Brute Strength

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I was 13 when I first met Dawn Staley. We shook hands at a basketball camp.

I didn’t think it was such a big deal, meeting the head coach of the South Carolina women’s basketball team. I wasn’t very into basketball back then. I had other stuff on my mind.

Teenagers, you know?

I thought camp was stupid. Basketball was my dad’s thing — he’d played pro overseas. I didn’t want to spend my summer playing ball. I was a kid who liked hanging out at home, watching TV, and having the occasional sleepover at a friend’s. I wasn’t trying to be outside shooting 1,000 free throws in the driveway before the sun came up every morning.

But I came home from school a couple of days before summer vacation started and my dad was sitting at the table like, “Hey, we signed you up for a basketball camp on Monday.”

He was smiling like it was the best thing in the world. By my reaction you’d have thought he told me that he had signed me up to go to war.

“I’ll never go! I’ll never be like you!”

“A’ja, it’s only a one day camp.”

“… Still.”

Teenagers, you know?

To me, camp just meant daycare … but with a basketball. So I pretty much had my arms crossed and a sour look on my face the day I walked in the door of the gym. Also, it meant I had to get up very early in the morning, which, again … it was summer vacation. No kid wants to get up early in the summer.

And this camp, it wasn’t one of those prestigious, invite-only camps where you get former NBA players for coaches. No, it was just one of those big, public camps with 50 kids running around a gym, balls bouncing all over the place, and at the end you play a big game of knockout and everybody gets to take home a water bottle or a certificate or whatever.

I didn’t stand out. It’s funny to think about how awkward I was. I didn’t really perform better than anyone at the camp at all as far as I can remember. I might’ve been the tallest girl there, but that’s all. I wasn’t a natural with the ball. I remember I saw one kid dribbling between his legs and I was like, “Wow his dad probably plays for the Harlem Globetrotters.”

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At the end of camp we all had to stand up and get in a line so we could get our certificates, and that’s when I officially met Dawn Staley. She’d only been at South Carolina for two or three years at that point, so it’s not like everyone instantly recognized her. She just happened to be the one handing out certificates to thank us for coming to camp. For whatever reason she came up to me and specifically asked me my name.

She shook my hand, handed me a certificate and looked me right in the eyes.

“Uh, I’m A’ja,” I said to her.

I still remember what she said: “I’m going to have to remember that.”

It gives me chills to think about today.

But back then? At 13? Nah.

I was thinking, I don’t know what you want to remember my name for. You’ll probably never see me again. Did you see the kid who can dribble between his legs?

School was stupid, too.

That’s how I felt growing up. It was like a really bad dream. And this activity called “popcorn reading” … that was my nightmare.

A teacher would pick one student from class to read a passage from a book, and then after they read a paragraph or two, they’d stop reading and say “popcorn” followed by another student’s name. Whoever’s name they said had to pick up where she or he left off.

I got popcorned a lot. And anyone who popcorned me became my enemy. Don’t popcorn me.

The truth is, I had trouble with reading. And I was always embarrassed to read in front of the whole class, under pressure. I struggled when it came to anything related to English class, reading assignments, literature. When my teachers, and even my parents, first noticed that I was doing poorly at reading, they all had the same reaction.

“You’re just being lazy, A’ja. You need to try harder.”

But that’s the thing. I was trying. I really was.

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It’s not that I flat out couldn’t read. I definitely could … but I didn’t always comprehend what I was reading. When we’d have to read long passages from books, I just — I’d get so mixed up. I’m not sure how else to explain it. One minute I would understand it, the next minute I would be all turned around. I knew it was an issue I needed to work on. At home, I tried to get better at reading books on my own. I wanted to keep up with everyone else so bad. Sometimes I’d think I was actually making real progress — but then we’d have a test, and I’d go back to zero. The bell would ring before I was even halfway through the questions.

It’s funny — how do you prove to somebody that you’re trying? In most things, the more work you put in the better your end results, but that just wasn’t happening with my reading. No matter how many hours I spent in front of a book, sometimes I’d just end up taking away nothing. When I knew we had a test the next day, I’d spend the whole night getting prepared and studying for hours like I knew I was supposed to — like I knew all of the other kids were doing. Then the test would be in front of me, and I wouldn’t be able to understand it.

Honestly, my first reaction was that something was unfair. It was like, How is everybody else reading this so fast? I knew my friends weren’t putting in more work than me. So it didn’t make sense that they were handing in their tests before I was even through the first page.

At that point, early in high school, I felt like I was losing my mind. I hated the idea that no matter how much work I put in on my own, there was this one thing I just couldn’t get better at. So in my head it seemed like there were only two possibilities:

Either school was stupid, or I was.

My dad had always encouraged me to play basketball, he didn’t push me too much at first — he wanted me to try out lots of hobbies and other sports and try to find my own path. I played volleyball for a while. Eventually I did end up loving basketball on my own terms. And as I got into high school, I was getting better at basketball and growing into my height. So I used basketball to compensate for being so behind in school stuff. Actually, basketball started to make a lot more sense to me than school ever did.

When I was weak with my right hand, I could work on driving with my right hand until I got better. If I was missing shots at the elbow, I’d take more shots at the elbow until I got better.

So why didn’t it work like that for me in school?

By sophomore year, I was lost. My parents knew it, and wanted to get me help, but they also knew that I was the kind of person that didn’t want to ever admit that I had a weakness. I was never O.K. with the idea that something might be wrong with me.

One morning a few months into the school year, I got called out of class. Heathwood Hall is a big private school, with a main building and several smaller trailers spread across many acres. Someone led me all the way to the other end of the campus and sat me down in a freezing cold trailer, across from a woman I had never seen before. She started asking me to fill out all kinds of papers, and then to read these long passages — all different kinds of reading, excerpts from novels, short sentence worksheets, a big map with all kinds of numbers and colors on it.

Courtesy of A'ja Wilson

I still had no idea why I was even there. I started thinking that I was being tested for some new class. So I just did what she told me as best I could, at first just wanting to get it over with.

It didn’t take long for me to get overwhelmed. The woman could tell.

“I can read the words,” I kept trying to explain. “They’re just … not right.”

Once again, I felt dumb.

When we were done, the specialist went away and when she came back, my parents came into the room. I remember being asked if I knew what a “learning disability” was. I said I didn’t.

And that was the day I found out that I had something called dyslexia. Basically, my brain had a hard time comprehending big blocks of text. And that made reading difficult.

I don’t know how I felt finding all that out. In a way, it was a relief, I guess, to be able to put a name to my struggles after so many years. And it was a relief going forward, too, because eventually I was able to get the accommodations and resources that I needed to get along better in school. One of the hardest things for people with dyslexia is trying to keep up with everyone else. You have to go at your own pace.

But that’s not how I wanted it to be. Telling me I had a disability? That I’m disabled? I hated that. I would almost rather people keep telling me that I’m lazy or to keep trying harder.

The last thing I wanted was to have anyone ever feel sorry for me.

So at first I didn’t tell anybody. Only me, my parents and a few other people throughout school knew. I didn’t even tell all of my teachers. Looking back I probably should have, but anyone finding out that I had this weakness back then was just too devastating for me to handle. I went through all of high school keeping it a secret from almost everybody.

It was pretty hard to hide, but I did a pretty good job. Like, if I’d go to eat with teammates after a basketball game I’d always try and make sure we went to a place where I wouldn’t have to read off a new menu and embarrass myself in front of everybody.

But people start to get suspicious. It got to the point like, “A’ja, that’s the fourth time you’ve suggested Chick-fil-A this week. You all right? Can we please have something different?”

No one had any idea that it didn’t have anything to do with food. But anyway, it’s really not difficult to convince people that they want to eat at Chick-fil-A. You can let the quality of the sandwich do most of the work for you. Hiding a learning disability, as I was figuring out, was much harder.

I tried my best. By the time I was a senior, I had been able to accomplish so much in basketball that no one was thinking about whether or not I was having trouble reading.

I mean, nobody except me.

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I got scholarship offers from a lot of schools. But I’d decided to play for Dawn Staley at South Carolina. Before school started I sat down with my parents and an academic advisor from South Carolina, and we decided that every professor should know about my dyslexia.

I never had to just go up to Coach and tell her. But she knew, even before the recruiting process had ended. Freshman year, it was kept pretty quiet. I was doing all right in college thanks to having better resources — and honestly being able to record lectures instead of having to write everything down. That helped a lot.

Sophomore year is when everything changed. Coach Staley had me start reading scripture in the locker room before games.

Some people get nervous playing in front of big opposing crowds, but I’d always be terrified by the thought of having to recite a pregame Psalm. I was having popcorn flashbacks at first, thinking, I’m going to have to quit the team if it doesn’t stop.

Not everyone on the team knew I had dyslexia, either, so at first it was like, “A’ja, what are you doing?”

I don’t know what exactly made everything different after that, but reading like that in front of the team, and being pushed by Coach Staley to do something that she knew made me uncomfortable … I’m serious when I say that everything changed after that reading started.

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It was definitely humiliating at first, but I kept at it. Just straight brute force, every time she asked. I don’t know if she thought it would help, or if it would make me play better, or what. But after a while, it really would make me feel better. It was like I could suddenly talk with people about this secret that had been eating at me for years. Soon I was able to be more of myself, weaknesses and everything. It’s a huge weight off your shoulders when you don’t have to hide things about yourself.

I mean, no, the other girls definitely didn’t always appreciate having to listen to me decipher the Good Word at a snail’s pace, but that’s not the point, is it? To just be able to talk about what’s really bothering you with other people — with friends or family — even if they don’t have an answer to your problem. It’s helpful.

Even today, dyslexia is something that I still struggle with. In the huddle during a game, when we’re drawing up a play, I’ll have to lock in and focus as hard as I can, because it can get difficult to keep the information in order. It’s something that will always be there in the back of my mind. My only real options are to shy away from it, or, you know … brute force the problem.

Over the years, Coach Staley has become like my second mom. And she has helped me with so much on the basketball court that I don’t think I ever directly told her how important she has been in helping me deal with the things that aren’t related to basketball. Especially with dyslexia.

And the truth is that I’d be a completely different person if it wasn’t for her.

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When we met at camp that first day, I didn’t know what a learning disability was. A few years later when I found out I had one, I thought I’d keep it a secret the rest of my life. I’d be that stubborn girl who just took all of her friends exclusively to Chick-fil-A because she didn’t want to admit a weakness.

And here we are now, almost four years into college. I’ve had to deal with physical injuries, personal loss, vertigo. I’ve struggled with things, and I’ve experienced amazing successes. In a way, dyslexia seems like such a small problem now compared to what it felt like back in high school. It’s crazy how time can change your perspective.

And it seems crazy how wrapped up I was with the idea that I would never tell anybody — how the idea of being disabled in any way had to be kept a secret or else I’d never amount to anything.

It’s crazy how all those years ago, I stood in line to shake hands with a person I thought I’d never see or think about again. And how much that person would end up helping me change my life.

Thanks for the certificate, Coach.