For three decades we’ve covered many amazing basketball characters, but some stand above the rest—not only because of their on-court skills (though those are always relevant), but because of how they influenced and continue to influence basketball culture, and thus influenced SLAM. Meanwhile, SLAM has also changed those players’ lives in various ways, as we’ve documented their careers with classic covers, legendary photos, amazing stories, compelling videos and more.
We compiled a group of individuals (programming note: 30 entries, not 30 people total) who mean something special to SLAM and to our audience. Read the full list here and order your copy of SLAM 248, where this list was originally published, here.
When A’ja Wilson appeared alongside then-Las Vegas Aces teammate Liz Cambage on the cover of SLAM 223, they became the third and fourth women to ever do so. That was back in July 2019. Wilson was in her second year in the W after being selected as the No. 1 pick in 2018, and had already added WNBA Rookie of the Year and All-Rookie First Team honors to her professional basketball résumé. But A’ja had yet to emerge into her full MVP form. The Gamecocks had yet to name the statue in her honor. The WNBA had yet to make her the face of the League.
As for us, well, not to brag or anything, but we always knew that the Columbia, SC, native was it. Way back in 2014, Ryan Jones interviewed her over the phone for a piece that ran in PUNKS (our high school section, now called The Come Up). At the time, Wilson hadn’t yet graduated from Heathwood Hall Episcopal School, and she admitted in her interview that she was “nervous” leading up to the USA Basketball U18 national team tryouts. The interview, which is featured in the SLAM Digital Archive (go subscribe via slamgoods.com!) is a must-read for any and all basketball fans because it shows, in its truest form, the story of a star before even she knew she’d become one.
“I can say definitely the two things that stick out from the interview are just her poise and her confidence,” Jones told me. “You’ve interviewed enough of the HS kids so you know how it is—some of them really come off like the kids they still are, but a relative few have this maturity that gets your attention. A’ja definitely had that. And the confidence, too—she wasn’t cocky, but just very self-assured. Especially now as a parent of teens myself, I’m always so impressed when anyone has that sort of confidence at 17 or 18.”
Wilson’s decision to attend South Carolina was then a bold move for a top recruit, but Dawn Staley’s program, in A’ja’s own words, was “on the rise,” and Wilson, like her teammates, had the goal of winning a national championship. She’d do that and a lot more during her college career. First, SEC Freshman of the Year. She’d become an NCAA champion and the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player in 2017, plus the consensus National Player of the Year and the Lisa Leslie Award winner the season after. Oh, and she was a First Team All-American and the SEC Player of the Year from 2016-18, and the conference’s Defensive Player of the Year in 2016 and 2018. That’s all before she made it to the League and graced the cover of SLAM not once, but on three different occasions—including the WNBA champs issue two years in a row—and last year’s third issue of WSLAM.
When I sat down with Wilson and her Aces teammates at the WSLAM 3 cover shoot, she exuded poise. She was unapologetically herself both in front of the camera and off it. It’s that confidence that’s driven her to take over the League and become a two-time MVP and two-time champion.
Our 2023 Champs cover of Wilson rocking black Air Force 1s and standing so valiantly is the epitome of what makes women’s basketball so exciting and so damn fun. She’s the face of the League, of WSLAM, of where the game is heading in the years to come. And just as we’ve shown her love over the years, she’s shown it right back, from attending our 2023 WNBA All-Star party which celebrated the WSLAM 3 cover release to consistently reposting our content. Relationships like these are bigger than magazine covers and interviews, but we’re so grateful that we get to do what we do with stars like her.
“Watching her in the [almost] decade since [the PUNKS interview], she’s definitely one of those players I look back on with a little bit of pride, not that I predicted HOF-caliber greatness, but just that from talking to her at that age, I expected her to be really, really good,” Jones says. “It’s been very cool to see her basically be the whole package, as far as one of the handful of players with both the game and personality to basically carry the W into the next generation.”
Photo via Getty Images.