MINNEAPOLIS — Eva Rakes Wilson, the mother of the W.N.B.A. star A’ja Wilson, maintains a Twitter account but doesn’t monitor it closely. So when her daughter’s tweets about LeBron James and W.N.B.A. salaries went viral about a month ago, she wasn’t aware until a friend alerted her to the furor.
And what a furor it was. When James agreed to his four-year, $154 million free-agent deal with the Los Angeles Lakers, A’ja Wilson — a rookie Las Vegas Aces power forward and the most dominant player to enter the league in a decade — advocated greater pay for W.N.B.A. players in a series of tweets.
Wilson wasn’t asking for equal pay — just an equal percentage of league revenue earmarked for salaries. Players receive 50 percent of revenue in the N.B.A., but less than 25 percent in the W.N.B.A., according to Forbes magazine. But her tweet brought other numbers into play, too: For example, the W.N.B.A. veteran maximum of $115,500 is far less than the N.B.A. minimum of $560,000, and W.N.B.A. rookies can earn as little as $41,200 a season.
Predictably, the feedback on Twitter turned nasty and personal. Wilson’s teammate Kayla McBride and Skylar Diggins-Smith of the Dallas Wings jumped in to defend her, and her mother privately offered support.
“I called her and said I’m proud of you for standing up, having a voice,” Rakes Wilson said in a telephone interview from Columbia, S.C., where she lives. Rakes Wilson added she reminded A’ja to “continue to stand up and have a voice, because all kinds of comments are going to come. You just handle them, and move forward. Stick to your guns if that’s what you believe.”
Though James never directly addressed the matter, the Aces tweeted out a photo of him in a team T-shirt last month. James had been in Las Vegas to watch his son LeBron Jr. play in a youth tournament, and he and Dwyane Wade worked out at the Aces’ practice facility. Wilson, the only rookie chosen for the W.N.B.A. All-Star Game two weeks ago, said she heard from plenty of people who agreed with her.
“This is my job, I love it, and I want other people to love it,” Wilson said after a recent game against the Minnesota Lynx at the Target Center. “I never expected to field as much hate and negativity that I did, but it just fueled my fire and my teammates’ fire. We have something to prove. We have to go out there and say: ‘Hey, we’re good at this basketball thing, just like the men. They support us. Why don’t you guys?’”
Wilson also took to Twitter last week to detail the travel problems that led to the Aces’ deciding not to play a game in Washington on Friday.
A silky 6-foot-4 forward with a left-handed shot, Wilson has made an equally big impression on the court, averaging 20.5 points for the Aces (12-16), who relocated from San Antonio after last season. Not since Candace Parker’s 2008 debut season, for which she won the league’s Most Valuable Player Award, has a rookie made such a big splash.
That Wilson spoke up did not surprise anyone who knows her well. Born A’ja Riyadh Wilson, she was named for the title track of a Steely Dan album (her father, Roscoe, liked the name and added an apostrophe) and the Saudi Arabian province where her aunt Janne, Eva’s older sister and a United States Army officer, was stationed during Operation Desert Storm.
Wilson adored her grandmother Hattie Rakes, who she said gave her her first set of pearls and instilled confidence in her as a child when she felt self-conscious and awkward. Hattie Rakes died in 2016 at age 95, and Wilson tattooed the signature from her grandmother’s will on her left forearm.
“She was my ear, she was my rock, she was everything,” Wilson said. “She really helped me have this voice about myself, the way I carry myself. Of course, my parents had a huge say, but she was my girl.”
That voice first appeared in middle school, her mother said, when Wilson stood up to classmates bullying a boy in the lunchroom. “She was so tall and lanky, you would think she was the one to be bullied,” Rakes Wilson said. “For her to do that at that time, that was kind of courageous. And it made me say, ‘Wow.’”
While starring at South Carolina, where she led the Gamecocks to the N.C.A.A. title as a junior, Wilson revealed her struggle with dyslexia in an essay for The Players’ Tribune. Gamecocks Coach Dawn Staley suggested Wilson work through her reading issues by reciting scripture at the team breakfast on game days.
“I’m more of a person that likes to tackle things head on, not work around disabilities or shortcomings,” Staley said last week in a telephone interview from Belarus, where she was attending the world under-17 women’s basketball championship. “At first she was hesitant. When she started doing it, she did it extremely well. There were times she would stumble here and there, but she let her teammates know this is what she was dealing with.
“She was just a great example of not being ashamed of who she is, not being ashamed of having a disability, not being ashamed of doing it in front of her peers. If you can do it in front of your peers, nothing else really matters.”
The No. 1 overall pick in this year’s W.N.B.A. draft, Wilson has shown an explosive first step and accurate midrange jumper that have made her difficult to guard. Wilson entered Tuesday’s games fourth in the league in scoring, third in rebounding (8.3) and fifth in blocks (1.7).
“Like a referee told me, the league’s never seen anybody like her,” Las Vegas Coach Bill Laimbeer said. “She is the best driver in the league. I think she is the best driver in professional basketball for someone her size, relatively speaking, for a big player.”
Never one to avoid a strong opinion, Laimbeer, the former Detroit Piston, said that he had no issue with Wilson speaking out about pay or any other topic.
“You don’t want her to be a wallflower,” he said. “Just be who she is.”
The All-Star Game was a thrill for Wilson, since the team captains, Parker and Elena Delle Donne, were her childhood idols. Wilson scored 18 points and grabbed five rebounds in Team Delle Donne’s 119-112 loss. Wilson’s peers, however, admire her for more than her skill.
“It’s her voice,” said McBride, a fellow All-Star. “She’s powerful enough and has a big enough platform to create something bigger than us. We’re just trying to blaze the trail for the next generation, to try to get that respect from people — men, women, everybody across this world, this country.
“We’re here to play, you know what I’m saying? We’re good, and we’re on the same level. I think it just starts with that, and I think A’ja is doing a great job just using her voice for that.”