A legend revealed: Inside Aliyah Boston’s final days at South Carolina
Mar 15, 2023
- Tonya Simpson is an award-winning writer for ESPN. She is based in Raleigh, N.C. and can be reached at Tonya.M.Simpson@espn.com.
HANDS, FINGERS, ELBOWS and hips jab at Aliyah Boston as she catches the ball on the baseline inside South Carolina’s Colonial Life Arena. Surrounded by three LSU players, Boston pinballs against them as she tries to find something resembling breathing room, let alone a path to the rim. It’s a tangle of limbs with a frenetic edge, a desperation to get the ball away from the reigning national player of the year. She spins to her left, shoots with her right, makes the bucket and heads to the free throw line.
It is a familiar scene during Boston’s last season at South Carolina: She draws a crowd, both in the stands and in the paint. And she does so without being flashy. She doesn’t lick her fingers like LSU’s Angel Reese, doesn’t chuck it from the logo like Iowa‘s Caitlin Clark. Sure, she sports her brightly colored and ever-changing braids, but that is the extent of the attention she draws for anything other than her talent and production.
She doesn’t celebrate big plays ostentatiously, if at all. After a fourth-quarter block against LSU that was so hard it left Alexis Morris on the ground, Boston doesn’t smile or indulge in even a moment of schadenfreude. Instead, she helps Morris up, receives a pat on the back from her and goes right back to the huddle.
Boston isn’t the biggest, the fastest, nor the loudest. But it’s clear that every opponent has a singular defensive mission: Stop her.
Collectively, her talent and humility are proof that greatness doesn’t take a singular form — that Boston has earned a place in the canon of college basketball while embracing the duality of fierceness in competition and gentleness outside of it. She has walked humbly through four years in Dawn Staley’s program with a trail of broken records and disheartened opponents in her wake.
Her senior-year stat line, though still impressive, reflects the relentless efforts of defenses trying to pin down her wings. They have been only marginally successful. She remains in the conversation for national player of the year, a designation she’s already earned once before in addition to being a two-time unanimous first-team All-American and the reigning defensive player of the year. She was the first freshman to record a triple-double in South Carolina school history and now holds the program’s record for triple-doubles and the SEC record for consecutive double-doubles. She has scored 1,886 points (and counting) and grabbed 1,439 rebounds (and counting). She has led South Carolina to the No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA tournament and a first-round game against Norfolk State on Friday.
Over four games, three hair colors and two sellouts, alongside fans, teammates, opponents and program legends, we sought to answer one question: What defines Aliyah Boston’s greatness?
BOSTON ENTERS THE Jan. 22 game vs. Arkansas tied with Gamecocks legend Sheila Foster for the program record for career double-doubles. It’s a record that has stood for over 40 years, poised to join the long list of records that now begin with Boston. There is no doubt she will surpass Foster; it’s only a matter of whether today will be the day.
Two hours before tipoff, the arena is empty save for some AV folks setting up, staff climbing a ladder with glass cleaner for the backboards and athletic trainers laying towels over the team’s bench seats. There’s no music, no hype, just the quiet goings-on of details and logistics.
Boston comes on the court, unnoticed at first, and casually shoots around. She’s the first player here, and somewhere someone starts the music. Gamecocks guard Kierra Fletcher joins her, Lil Baby booming through the arena speakers. The seats are still empty, but they’ve turned the burner on the energy.
Boston’s mom, Cleone, and grandmother flew to South Carolina from their home in St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands to see the game. It’s rainy and cold in Columbia, and Boston jokes that they most likely didn’t pack for the weather.
“This is where I lose hoodies, because I’m going to give them one now and then tomorrow they need another one, and then they’re going to leave with four hoodies,” she says, laughing.
Boston has said she doesn’t really get nervous before games anymore, but the same cannot be said for her mother, who jokes that if she gets up during the game, it’s because she just can’t bear to watch and needs to walk around the concourse.
“My stomach is in knots,” Cleone tells her own mother just before tipoff.
Aliyah’s family is sitting a few rows up from Foster’s usual seat when they realize that today could be the day the record is broken. Tears well up in Cleone’s eyes, catching the stadium lights. She thinks back to when they put Aliyah and her older sister, Alexis, on a plane to live with their aunt in Massachusetts and attend basketball camp when Aliyah was 12. Alexis took the community college route before serving as manager for the Gamecocks while studying at South Carolina. It was impossible then for Cleone and Aliyah’s father, Al, to imagine that the difficult decision of sending their girls to the United States would be the first brick on a path to future No. 1 WNBA draft pick.
“People may not believe it, but for us, it was just about finding a way to pay for college for our children. We had no ideas or thoughts of them being exceptional athletes or anything,” Cleone says. “Her dad and I weren’t going to be in that position to just have money sitting there to do that, but we wanted them to have their education. So that was the goal, originally. Everything else is extra. Extra blessings from God.”
With just over six minutes left in the third quarter, Boston, again swarmed in the paint, has two offensive rebounds on one possession, pushing her over the threshold to her 73rd double-double. The sequence ends with Boston getting a run-of-the-mill bucket on a layup, and the crowd cheers at a level one would expect for a play that put the Gamecocks up 62-26. That is, except for Cleone and the rest of Boston’s family, who have shot out of their seats, crying and hugging one another.
Fans in the surrounding seats look over, perhaps a bit confused by the commotion, until the announcement is made during the next timeout. The camera cuts to Foster and then to Boston, both waving humbly to 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 show no sign of letting up. The stands are still packed with fans cheering for every basket and foul as if it were a tie score.
“This is going to come out wrong, but when you’re up by a lot, you don’t want to ever continue to give teams hope, in the nicest way possible,” Boston says, careful not to be unkind. “You just continue to put your foot on the gas, and that’s what Coach Staley wants because there’s going to be closer games where you can’t mess up.”
If the Gamecocks don’t let up when leading by 20, 30, 40, neither do defenses let up on Boston. Staley recognizes the complicated and often undue emphasis the stat lines get when, in reality, it is an incomplete representation of a player’s impact.
“For Aliyah, we ask her to do so much more than score and rebound. We ask her to defend, we ask her to be the energy our team needs at times, we ask her to talk in the huddles,” Staley says. “A lot comes with Aliyah and her performances. I know outwardly we see the double-doubles, but inwardly we see all of the contributions she brings to our team.”
Breaking a 40-plus year record, however, is a tangible and inarguable measure of her greatness. After the game, Foster stands among the throng of kids and teens waiting for Boston to make her way toward the tunnel. Foster takes a photo with Boston, just like the fans, and congratulates her. A few rows up, the Boston family chats amongst themselves, but Cleone stands quietly watching Aliyah take photos and sign autographs, her eyes welling with pride and awe.
AFTER EVERY GAME in Colonial Life Arena, there is a surge of fans around the court, straining on tiptoes with their phones at the ready, hoping for a selfie or an autograph from Boston and her teammates.
Voices of every age and pitch are heard from every direction yelling, “Aliyah! Aliyah!” as she makes her way around the court and toward the tunnel.
“[The kids] can, after the game, interact and take pictures and get signatures, and it means everything to them,” says Lauren Brannon, a season-ticket holder who is attending the February Georgia game with her husband, Rob, and two daughters, ages 9 and 7. “We get to see them and cheer for them in a different way as a parent because Aliyah and the team all come around and make them feel part of it too.”
The girls debate their favorite of Aliyah’s four hair colors so far this season — one votes for teal and the other says pink. Rob and Lauren call Aliyah what many parents and youth coaches call her: a role model. It’s a designation that certainly goes beyond mere performance on the court and undoubtedly includes the humility that seems to come so naturally to Boston.
As she poses for selfies, arm extended, smile wide, you see the approachability and relatability that makes parents recognize her as such. They’re qualities that can’t be taught or faked and elevate a player from good to unforgettable.
“It’s really special to walk across after a game and just see all of them lined up,” Boston says. “I want them to feel like, ‘I see you, like you’re included in this.’ … Their support means everything.”
After the Georgia game, players from the Hopkins Middle School Lady Eagles basketball team hurry from their seats on the upper rim to the court to see Boston up close. The girls stand, shoulders overlapping, leaning forward for the first glimpse of Boston as she makes her way toward where they stand.
“I think right now everybody is just kind of starstruck,” head coach Marissa Timmons says.
When Staley first came to South Carolina, fans were dotted sparsely across Colonial Life Arena. The average attendance in 2007-08, the season before Staley arrived, was just over 1,800 fans per game. Now, the Gamecocks lead the nation in attendance, often reaching 10 times the 2007-08 average.
“You could really sit anywhere you wanted. We came to see what [Coach Staley] could do, because she was a big name and we were hoping she could build something here that everybody would be really proud of,” says Jenny Redmond, a season-ticket holder since 2008. “It worked out pretty damn good.”
Redmond and her family are quick to recognize what is fundamental to Boston’s style of play: a selflessness that is intrinsic and without regard to her personal stat line.
“[Boston] is amazing, but I’m always amazed at all of them. It is such a selfless team. It’s not about personal accolades, it’s about what everybody needs to do so the team can win. And it makes for some really beautiful basketball,” Redmond says.
Indeed, fellow “freshie” Zia Cooke leads the undefeated Gamecocks in scoring this season, averaging 15.3 points per game compared to Boston’s 13.3. Boston, the national player of the year in 2021-22, has spent this season swarmed by defenses, including quadruple-teams against Georgia, as squads try to slow the force that led South Carolina to a national title last April. Still, she’s shooting 57% from the field and averaging 9.7 rebounds per game.
In charge of keeping the fans under control are Ian Smith and Robbie Hunter, part of the security team at Colonial Life Arena. They’re always posted at the same spot, right near the visitor’s bench at the mouth of the tunnel, and bear witness to the crowds and moments not shown on the stadium cameras.
“[Boston] is a genuine person, and she’s very accommodating,” Smith says. “She comes to men’s games a lot of times, and Ken and I are standing here, and somebody wants their picture made, she never says no. If they want an autograph, she never says no.”
Adds Hunter: “And she doesn’t have to. She’s a star. You’ll see during the game, she’ll call them in the huddle, you’ll hear her talking. They follow her lead.”
When the men’s team hosts Auburn in late January, Boston sits with her mom near the corner of the court, wearing a bright orange hoodie. Her famous, ever-changing braids are the deep teal of the Caribbean. Together, it means she is accidentally sporting Auburn colors. Forgiven, no questions asked: Fans in the concourse stop her to ask for photos.
BOSTON WILL GRADUATE from South Carolina with a degree in mass communications and a list of records and accolades longer than a CVS receipt. There will be a vacated spotlight at forward that Sania Feagin hopes to be the one to fill, but emulating Boston’s greatness might be a task too tall.
“I think the beauty of Aliyah is her entire body of work,” Staley says after the LSU win. “There’s no one like her who produces on both sides of the basketball. Nobody.”
When Boston had her highlight-reel block against LSU and didn’t celebrate, the camera cut to Feagin standing up from the bench, dancing and cheering alongside Fletcher — not letting a play like that go by without paying it some respect.
From dancing around with Feagin to “Baby Got Back” on TikTok to explaining plays in practice, Boston is a friend and mentor to her younger teammates, hoping to set them up for continued success in her (outsize) absence.
“She’s bettering me to become a better person, a better athlete, period,” Feagin says of Boston. “It’s going to take a lot of younger players to be leaders. … I feel like the baton’s going to pass down to me.”
A continual roster of exceptional talent is part of what Staley has built at South Carolina, where Boston succeeded A’ja Wilson as the leader of the program. Wilson, who was the No. 1 draft pick in 2018 and is now a two-time WNBA MVP with the reigning champion Las Vegas Aces, has a statue casting her in an eternal mid-shot pose in front of Colonial Life Arena.
The 6-foot-5 Boston also already has a legacy worthy of bronzing at only 21 years old. Arkansas coach Mike Neighbors agrees, joking in a news conference whether there is enough room in front of the stadium for another statue to be erected next to Wilson’s.
“I don’t think [Boston] gets enough credit for her basketball IQ,” Neighbors says. “I think too many people just say she’s tall and she’s talented. They don’t understand how hard it is; she gets fouled literally every time she shoots it.”
Wilson recognizes Boston’s greatness in a mutual respect as Gamecocks, and a soon-to-be rival in the WNBA. The Indiana Fever have the No. 1 pick in next month’s draft, so it is likely Boston will join former South Carolina teammate Destanni Henderson in Indianapolis, and, on June 4, host Wilson and the Aces.
“I just want her to be her,” Wilson says. “I want her to be happy and established in our league. Hopefully, she gets a rookie of the year underneath her. I don’t want to say championship because I’m going to be competing against her, so leave it up to me. I’ll make sure that she does not have a championship.”
ALIYAH BOSTON IS CRYING in the tunnel. It’s senior night, her last regular-season game at Colonial Life Arena, and hers is the last name to be announced in the pregame ceremony. As she walks out with her parents, sister and aunt toward the framed No. 4 jersey spotlit at center court, the sound of the crowd swells and rolls down from the last rows of the upper deck like a fog.
Boston wipes her tears before a long embrace with Staley and looks up and around to the bowl of fans still hollering their lungs out for her. It’s a recognition of her 130 games played, the hard-fought baskets and the easy wins. It is, as it has been all season, 360 degrees of respect and adoration for a player whose name is already indelible in the history of the sport.
She doesn’t know it at senior night, but in only a week, she’ll be cutting down her piece of the net as the Gamecocks take home an SEC championship with their 38th consecutive win, a title that eluded them a year ago. Boston’s braids will still be pink and white, let down to make room for the commemorative championship hat, as she turns back toward the camera, holds up the net and smiles wide.
“We want to win a national championship. That’s what we want to do, and we’re going to do it,” she says.
It’s a lasting image for a legend of the sport, one that only raising a second NCAA trophy could supersede.
“I grew up here. This was the time where I really grew up and just grew into who I am. And I’m just thankful,” she says. “God has opened miraculous doors. I’ve been here for four years, healthy and safe.
“But everything has to come to an end at some point.”
Back in Colonial Life Arena on senior night, it isn’t yet the end. It’s one last regular-season game in front of the faithful crowd that watched her go from bud to blossom. The stadium lights come up; she wipes her eyes. It’s game time.
The author of 5 books, 3 of which are New York Times bestsellers. I’ve been published in more than 100 newspapers and magazines and am a frequent commentator on NPR.