The hidden moments that reveal Aliyah Boston’s greatness

HANDS, FINGERS, ELBOWS and a hip kick to Alia Boston as she catches the ball on the back line inside the Colonial Life Arena in South Carolina. Surrounded by three LSU players, Boston plays against them, trying to find something of a breather, not to mention a path to the ring. It’s a tangle of limbs with a frenetic edge, a desperate desire to take the ball away from the reigning National Player of the Year. She turns to the left, hits with a right, hits the basket and heads for the free throw line.

It’s a familiar scene from Boston’s last season in South Carolina: it draws a crowd, both in the stands and in the paint. And she does it without being flashy. She doesn’t lick her fingers like LSU’s Angel Reese, she doesn’t throw them off the logo like Iowa’s Caitlin Clark. Sure, she flaunts her brightly colored and ever-changing braids, but that’s the degree of attention she draws to anything other than her talent and production.

She doesn’t celebrate big plays, if at all. After a block shot in the fourth quarter against LSU that was so strong that Alexis Morris was on the ground, Boston doesn’t smile or even indulge in a moment of gloating. Instead, she helps Morris up, receives a pat on the back from her, and immediately returns to the crowd.

Boston is not the biggest, not the fastest, and not the loudest. But it is clear that each adversary has a single defensive mission: to stop her.

Combined, her talent and modesty are proof that greatness doesn’t take a single form—that Boston has earned a place in the college basketball canon by embracing the duality of brutality in competition and softness outside of it. She modestly passed four years in the Don Staley program, leaving behind a string of broken records and disappointed opponents.

Her senior stats, while still impressive, reflect the relentless efforts of the defense trying to pin down her wings. They were only marginally successful. She remains in the conversation about national player of the year, a title she’s already earned once, in addition to being a two-time unanimous first-team All-American and defending defender of the year. She was the first freshman to record a triple-double in South Carolina school history and now holds the program record for triple-doubles and the SEC record for consecutive double-doubles. She scored 1886 points (and continues to count) and grabbed 1439 rebounds (and this number continues to grow). She led South Carolina to the No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament and a first-round game against Norfolk State on Friday.

In four games, three hair colors and two sold-out crowds, along with fans, teammates, opponents and program legends, we tried to answer one question: what defines Alia Boston’s greatness?

BOSTON ENTERS On January 22, a game against Arkansas was tied with Gamecocks legend Sheila Foster for the program’s record for career double-doubles. This is a record that has stood for over 40 years and is poised to join the long list of records that now starts with Boston. There is no doubt that she will surpass Foster; the only question is whether today will be a day.

Two hours before kickoff, the arena is empty except for a few AV people setting up AVs, staff climbing the stairs with backboard cleaner, and sports coaches putting towels on the team benches. There is no music, no hype, just quiet talk about details and logistics.

Boston appears on the court, unnoticed at first, and casually fires. She is the first player here, and somewhere someone turns on the music. Gamecocks security guard Kirra Fletcher joins her as Lil Baby rumbles through the arena’s speakers. The seats are still empty, but they turned on the power.

Boston’s mom, Clone, and grandma flew to South Carolina from their home in St. Thomas in the US Virgin Islands to watch the game. It’s rainy and cold in Columbia, and the joke in Boston is that they probably didn’t pack for the weather.

“This is where I lose sweatshirts, because now I will give them one, and tomorrow they will need another one, and then they will leave with four sweatshirts,” she laughs.

Boston said she no longer gets nervous before games, but the same can’t be said for her mother, who jokes that if she gets up during a game it’s because she just can’t watch and needs to walk. hall.

“My stomach is growling,” Clone tells her mother shortly before submitting the message.

Alia’s family is sitting a few rows away from Foster’s usual seat when they realize that today could be the day the record is broken. Tears well up in Clone’s eyes, reflecting the lights of the stadium. She recalls how they put Alia and her older sister Alexis on a plane to live with their aunt in Massachusetts and attend basketball camp when Alia was 12. South Carolina. Back then, it was impossible for Clone and Aliya’s father, Al, to imagine that the difficult decision to send their girls to the United States would be the first brick on the road to the future No. 1 in the WNBA draft.

“People may not believe it, but for us it was just finding a way to pay for college for our kids. We had no ideas or thoughts that they would be outstanding athletes or anything,” says Clone. “Her father and I were not going to be in a position to just have money sitting there to do it, but we wanted them to get their education. That was the goal from the beginning. Everything else is extra. More blessings from God.”

With more than six minutes left in the third quarter, once again lost in the paint, Boston grabbed two offensive rebounds for one possession, pushing her to a 73rd double-double. The sequence ends with Boston getting a run-of-the-mill downtime bucket and the crowd cheering at the level you would expect from a game that saw the Gamecocks go 62-26 up. That is, except for Clone and the rest of the Boston family, who jumped up from their seats, crying and hugging each other.

Fans in adjacent seats look at each other, perhaps a little confused by the noise, until the next time-out is announced. The camera pans to Foster and then to Boston, both waving meekly at the crowd.

“It’s all good because records are made to be broken,” Foster says through tears. “I’m happy for her.”

South Carolina is up 43 at the end of the third quarter, but no one is leaving early and the Gamecocks aren’t about to give up. The stands are still filled with fans who applaud every basket and foul as if it were a tie.

“It can go wrong, but when you’re winning big, you don’t want to keep giving teams hope in the nicest way,” Boston says, trying not to be unkind. “You just keep pushing the gas and that’s what Coach Staley wants because there will be closer games where you can’t screw up.”

If the Gamecocks don’t give up, leading 20, 30, 40, then the Boston defense doesn’t give up either. Staley acknowledges the complex and often misplaced emphasis that stat lines receive when in fact it is an incomplete representation of a player’s impact.

“For Alia, we are asking her to do a lot more than just score and rebound. We ask her to defend, we ask her to be the energy that our team sometimes needs, we ask her to speak in the crowd, ”says Staley. “A lot comes with Alia and her performances. I know on the outside we see a double take, but on the inside we see all the contributions she brings to our team.”

However, breaking the 40-year record is a tangible and undeniable measure of her greatness. After the game, Foster stands among a crowd of children and teenagers waiting for Boston to head towards the tunnel. Foster takes pictures with Boston, as do fans, and congratulates her. A few rows up, the Boston family is chatting among themselves, but Clone stands quietly, watching Alia take pictures and sign autographs, her eyes full of pride and awe.

AFTER EACH GAME at the Colonial Life Arena, fans huddle around the court, tiptoeing with their phones at the ready, hoping to get a selfie or an autograph from Boston and her teammates.

Voices of all ages and tones are heard from all sides, shouting: “Aliya! Alia! as she makes her way across the yard towards the tunnel.

“[The kids] can interact after the game, take pictures and get captions, and that means everything to them,” says Lauren Brannon, a season ticket owner who attends the February game in Georgia with her husband, Rob, and their two daughters, aged 9. and 7. “We get to see them and cheer for them in a different way as a parent because Aaliyah and the team come in and make them feel like a part of it too.”

The girls discuss their favorite of Alia’s four hair colors this season – one votes for turquoise and the other for pink. Rob and Lauren call Alia what many parents and youth coaches call her: a role model. This title certainly goes beyond mere performance on the court and certainly includes the modesty that seems to come so naturally in Boston.

When she poses for a selfie with her arm outstretched and a big smile, you see an approachability and responsiveness that makes her parents recognize her as such. These are qualities that cannot be taught or faked, and they take a player from good to unforgettable.

“It’s really something special to walk past the game and just see how they all lined up,” says Boston. “I want them to feel like, ‘I see you, like you’re part of this.’ … Their support means everything.”

After the game in Georgia, the players of the Hopkins High School Lady Eagles basketball team rush from their seats on the upper ring to the court to see Boston up close. The girls stand cross-shouldered, leaning forward to see Boston for the first time as she walks over to where they are standing.

“I think everyone is just overwhelmed right now,” says head coach Marissa Timmons.

When Staley first came to South Carolina, the fans were…


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