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The feel-good story of A’ja Wilson getting the monkey off her back

With how close the Las Vegas Aces came to winning it all in each of the past three seasons and with all the high expectations A’ja Wilson has placed on herself, it seems like a huge sigh of relief for her now that she has won her first WNBA championship, even though she's only 26.

2022 WNBA Finals - Game Four
From left to right: Holly Rowe, A’ja Wilson and Becky Hammon
Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

Much was made about the Connecticut Sun finishing in the semifinals or better each of the last three years, but never winning a championship. Well, the Las Vegas Aces were in the same boat. The had fallen in the semis in 2019 and 2021 and in the Finals in 2020.

The Aces may have barely snuck into the 2019 semis on a half court shot by Dearica Hamby, but they gave the eventual-champion Washington Mystics one heck of a series. Though they lost in four not five, they were only outscored by a single point overall. So they really weren’t that far off from winning it all that year. And in 2021, they did go to a Game 5 in the semis and were four points away from advancing to the Finals.

2021 was particularly hard to take given the Aces were prohibitive favorites to win it all entering the season. A’ja Wilson made a great move to the basket with 4.5 seconds remaining in Game 5 and her team down two, but Brittney Griner blocked her layup attempt. When Kelsey Plum’s full court shot to tie missed off the backboard at the buzzer moments later, Wilson bent over and eventually crouched down for nearly two minutes, unable to move away from Phoenix’s basket. Her teammates surrounded her the entire time and eventually helped her off the court.

Coming up short in the 2020 Finals hit Wilson hard too even though the consensus was that she had done all she could against a superior roster and couldn’t be faulted at all.

Wilson had a panic attack a few months after those Finals. Leading up to that, some of her feelings were as follows:

I just felt so angry with myself. I felt like I’d let my team down in the finals. There were a lot of days when I couldn’t get myself out of bed. It was like I genuinely couldn’t even control my movements. I was outside my body, floating up in my own head.

You didn’t do enough. You let everybody down.

You didn’t do enough. You didn’t do enough. You didn’t do enough.

She shared this in an article she wrote for The Players’ Tribune called “Dear Black Women.” The piece called attention to mental health, as Wilson had learned from the experience to take better care of herself and not be afraid of being vulnerable.

Wilson explained that the real reason for her panic attack was the passing of her grandmother:

After that day, I couldn’t pretend like nothing was wrong. Obviously, it wasn’t just basketball. It wasn’t just about the finals. I started to realize that I had been burying this pain and grief for a long time. And I think a big part of it was me not fully coming to terms with the death of my grandmother a few years ago. The last few years of my life have been a really wild ride — going to South Carolina, winning the national championship, getting drafted into the W, the bubble season. When you’re on that roller coaster, it can be hard to process real life. Let alone real loss.

At the end of the day, basketball is just a game. Championships do not define people. As Noelle Quinn said when she was introduced as head coach of the Storm:

I’m not moved by the things of this world. Meaning, I’m not moved by a title, I’m not moved by money, I’m not moved by championships. ... What moves me is my impact.

But sports do two things. They give us stories and they determine which teams are the best through fair competition. And Wilson has undoubtedly scripted a beautiful story through her first five years in the WNBA. Her humor, her ability to be the consummate role model and her determination to win for her team have been inspiring. Now, after trials and tribulations that seemed to last longer than five years, she has been crowned a WNBA champion at age 26, saying at the postgame press conference, “This one’s for my grandma.”

Meanwhile, the Aces have confirmed our suspicion that they are the best team in the WNBA. Sure, Connecticut winning would have offered some great storylines too. But the Aces won for a reason. They brought in a new head coach and a new style that allowed them to get over the hump. And Chelsea Gray and Wilson played like the two best players in the game over the course of the playoffs, giving the team that little extra oomph it needed to finish the job.

In 2020, Wilson dealt with the burden of attaining the highest individual honor possible and not being able to translate it into the ultimate team prize. 2022 was different. She won the regular-season MVP award and the title. She brought the city of Las Vegas its first professional sports championship. She helped her loaded Aces squad live up to the sky-high expectations.

Many people were going to win their first championship regardless of if it was the Aces or Sun coming out on top. Now that it is the Aces, there’s one thing we know for sure considering everything mentioned above: it’s easy to celebrate A’ja.