She’s roundball royalty.
A’ja Wilson, the 6-foot-4 power forward for the Las Vegas Aces, was the WNBA’s Rookie of the Year this season.
She was the No. 1 player taken in the WNBA draft last April after a career at South Carolina where she was the National Player of Year as a senior, led the Gamecocks to their first ever NCAA crown as a junior and was a three-time first team All American who scored 2,389 points in her college career.
Before that she was national high school player of the year.
Until a recent injury, she was playing this offseason for the Shaanxi Red Wolves in China. Now back home she’s become the first women’s pro player ever to join her NBA counterparts and sign a lucrative endorsement deal with Mountain Dew.
And Saturday – just before the Dayton Flyers were to tip off against Presbyterian at UD Arena – she finished up a Nike photo shoot in San Francisco and was headed to the airport and a flight back home to Columbia, South Carolina.
Yet, even with all that, Cunningham, UD’s 6-foot-7 redshirt senior captain, knew what was coming.
“I figure I’ll hear something from her about that,” he said as he stood outside the locker room immediately after the Flyers’ 81-69 victory.
For him, it had been an untypical game. The team’s leading scorer (16.2 points per game) and second-leading rebounder (6.1 per game), he had finished with just five points and three boards.
Unfortunately what had been typical — at least to the early part of the season when he was under 50 percent – had been a pair of second-half misfires from the free throw line.
After the first one, which he seemed to know was no good from the time it left his hand – he took a couple of quick steps toward the basket as if to pull it back before it clanked off the rim. He then missed his second attempt.
Out in San Francisco, as she was making her way to her gate, Wilson talked about her relationship with Cunningham and the free throw advice she’d given him in the past.
“He’s probably tired of hearing it from me,” she laughed. “But that’s the hard part of having a girlfriend who’s a basketball player too.”
LAS VEGAS, NV - JUNE 24: A’ja Wilson #22 of the Las Vegas Aces catches a pass against the Minnesota Lynx during their game at the Mandalay Bay Events Center on June 24, 2018 in Las Vegas, Nevada. The Lynx won 88-73. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Sam Wasson/Getty Images)
At South Carolina she played for Dawn Staley. And when the UD team visited the Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Massachusetts on its trip to Connecticut to play Tulsa last Sunday, Cunningham found a photo of Staley there and posted it to social media.
He said Staley saw it and promptly messaged back: “They have a gym in there. Go practice your free throws.”
He laughed at the needling:
“Yeah and I did go to the gym there and shoot some free throws.”
Wednesday night he went 8 for 8 from the stripe against Western Michigan.
Wilson knows her former coach and teammates are following Cunningham’s season this year.
“When you’re a close team, they know who you’re dating and everything like that,” she said. “And people think they know Josh because they know me. So yeah, I know they’ve been on him and he’s been getting better.”
The UD players all know Wilson, who has visited several times, Cunningham said, and seen three Flyers games in person over the last two season, including the Purdue-Fort Wayne game at UD Arena in early November.
“Yeah they’re always joking that she’d beat me one on one,” he said.
They’ve never played against each other he said. Because of their own basketball careers, they see so little of each other in person that they’re not going to spend a chunk of that time on the basketball court together.
“We’re very relaxed people and we don’t do much,” Cunningham said. “We’ll go eat. We’ll watch movies at home and if we both agree, we might go bowling or see a movie out.”
Dayton forward makes 10 of 13 shots against Western Michigan
Junior guard Trey Landers is one of Cunningham’s best friends. “They kind of act the same really,” he said. “They’re both real good people. It’s not a surprise they’re together.”
Cunningham said when he was being recruited to South Carolina out of his high school in Chicago, he got a message from Wilson, who was being wooed by the Gamecocks’ women’s team.
He said she wanted him to consider South Carolina. “When you’re going to be freshmen coming in, you just want to make the class as strong as it can be,” he shrugged.
She said she reached out to him, not only to get him to consider the school, but “just to find out a little bit about who he was.”
Now makes her laugh: “Josh is a man of few words though. So as we messaged back and forth and there were some awkward moments.”
While she went to South Carolina, he first went to Bradley, then transferred to Dayton, sat out a year to meet NCAA transfer requirement and then missed most of a second season with a severe ankle injury.
The pair continued to message each other now and then and last year Cunningham said: “We finally started to realized we have a lot in common.”
Wilson agreed: “We have soooo much in common – even our birthdays. Mine is August 8th and his is the 11th.”
They began to date last season and the bond has remained strong, even though they are both entrenched in their own careers right now.
“Look I can’t tell you how many people I meet in a day, how many people I run into and talk to,” she said. “But there’s just something about Josh. It’s his personality and who he is as a man that I just really enjoy. I enjoy having him as a boyfriend.”
Cunningham – raised by his mother, LaTanya – has shown he knows how to treat people since the day he stepped on the UD campus. That’s why he’s been voted a three-time captain of the Flyers.
And in Wilson he sees something special, as well: “She’s just a great person. She very understanding – just a great girl.”
He’s seen her play in WNBA games in Chicago and Indianapolis and been to three games in Las Vegas, he said.
“We really, really FaceTime a lot,” she said. “We’re on the phone all the time and we text all the time, too. The only difference is that I’m not ‘seeing’ him in person. But we‘re finding a way to make it work.
University of Dayton basketball player Josh Cunningham and his girlfriend A’ja Wilson, the WNBA Rookie of the Year who plays for the Las Vegas Aces. CONTRIBUTED
“I’m definitely living my fifth year of college through Josh now. He’s in a great situation. The people really support basketball there. I’m just so proud of him and Dayton, as well.”
She said she’s seen about every UD game via the Internet.
And with that she excused herself: “I’m trying to get to the gate so I can pull up his game on my phone. And I just got off the phone with my mom back home. She’s set it up to tape it. I won’t miss a thing.”
And that’s why, as he stood outside the locker room afterward, he was sure he would get that postgame message:
“Work on your free throws.”