
"That's where it all started," Wilson told Yahoo Sports. "You had to pull me away from the goal at night because I loved it that much."
It's the sports gift that meant the most to Wilson and it still stands in her parents' yard, the net long wasted away from use, but the rim and backboard intact. She said her dad, Roscoe, doesn't plan on moving it until it falls.
That's the kind of special gift Wilson hoped to help give youth athletes in the warmer Las Vegas area this month as part of the Dick's Sporting Goods Sports Matter #GiftofSportTour. Wilson surprised young athletes on video after they chose sports equipment from the truck for the holiday season.
"Seeing the kids just light up when they receive their gifts is something that’s truly special to me, especially giving back to the youth and our next generation of athletes," Wilson told Yahoo Sports. "It’s something that’s truly special because I know that’s how I got started. To partner with them and just seeing everything that they’ve done for the community in Vegas, I’m just happy to be a part of it honestly."
Wilson said it's exciting to see them with items that "get their blood flowing at the next level," just as her hoop did for her. Her resume in the 15 years since that gift reached her parents' yard already includes an MVP trophy, an Olympic gold medal and off-court work that represents a changing ecosystem around women's sports.
A'ja Wilson on NIL deals
Wilson is a beneficiary of growing attention and space given to the WNBA and women's college basketball. The South Carolina national champion already has a statue on the campus, but she was a few years too late to benefit from the name, image and likeness laws that took effect this summer.
"I think honestly [NIL] would have enhanced me, of course, because I feel like collegiate athletes now are learning how important their brand really is right out the gates in high school," Wilson, 25, told Yahoo Sports. "And I think because we didn’t have that, we kind of got the chance to kind of live a little bit. But they’re finding their brand for now as a pro [while they're] in college."
Wilson said if she played collegiately during the NIL era, she would have come into the WNBA with a better grasp of her brand and how to grow it. (She did admit in her characteristic way, "I'm a little jealous, but it's OK.") It could have also helped create more opportunities once she did turn pro.
"I hope that this is something that starts just a domino effect of women getting sponsorships and deals that they deserve," Wilson said. "And it’s pretty cool to see how many different ones these collegiate athletes are getting."
Wilson, who closed out her fourth WNBA season in September, is doing fairly well in that regard.
Wilson on the 'Year of the Woman'
She may not have come into the league with a brand, but she's rocking one now.
The Olympian founded the A'ja Wilson Foundation to support children and their families who struggle with dyslexia. She launched her own candle company run by her mom, Eva. In the 2020 bubble, she and Minnesota Lynx forward Napheesa Collier started a popular podcast.
And Wilson has hit more serious, life-altering tones by joining the WNBA Players Association's social justice council and writing "Dear Black Women" about her mental health. Her sponsorships and deals, like Mountain Dew and Dick's Sporting Goods, assist her community in positive, personal ways.
There are many players still going overseas for year-round play, but it feels like a different WNBA offseason in that many players have stayed home and continued to feed their off-court entrepreneurship. There's offseason news, talk and appearances that keep the league relevant, such as Wilson on Tuesday's episode of Kevin Hart's "Cold as Balls" show. Or last spring's Saweetie music video. Is it because WNBA viewership continues to rise?
"I think it’s a mixture of that and within a couple years it’s been the 'Year of the Woman,' " Wilson told Yahoo Sports. "And everyone is just wanting to pick your brain, wanting you to be in this. We have so many, 'first females to do this,' 'first woman to do that,' these past couple years. I don’t want to say it’s trendy, but I think companies are understanding how powerful the woman is. And we’re showing it and we’re backing it up and it goes from there."
Wilson is a restricted free agent when the offseason officially opens and will garner a large raise from the $70,000 she made in 2021 as a rookie contract holdover from the former collective bargaining agreement. She told Yahoo Sports she hasn't thought much about it and leaves it to her agent.
As for offseason training, she said she'll wait a few months before "getting on Chelsea Gray's nerves" to get in the gym with her point guard. The location of the hoop has changed, but the desire to get to the next level hasn't.