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A'ja Wilson living out dad's dream at South Carolina

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South Carolina's A'ja Wilson credits dad with shaping her game (1:52)

Junior forward A'ja Wilson follows in her father's footsteps on the basketball court. (1:52)

COLUMBIA, S.C. -- The vest and the ball are a bit worn and don't look all that intimidating. Yet A'ja Wilson has a visceral reaction to them.

"When I was younger, I just thought he was torturing me," A'ja said of her father, Roscoe Wilson Jr. "When he'd pull that vest out of his car, I'd practically be in tears. It's after practice, and I'm still there with the weight vest on, shooting layups. That was the hell part of the relationship.

"But the heaven part was that as I grew, I started to see my game change. I realized my dad was just being my coach. As I got older and basketball got more serious, I saw that, 'This man may know some things, A'ja, so I suggest you listen to him.'"

She laughs about it now. A 6-foot-5 junior for sixth-ranked South Carolina, she's one of the top players in women's college basketball, an athletic hero who plays for her hometown university. But she once was a tall, skinny girl not sure she wanted anything to do with basketball -- especially not the 20-pound vest and the 5-pound ball with which Roscoe would have her do the Mikan drill.

"Left hand, right hand, left hand, right hand," Roscoe said, seeing it in his mind. "I'd tell her to always know where her feet should be, don't bring her hands down below her shoulders. Now, it's second nature."

He added the vest and heavier ball to develop her strength and simulate the challenge of defense. The weight was for a specific purpose, and A'ja could shed it when the drill was over.

It was the only kind of weight Roscoe wanted his daughter to bear. He never wanted her to feel some of the weight he had, nor the even greater weight he saw his parents carry.

Roscoe was born in 1952, and he grew up in a different Columbia than A'ja did, born in 1996. There were no African-American athletes at the University of South Carolina when he was falling in love with basketball.

The first three black men to play sports for the Gamecocks -- Casey Manning (basketball), Carlton Haywood (football) and Jackie Brown (baseball, football) -- enrolled in 1969-70, the same time Roscoe was starting his career at Benedict College, a historically black university in Columbia. For most of Roscoe's young life, going to South Carolina hadn't seemed like a realistic possibility.

"Sure, I wanted to play here," he said in an interview at Carolina Coliseum, home of the Gamecocks from 1968 to 2002, before Colonial Life Arena was built. "But they may not have recruited me anyway; I may not have been good enough. And even if I was, it was just not the time for that to happen."

A rebounding machine -- he once pulled down 35 boards in a college game and was an All-American -- Roscoe played professional basketball for a decade in Europe and South America. While still at Benedict, he and his teammates scrimmaged around the state against the Gamecocks.

He and Alex English -- who was also a Columbia native, one of South Carolina's earliest African-American standouts, and a future NBA star -- played one-on-one together. English was just a few years younger than Roscoe, starting his college career in 1972-73. By then, more doors had been opened.

Roscoe is a commanding presence at 6-8, but his gregarious personality stands taller. He can have a conversation with anyone -- "People say, 'Your dad knows someone everywhere he goes!'" A'ja explains -- but he doesn't really say much about the painful or frustrating parts of his past unless he's asked.

"The racial aspect of some of the things I went through ... I've sort of kept it in," he said. "Because you can get hung up in that to the point where you don't make any progress. You don't forget it, but you do anything you can to keep it from happening again."

So it's profoundly moving for him that A'ja has become one of the faces of South Carolina sports.

"There are still times I say to myself, 'Gosh dang, A'ja is at USC!'" Roscoe said. "I see posters of her, billboards. For me, it's a total fulfillment to see my daughter here, getting her degree. A'ja is a blessing from God for me and my wife, and we never take that for granted. Since her birth, she's given me nothing but joy."

Then he laughs and adds, "Whenever I pray, God probably says, 'Hey, I gotta help some other people. You've been given enough.'"

Making a player

Still, there were times A'ja would get so mad at Roscoe after a workout, she would run to her mom, Eva, saying, "Tell him to go away." Yet she kept returning, insisting to him she wanted to be great. He told her there was no easy path to that.

Father and daughter were much alike. Competitive, independent and hardheaded on one hand. Funny, outgoing, and bighearted on the other. Eva successfully played referee between them when it was needed.

A'ja's older brother, Renaldo, was also an athlete, but A'ja -- at first -- didn't want to be one. She had many interests -- dancing, art, music, friends -- and the monotony of "chores" like the Mikan drill seemed pointless and no fun at all. But Roscoe saw things that A'ja didn't.

"I tried to do everything with her and give her things that I didn't get," he said.

"It's something I know my grandfather pounded into my dad's head, and he pounded into mine: Always be a good person. And I carry that over into basketball."

A'ja Wilson

At age 27 and playing overseas, he'd attended a Steely Dan concert not long after they'd released their album "Aja." He thought, "If I ever have a daughter, I'll name her A'ja (adding in an apostrophe)."

But A'ja didn't arrive for a long time; Roscoe was 44 when she was born. In the meantime, he had moved into coaching for a while before finding his niche in nonprofit work with at-risk youth.

His father, Roscoe C. Wilson Sr., was a minister at Saint John Baptist church in Columbia for 50 years. His mother, Ethel C. Wilson, was a professor at Benedict College and a missionary. Both were active in the civil rights movement. A'ja never met Ethel, who died in 1987. But she was close to Roscoe Sr.

"When A'ja was 11, she wanted a cell phone so bad. So my daddy gave her his," Roscoe said, then he broke into a chuckle. "Of course, all she knew to call was him, on his home phone. He'd pick her up from school, go get something to eat. He was crazy about her. Just like my wife's mother, who just passed away before last Thanksgiving."

A'ja was surrounded by her family and its history in Columbia, and she became the top recruit in the country out of Heathwood Hall. But it wasn't until the spring of 2014, in her senior year, that she committed to stay home and play for coach Dawn Staley's Gamecocks, who were emerging on the national scene. They reached the Final Four in A'ja's freshman season.

"My parents helped me so much," she said. "They'd say, 'A'ja, a lot of responsibility is going to come with this. A lot of eyes on you. Are you ready?' And I said, 'I don't think I have a choice but to be ready.'

"It's something I know my grandfather pounded into my dad's head, and he pounded into mine: Always be a good person. And I carry that over into basketball. I love the game, and I hope to play at the highest level. But I also hope to become a really great teammate, to always have energy, to lift people up when things aren't going well."

A merging of past and present

Roscoe Wilson can reflect on how Columbia has changed.

"Integration was in layers, and happened over time," he said, recalling how black businesses were mostly located on one street when he was young. Then in the early 1960s, his mother took him and his brother into the Kress store, a five-and-dime with a soda shop, on Main Street.

"I remember it was so hot, and all I wanted was something cold to drink," he said. "And knowing a few years before, we could never go in there. My mother went in, ordered ... we didn't get any pushback, but we didn't get a 'How you doing?'

"But I got that milkshake, and it was the coolest milkshake. Stuff like that, you don't forget."

A'ja sometimes is apprehensive now about going into stores -- but only because she's short on time and worries she might have to duck out too soon when someone wants to chat with her, or take a photo, or get an autograph. She never wants to disappoint anyone.

When she hears stories of her father's youth, she says, "That impacts me a lot, because it's so different from my experience. I can't imagine, in the world I live in now, that it could ever be like that."

It was just in July 2015, though, that the Confederate flag finally was removed from the South Carolina State House grounds in Columbia. That followed the horrific murders of nine African-Americans, including Democratic state Sen. Rev. Clementa Pinckney, at a church in Charleston, South Carolina, in June of that year by white supremacist Dylann Roof.

It's too painful and sensitive a topic for Roscoe to discuss; he had known Pinckney for years. But he shared another memory of something he feels changed his life. The day after Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in 1968, there was tension at Columbia's Eau Claire High School, where Roscoe was a junior. The school had been integrated a couple of years earlier.

A rumor was going around that a white student had said it was for the best that King was dead. One of the school's coaches, Dick Sheridan -- who later coached at Furman and North Carolina State -- saw Roscoe was upset.

"I told him what I had heard and said, 'We want to teach him a lesson,'" Roscoe said. "He said to me, 'There are a whole lot of ways to teach somebody a lesson.'

"I'll never forget that. He probably saved me from more problems than I could have gotten out of. I had to figure out another way. So we formed this biracial committee, where we would sit down and talk about issues, and how we felt."

Roscoe said he still talks to some of his high school classmates.

"I think back to what my daddy always said, 'Love the people, hate the behavior. We have to change the behavior,'" Roscoe said. "Most of the people I was around at Eau Claire were very embracing in their own way. It seemed like we all respected each other.

"They come up to me at games now; I saw some at the Final Four. And nothing comes back negative. We high-five each other."

When Roscoe sees A'ja on the basketball court for the Gamecocks, his mind and heart are flooded. Memories, struggles, change, hope. A belief that things must -- and will -- continue to get better.

"My wife jokes I don't have a life because I always just want to watch A'ja play," Roscoe said.

He knows his parents sheltered him from some of the harsher things they faced, and he does the same for A'ja. Yet, even at age 20, she takes a moment to reflect.

"I can tell my kids about it later on: 'I was a part of this,'" A'ja said of the Gamecocks' success and how they've been embraced by fans. "Especially with me being from here. Going out of the tunnel, and seeing how we can bring an entire city and state together over something good. Having 'South Carolina' across my chest -- it means a lot to me."

And so does this.

"Some people will say," she said with a grin, "'You're just like your dad.'"