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WNBA star A'ja Wilson on speaking her truth and giving back to the next generation

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As the NCAA women's tournament kicks off, WNBA's 2020 Most Valuable Player A'ja Wilson speaks to CBSN contributor Antjuan Seawright about battling depression, using her platform to help others and her advice for young athletes hoping to walk in her shoes.

Video Transcript

- With the women's NCAA tournament underway in San Antonio, legends like A'ja Wilson are reflecting on their college careers and life in the WNBA. Wilson was one of the nation's top recruits out of high school. She chose the University of South Carolina to play under the legendary coach Dawn Staley. Wilson helped the Gamecocks clinch their first NCAA Championship. She also learned how to be a force for justice off the court.

The reigning WNBA MVP is recognized for using her platform to address issues ranging from systemic racism to mental health. During the 2020 season, she was at the forefront of the WNBA's battle to address the pay disparities within the league. CBS News contributor Antjuan Seawright sat down with the All-Star to discuss her journey to becoming the newest face of the league.

A'JA WILSON: Being that young girl from Hopkins, South Carolina, not having a clue what she wanted to do, her basketball uniform's falling off of her. To then be the number one recruit going into college and then be a national champion leaving college. And then to be drafted number one and now MVP, it's things that I couldn't even put into words. If you would have asked 16-year-old A'ja, where would she be now? She definitely wouldn't have listed things that I just said.

ANTJUAN SEAWRIGHT: Some people see your glory, but they do not understand your story. Talk about your battle with dyslexia, because that is something that we don't always talk about when we think about the face of the WNBA, A'ja Wilson.

A'JA WILSON: Yeah. When it comes to my story with dyslexia, it was a tough one for me to really speak out about. Because being an athlete, people see the accolades, people see you in the uniform. But they don't really understand that you're still human at the end of the day.

ANTJUAN SEAWRIGHT: You've had a lot of success at a very young age, including you are one of very few people in the world to have a statue at the college you went to, representative of you. Talk about that. What you think that means for little girls and boys who are watching, who grown up wanting to be on the stage you are and what did that personally mean for you?

A'JA WILSON: It means the world when you know that the next generation can really go up to that statue and see what a young, black girl did in, at her school, and then also in her community. Like, I could have went anywhere. I could have went to who knows where, but at the end of the day, I stayed home because I knew that it could be something that's bigger than me. I wanted to play for a woman that looked like me, that did everything that I wanted to do.

And for me to accomplish as much as I have at the University of South Carolina, it probably wouldn't have even been into play if I didn't have those people like my parents and my grandmother planting those seeds for me to succeed. So when it comes to that statue, I know it's so much bigger than the basketball accolades, and that's what really makes my heart so happy. Because my grandmother couldn't even walk where I was standing that day when I said my speech.

And like, I always talk about planting seeds when it comes to just the next generation. And here I am reaping the benefits of a seed that my grandmother planted way before she even knew she was having a granddaughter named A'ja Wilson. So, and to think that my dad probably couldn't even play at the University of South Carolina.

ANTJUAN SEAWRIGHT: You know, earlier I had the opportunity to sit down with your former coach and my dear friend, Coach Dawn Staley. And she mentioned about being a dream merchant for you and so many other players.


ANTJUAN SEAWRIGHT: What does it mean to hear from the GOAT, Dawn Staley, when she says those kind of things about you?

A'JA WILSON: It's truly amazing. Like, a lot of people see Coach Staley and I. We're normally like, joking around or just like talking our you know what. But at the end of the day, she is my second mom.

She's someone that has been a role model to me and I'm just so grateful that I had an opportunity to play alongside of her, like, to be coached by her. I don't think people understand like, yes, I love putting on that garnet and black and yes I love repping for my own state. When you're playing for a woman that looks like you, like, it gives you-- it fuels you with so much love and so much firepower. Because you're like, I'm playing for her. Like, I'm playing for things that she was trying to fight through.

That's kind of how I think all of us, especially in the WNBA, felt playing at South Carolina. Like, yes, it was cool playing and for our teammates, and for the team, and the school. But when you're playing against the-- like playing for the GOAT, like, that is just a whole different conversation that I could really get into.

ANTJUAN SEAWRIGHT: Sticking to Coach Staley for a second. I asked her in my conversation with her, what did she see as the challenges going forward in women's basketball. So I'll ask you the same question. From where you started the game--


ANTJUAN SEAWRIGHT: Where you have evolved, and where you are now, and you get to look back and see other people come along. What do you see the challenges?

A'JA WILSON: I think the biggest thing is, I always would say, if I see her I can be her. If you don't see me, how are you going to be able to think that that's even OK or you can do that? And I think that's the big hurdle that we face, that I've seen, is that representation, is seeing women-- Black women on the sidelines coaching other Black women. Like, that is so key.

It makes-- I know it changed my life playing for Coach Staley for sure. Like, our league is predominantly Black, but yet we only have one Black woman on the sidelines. So those little things like that, I think it could kind of be a hurdle and a struggle right now. But hopefully things will change and things will open up.

ANTJUAN SEAWRIGHT: You were the league's MVP last year. And despite falling short in the finals, you wrote a column for "The Players Tribune" titled "Dear Black Women" and you discuss your ongoing battle with depression. Talk about that, how you since made adjustments and how you handled that in spite of all your success on the court, off the court, but yet in your personal life, you battled with things that ordinary people battle with, like depression.

A'JA WILSON: Mental health is always something that's really tough to talk about, but I'm glad that athletes that are on a platform can share our stories in a way to show people that we're all going through it. And the biggest thing, how I deal with it is just understanding that I have to feel the feelings. Like, if I'm not feeling good that day, it's OK to not feel good that day. I think I got caught up in trying to face and be that person that each fan or each person wanted me to be.

And that's just physically impossible. But I just thought that I could do it. And once I kind of got past that, that I can't please everybody and always someone's going to always have something to say, I just realized that I really just need to feel the feelings. I need to be who I am through and through and if you don't like it, whatever.

ANTJUAN SEAWRIGHT: You know, we've talked about you basically using your platform as athlete to advocate for things that are important to you. Whether it's mental health, dyslexia, about whatever, your foundation or just your AAU team in South Carolina with little girls. But you also were involved into the election last cycle and encouraging people to vote. Why did you feel the need to step into that arena?

A'JA WILSON: Yeah. I mean, they were just super important because it's the life that I live. Like, the decisions that we make in the polls, in the election booth, like, that goes-- it's not just a day. Like, that is just our lives.

I love that I'm a part of a league that is so open and so diverse and filled with women that stand for something. Because if you don't stand for anything, you're going to fall for anything. And I'm just so happy to be alongside of them, that I can kind of sit-in and listen and figure out how-- where I want to do-- what I want to do in this world, in this community. And Those two were the biggest things, especially in the bubble.

And I'm just so glad that it turned out the way that it turned out. Because when people say the WNBA is so important, that's a reason. We're not just talking about like, we're just hoopers on the court. No. We change seats, literally. Like, we-- like, it's amazing to watch it all happen.

So it just honestly, that's what fueled me. It's like, we're talking about my life here. We're talking about my wallet here. Like, we can't-- you can't mess around with those things.

ANTJUAN SEAWRIGHT: Let me ask my final question. When it's all said and done, and the lights in the gym are cut off on the basketball career of A'ja Wilson, you want the world to say what and remember her about-- by what?

A'JA WILSON: I don't want them to say, like, she was one hell of a player, but the type of person that she was is just off the charts. I think that's something that I really want to leave my footprint on. Is like, woo, she could really drive that basketball. That girl good. Like, oh, she was good.

But then I really want them to take a step back and say, but the things that she did in her community, how she uplifted the youth, how she left a mark for the next generation, like, that is what's so important to me. Like that's my why is being that tangible role model that people can see and communicate with and grow and say, OK, I want to be like her. Not just on the basketball court, but off the court as well.