As a color commentator and in-studio analyst for ESPN and SEC Network, former South Carolina women’s basketball great A’ja Wilson has put her fandom aside in favor of objective analysis over the past few months.
When the No. 12 Gamecocks face No. 5 Connecticut on Monday, however, rooting for USC will literally be her job.
As part of ESPN’s coverage of the game, Wilson and UConn alum Sue Bird will sit behind their respective teams’ benches and offer light-hearted smack talk and observations throughout the game. The alternate feed will be streamed in full on WatchESPN and the ESPN app, with portions utilized throughout the main ESPN2 broadcast.
“Just really going back and forth at each other, talking up our teams and giving the fans a different view of the game, not necessarily just from the commentators of the game, but from former players who have played in that situation, especially for me, being in that situation ... being in that rivalry,” Wilson told The State. “I think she’s a good smack talker, and I’m a smack talker as well, so it’s going to be a lot of fun.”
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Bird is 16 years older than Wilson, so they never played each other in college, but they have built a relationship playing with and against each other in the WNBA and with USA Basketball.
“Sue’s a great person. She’s just an all-around fun person to be around. She speaks what’s on her mind. She’s not the loudest voice in the room, but she definitely gets her point across, and I do appreciate that. She’s one of the trailblazers of our league and our game,” Wilson said.
As for the game itself, South Carolina will likely be the heavy underdog, on the road and playing a team it’s never beaten before. But Wilson is still picking the Gamecocks to win, though she declined to predict a final score.
Part of Wilson’s confidence in Carolina comes from the growth she’s seen in this year’s squad from a 4-4 start to 17-5 now.
“They had a tough, tough, tough (nonconference schedule), oh my gosh. But they’ve come out and they’ve still held their ground. They still showed they don’t back down,” Wilson said. “I think a lot of people were on pins and needles and on the edge of their seats just wondering what was going to happen after I left, but I had full confidence in the group of girls they have, because they understand, they know it just takes a little time when you lose big pieces.”
Announcing isn’t the only thing Wilson has been up to since returning from China to rehab a knee injury. She’s healthy enough now to play in the NBA All-Star Celebrity Game on Feb. 15, where she will once again be coached by South Carolina head coach Dawn Staley.
“I’m just excited, I’m glad to have fun with the game surrounded by the big names in Hollywood and the celebrity world and just tagging along with them,” Wilson said.
On the court, Wilson’s second WNBA season is fast approaching, after an offseason in the league marked by one All-Star, Liz Cambage, requesting a trade, and another, Maya Moore, announcing she would not play basketball in 2019. As a vocal proponent of off-court issues for players, Wilson gave her thoughts on both situations.
“With the Maya Moore situation, I’ll stand behind her 100 percent because she’s doing what’s best for her and at the end of the day that’s what you have to do. The same goes for Liz Cambage. She’s doing what’s best for her, she’s gonna go wherever she thinks it’s best for her, and that’s what it’s all about. And it gets tough, even on the NBA side of it, it gets ugly at times, because you really have to do what’s best for you and take it all in stride and continue to work hard and be the player and the person that you are,” Wilson said.