A’ja Wilson can be normal teen — for a month

Grandmother Hattie Rakes was the first to know about Wilson’s decision

dcloninger@thestate.comApril 24, 2014 

A'ja Wilson embraces her grandmother, Hattie Rakes, after celebrating her decision to attend USC and play basketball for the Gamecocks.

TRACY GLANTZ — tglantz@thestate.com

The cameras were stowed, the awnings folded and the trophies placed back in the case. After A’ja Wilson ensured a bright future at South Carolina by committing to the Gamecocks last week, she could return to the business of being a 17-year-old high-school senior.

Of course, she’s still receiving attention. Going out for a night of bowling or running errands at Target each featured instances of strangers thanking her for choosing USC. That’s life when you’re the No. 1 prospect in the nation – and not easy to hide at 6-foot-5.

But even those random meetings have been relaxing. No more calls, Tweets or speculation about where she’s going. She’s coming to USC (reporting for the first summer session) and is about to graduate from Heathwood Hall Episcopal School.

A short – but earned – time to relax.

“Prom is this Saturday, and I’m going with a couple of my friends,” Wilson said this week. “I went bowling with my cousins, and I’m slowly getting back to the regular teenage life. Coach (Dawn) Staley gave me a manual, and we’re getting everything rolling pretty soon.”

Wilson’s recruitment was one of secrecy. She never publicly named a leader and kept what she was thinking of each school to herself – thanks to spreadsheets listing pros and cons that mom Eva Wilson set up and A’ja filled out after each official visit.

While it was suggested that one school was in front and then another made a late push, Wilson said that all four of her finalists were pretty much on equal ground throughout. She knew that each school was going to roll out the red carpet for her visit and ensuing recruitment, so she didn’t get wrapped up in what each did.

She would talk to her family and get their opinions – not on what schools they liked, but on how they felt she embraced each school. Wilson would even talk to her grandmother, Hattie Rakes, about the decision.

“I would throw out my four schools, and she would say, ‘A’ja, you do whatever you want to do, I’ll be behind you 100 percent,’ ” Wilson said. “She wasn’t leaning to one school, she was going to follow me, saying, ‘I might not necessarily be there physically, but I’ll be there behind you 100 percent.’”

Close friend Kaydra Duckett, the first commitment and one of the main recruiters for the rest of USC’s star-studded class, talked to Wilson but didn’t try to sway her.

“The key thing was not talking to A’ja about recruiting,” Duckett said. “Letting her make her decision where she was the most comfortable was all I wanted. I told her she’d always have a friend in me, even if she didn’t choose USC.”

When it came time to choose, Wilson had an idea that it would be USC, but kept it to herself even as the Heathwood gym began to be set up. When Rakes was wheeled in, Wilson locked eyes with her.

“Once I saw her, we kind of smiled at each other. We kind of knew what was going on,” Wilson said. “She was really the only person that I told about my decision before my parents. She kind of knew before anyone.”

Rakes cheered as loud as anyone when Wilson looked into the ESPNU cameras and pledged to USC. As Wilson plowed through the obligatory interviews and film spots, she couldn’t help but feel excited – and relieved.

“It’s really been great, this past week,” Wilson said. “I’ve gotten to relax and enjoy everything. Just a ton of weights have been lifted off my shoulders.”

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