NEW YORK -- A'JA WILSON HUGGED everyone as tears streamed down her cheeks. As she made her way around the court at Barclays Center, she embraced her coaching staff, her teammates, her college coach, Dawn Staley. In a career where at age 27 she already has so many accomplishments, leading an injury-plagued Las Vegas Aces team to a 70-69 victory Wednesday and a second consecutive WNBA title ranks among her proudest achievements.
A week ago, with the Aces up 2-0 in the WNBA Finals, Wilson winning another championship seemed a sure thing. But after a Game 3 loss to the New York Liberty on Sunday and injuries that forced starters Chelsea Gray and Kiah Stokes to the bench for Game 4, the Aces were the ones with their backs against the wall.
But when you have a player like Wilson as a franchise star and inspiration to her teammates, you probably always feel like you're holding all aces.
In Wednesday's postgame news conference, to which she brought two bottles of champagne and was joined by the entire Aces team, Wilson felt the emotions.
"This is a moment that we need to celebrate," said Wilson, named the WNBA Finals MVP after 24 points and 16 rebounds in 39 minutes of play. "Not a lot of people get a chance to do it, and for us to do it short-handed is truly amazing. It just makes this win that much better.
"I'm going to get choked up ... this s--- wasn't easy."
WILSON'S QUEST TO be the best started in childhood. The little girl who loved dancing and art kept a journal about her thoughts, dreams and life questions starting around fourth grade.
"My mom says I always wanted to tell my story," Wilson said. "At the time, I said I wanted to be an author and an illustrator."
Life had some other plans, as Wilson grew to be a 6-foot-4 basketball player of both explosive power and exquisite skill. Wilson is now one of seven WNBA players who have two MVPs, two Defensive Player of the Year awards and a Finals MVP. She's the youngest to achieve all three of those accolades.
She already is mentioned among the WNBA's all-time greats just six seasons into her pro career.
She counts among her friends NBA stars such as LeBron James, who came to watch Wilson and the Aces during the Finals.
She has embraced her adopted home of Las Vegas, while always keeping her South Carolina roots close at heart.
And basketball success hasn't halted her writing pursuits; a book about her journey, "Dear Black Girls: How To Be True To You," will be published next February.
Wilson had even better stats in 2023 than in her 2022 MVP season, although she finished third in MVP balloting -- we'll get to that in a bit. She was named the WNBA's top defensive player for the second year in a row.
Wednesday at Barclays Center, Wilson put the finishing touches on another legacy-building season. She ended the playoffs with 214 points and 106 rebounds, the second time a WNBA player has topped 200 and 100 in those categories in the postseason. The first player to do it? Wilson last year.
She finished with higher averages -- 23.8 points, 11.8 rebounds -- than she had in the regular season (22.8, 9.5). She contested 43 shots in the Finals, the most by any player on either team. For the entire playoffs, opponents shot 30% when contested by Wilson.
"I just try my best to just to be a presence, to contest every shot," Wilson said. "With New York, they've got a lot of weapons. If we can mess it up a little bit, we win."
When discussing Wilson, Aces coach Becky Hammon paused for a second to try to hold back the tears forming in her eyes.
"When you start thinking about the person that she is," Hammon said, "you hope your kids grow up like A'ja."
But Hammon also smiled, knowing Wilson is under contract with the Aces for the next two seasons and is still on the ascent as a player. "Don't let her bubbly personality fool you. It's a great trait, but she's a passionate person," Hammon said.
"She's just hitting her best years. She's at the beginning of her peak."
WOMEN'S BASKETBALL FANS across the country were introduced to Wilson about a decade ago. Major hoops powers everywhere recruited her, but she stayed home in Columbia, South Carolina, to help lift the South Carolina Gamecocks into national prominence with coach Dawn Staley.
In the 2014-15 season, Wilson was a vivacious freshman who wore pearls when she wasn't on court to honor her grandmother. She came off the bench all but one game, leading the Gamecocks in blocked shots and finishing second in scoring. She had 20 points and nine rebounds in the national semifinals as South Carolina made its first Final Four appearance.
In 2017, she led South Carolina to its first national championship. In 2018, she was the national player of the year, the WNBA's No. 1 draft pick and the league's Rookie of the Year, the face of a franchise that relocated to Las Vegas.
The never-ending lights and noise of The Strip weren't her thing, but the city of Las Vegas and the Aces franchise were. In 2020, she won her first MVP and the Aces advanced to their first WNBA Finals. Last year came another MVP and the Aces' first championship.
Now the Aces have won back-to-back titles, something no team had done in the WNBA since 2002. With Las Vegas' "core four" under contract through next season, talk of a three-peat and a second Olympic gold medal will surround Wilson in 2024.
"I notice her patience, the way that she understands how teams are playing her," New York's Breanna Stewart said. "She's continued to embrace a leadership role. She knows her voice matters."
But even though "blessed" is both one of Wilson's most repeated words and how she views her life, she had to fall in love with basketball, the game her father, Roscoe, introduced her to at age 11. She had to focus on it despite many interests pulling her in other directions.
She had to find herself as a young Black woman, adored by her peers but not always feeling that she fit in with them. When she preferred to sleep in or daydream or do anything that didn't involve a basketball, she still made herself see the value of workouts that felt like drudgery, wearing a weighted vest while doing shooting drills under the basket until she wanted to -- and sometimes did -- scream.
Because it was always there, even before she could fully recognize it. The quest to seek the best, to find the best, to be the best.
Example: Wilson always wanted the best candles. Then one day her mother, Eva, suggested she could probably make her own. Thus came Wilson's business, Burnt Wax Candle Company, and she stresses over its candles being the best, too.
"Is it a bamboo wick?" Wilson said. "What smells the best? What's the best for the planet? What can we do to make them even better?"
Wilson's unrelenting ambition has made any setback sting. South Carolina's Sweet 16 loss in 2016. Her final college game, an Elite Eight loss in 2018, followed by the growing pains of a 14-20 record and missing the playoffs as a WNBA rookie. Losing in the 2019 semifinals to the eventual champion Washington Mystics. Falling in the 2020 Finals to the Seattle Storm.
Perhaps no loss caused Wilson more anguish than Game 5 at home versus the Phoenix Mercury in the 2021 semifinals, when the Aces felt they were ready to win the title. In retrospect, these were the kinds of high-level losses that even the greatest players experience. They all led to the magic of the past two seasons in Las Vegas.
But they still bothered Wilson. It's why she acknowledged last month that it "hurt like hell" when she didn't repeat as MVP this season despite improving from a year ago. It wasn't because she didn't admire the performances of Stewart or the Connecticut Sun's Alyssa Thomas, who finished first and second ahead of her in MVP voting. It hurt because she felt she had done everything possible to win the honor.
Yet she also had a healthy perspective about it.
"It's one of those situations I can't really control, so I can't really harp on it," Wilson said the day the MVP was announced. "There's a lot more people out there struggling through things, people who need food, water, shelter. I'm blessed."
Her teammates were upset. The Aces' circle got even tighter. Maybe the worst thing to happen to Las Vegas' playoff opponents was Wilson not winning MVP. That made her more determined, if that's possible.
"There's a presence about her without even saying a word," teammate Chelsea Gray said. "You look at her offense: her jumpers, her moves to the rim, ability to use both hands at the rim. Try to stop her one way, she just spins the other way. She's constantly adding new things to the mix.
"Defensively, her timing is so good, whether it's blocking shots or altering them. And on the pick-and-roll, when guards see a post like her in the lane, it really deters them."
AS A CHILD, Wilson was completing a worksheet with pictures of a hammer, an ambulance, a Band-Aid and a plant. The instructions were to circle the ones that made noise. The first two were obvious. But Wilson circled all four.
"I told my mom that when you pull a Band-Aid off, it makes noise," she said. "When you pull a plant out of its pot or the ground, that makes noise.
"So I was that kid. I was always examining and thinking about everything."
Hammon said Wilson reminds her of Tim Duncan, the San Antonio Spurs great whom Hammon worked with in her time as an NBA assistant.
"Characteristic-wise, traits-wise, they are a lot alike," Hammon said. "From a personality standpoint, he's quieter. A'ja's got a big personality.
"But she also has a tremendous amount of humility. Sometimes I think, 'I don't even know if she knows how good she is.'"
Her opponents know.
"She goes to the basket really hard," New York's Jonquel Jones said. "You want to meet her force with force, but you don't want to get in foul trouble."
Her teammates know.
"I appreciate so much how she plays both sides of the court," guard Kelsey Plum said. "There are no plays off for A'ja."
Wilson won't stop pushing. She even got motivation from her career-high 53 points this season, which tied the WNBA single-game record. She was 20-of-21 from the foul line in that game and said the one miss -- which would have given her the record outright -- "haunts" her.
As competitive as Wilson is, Hammon still goes back to Wilson the person. She calls her a "selfless superstar" who is as concerned with taking care of her teammates as she is taking care of business on the court.
"If it's somebody's birthday, she decorates their locker," Hammon said. "For Pride, she brought in a huge rainbow cake that said, 'Go Gays!' She wants to be an ally, a friend. She wants every one of her teammates to feel they are loved and cared about."
With all the mountains she has already scaled, Wilson sees more to climb. She recalled an early lesson at South Carolina: Don't ever step on court without trying your hardest. She was already wired that way, but that really stuck.
"I never want to disrespect the game that so many greats have played before me," Wilson said. "I don't want to disrespect our fans. Or candle lovers. Or readers. So at everything I do, I'm going to try to be the greatest that I can be."