A’ja Wilson has a boatload of accolades, but there’s something else she’s striving for as she and her Las Vegas Aces teammates face the New York Liberty in the WNBA Finals. The young star has never been a back-to-back champion in college or at the professional level. Forever seeking greatness by any means, she reached out to her former South Carolina Gamecocks coach, Dawn Staley, before the Finals even began. “She’s probably going to kill me for saying this, but it actually brought me to tears. She texted me probably a week ago, that was before game one of the Finals, and she asked me for Sheryl Swoopes’ number,” Staley told CBS Sports. “She said, ‘I need her number because I want to know how to repeat.'”

Who better to call than Swoopes? After all, people were coining her the “Michael Jordan of women’s basketball.” Not only did she and her Houston Comets teammates win the very first WNBA championship – she came back and did it again, and again, and again. That’s right — four consecutive titles. Wilson led South Carolina to the program’s first-ever NCAA title in 2017 but wasn’t able to repeat in her next, and final, collegiate season. “It’s bittersweet because we lost our back-to-back championship. We didn’t win it [her] last year in the NCAA Tournament, so I can’t be that, I can’t give her what that feels like. But I’m glad I got Sheryl’s number in my phone to pass it on to A’ja, so A’ja can get the very thing that she wants,” said Staley. Moments like that are what make Wilson special and what many regard as the best player in the world. Once an athlete reaches a certain level of their career, the field is leveled a bit, so the intangibles are what separate the good from the great; the participants from the legends. To be the best, you have to beat the best, and the league is improving each and every season. After winning league MVP in 2020 and 2022, Wilson finished third in voting this year – behind the Liberty’s Breanna Stewart and Connecticut Sun forward Alyssa Thomas. Wilson did, however, repeat as the WNBA Defensive Player of the Year. That’s another thing she has in common with Swoopes, who won the same distinction three times during her 12-year WNBA career.

The league looks very different from the Swoopes era, but the core of the game remains the same. Of course, the competitor in Wilson wanted to become the second player in league history to earn MVP two seasons in a row – Cynthia Cooper was the first. However, Stewart finished with 446 aggregate points to Thomas’ 439 and Wilson’s 433, setting off a social media debate that still rages on as we approach game four. The Aces took a commanding 2-0 lead in the series before the Liberty found new life in game three to keep their title hopes alive. On the brink of a repeat, Swoopes advised Wilson to take her “feud” with Stewart personal. On “Gil’s Arena,” the four-time champion shared a little of what she told Wilson. “I said, ‘It has to be personal, right? Stewie won MVP, and you were MVP last year. Honestly, it doesn’t sit well with me.’” She went on to share her sentiments that the Aces have already won the title while the Liberty are only competing for it. Some came for Swoopes on Twittter, calling the all-time great a hater. She’s simply a competitor — you don’t get a resume like hers without having that “dog” in you… that tenacity. That’s not something that one can turn off just because they hung up their jersey.

Swoopes has earned the right to weigh in on a league that she was a part of from the ground up. Talk about a day one; Swoopes was known worldwide before social media and before NIL deals. She was the first female athlete in any sport to get her own signature shoe. The Nike Air Swoopes debuted in 1995, even before the WNBA’s inaugural season. Eventually, eight of the league’s original players would get their own shoe. Following Swoopes, Rebecca Lobo, Lisa Leslie, Dawn Staley, Cynthia Cooper, Chamique Holdsclaw, Diana Taurasi, and the late Nikki McCray all had kicks bearing their names. In 2010, Candace Parker, now with the Aces, joined that list. Her second, and last, shoe was released in 2012. It would be nearly a decade before another woman joined those ranks. Ironically that woman was Stewart, who released her kicks in 2021 after leaving Nike to sign a multi-year endorsement deal with Puma. She referred to the move as “jaw-dropping” when speaking to ESPN back then, noting, “Anytime you hear ‘signature,’ I think that’s jaw-dropping, eye-opening, especially on the women’s side. There haven’t been many… For Puma to be able to put the signature element out there, [and] respect me enough where they think that I deserve a signature shoe, is something that’s super exciting.” In 2022, Elena Delle Donne released the Nike Air Deldon and Liberty guard Sabrina Ionescu’s Nike Air 1’s will drop soon. That brings the tally to 12 total signature sneakers, past and present, for the WNBA in its 26th season.

The league has hit bumps in the road with franchises coming and going, and still has to contend with overseas leagues that WNBA players participate in to supplement their earnings. This is something that came under intense scrutiny during Brittney Griner’s imprisonment in Russia. While the pay scale will never contend with the NBA, the league’s stars are still heavily committed to growing the game stateside despite flaws in the system. Take Wilson for example. She’s currently coached by Becky Hammon, a Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame and College Basketball Hall of Fame inductee. Wilson played college ball under Staley, who she considers a “second mom.” Staley is only the second individual to both play on and coach a No. 1-ranked team at the NCAA level. She was also a two-time Naismith College Player of the Year. In her eight-year WNBA career, Staley was a six-time All-Star and part of the 10th and 15th Anniversary teams. She was a three-time Olympic gold medalist. After trading in her jersey for a clipboard, the Philly native won two NCAA championships, a host of coaching accolades and is a Basketball Hall of Famer also. The greats surround themselves with the greats, so Wilson is in tremendous hands.

With the emergence of name, image, and likeness, or NIL, there is the notion that the landscape of sports has changed just as much for the WNBA as it has for the collegiate level. It has been previously mentioned that there’s room for improvement when it comes to the money, and you can call it recency bias, but LSU’s Angel Reese comes to mind. The “Bayou Barbie” has racked up an estimated $1.7 million in NIL deals and most recently became Reebok’s first major NIL signing under newly appointed President of Basketball Shaquille O’Neal, who is also an LSU basketball alum.

To some, it would seem that it’s a no-brainer for top women’s basketball players to stay in school and earn more money, but not necessarily. The endorsements wouldn’t automatically disappear when these athletes turn professional. If anything, it would be added to the salaries earned while actually playing basketball. As an NCAA baller, there is no salary. Yet and still, the league is looking to continue to grow and create more stateside opportunities to discourage athletes from spending their winters playing overseas out of necessity. For the first time since 2008, there will be a new franchise. The Golden State Warriors have been awarded a WNBA expansion team. Hopefully, the seven-time world champions’ winning ways rub off on their female counterparts, who begin play in 2025. The Warriors are the sixth NBA franchise to have a WNBA team. The others are the Indiana Pacers (Fever), Minnesota Timberwolves (Lynx), Brooklyn Nets (NY Liberty), Phoenix Suns (Mercury), and Washington Wizards (Mystics). Perhaps more franchises will enter the mix to help the league grow at a quicker and sustainable rate. For now, though, only two teams matter as the Aces and Liberty meet in game four with New York hoping to live to fight another day, and with Wilson and the Aces determined to wrap this thing up and hoist the WNBA Championship Trophy for the second season in a row.