Nine-year-old Aliyah Boston stood at the free throw line while her teammates prepared to box out in a game in the U.S. Virgin Islands’s sports, park and recreation league. She converted a pair of free throws, having now scored all 50 of her team’s points. But in the final minutes, Boston fouled out, forced to watch the rest from the bench.
Immediately after her departure, a player on the opposing team converted a shot, sending Boston’s team to a 52–50 loss. Boston, the only girl on her team, was extremely competitive and hated losing.
“She cried for I don’t know how long, but she was drenched,” her mother Cleone recalls.
For Boston, scoring 50 in a two-point loss may have been a great individual performance, but it was not good enough. She wanted to be dominant, and that meant winning the game. Now a 6'4" junior forward at South Carolina who rocks iconic multicolored braids, she never thought back then she would be in the position she is now.
Boston’s zeal for progression has led her to become a two-time All-American, a National Defensive Player of the Year and the Gamecocks women’s basketball record-holder for the most consecutive double doubles. The genesis of her rise through the determination of her father, Algernon, and her sister, Alexis, on a makeshift court dubbed “Boston Arena” in her driveway.
Al bought one of the first basketballs for his daughters from a local K-Mart in St. Thomas. Boston and Alexis—the latter of whom is two and a half years older—had many battles on the semi-half court circle with a free throw line during the week and on early weekend mornings.
If Boston wasn’t attempting to beat her older sister in a game of one-on-one, she was giving her best shot in competing against her dad.
“I would not give them a free bucket, they had to work hard for every shot,” Al says. His presence at games in St. Thomas was so regular that Cleone recalls a time when a referee asked her husband about his ability to attend every game.
“The referee came up to him and asked him jokingly, ‘you don’t work?’” Cleone says. “I’m used to seeing moms at all of these games.”
Boston and Alexis’s passion for the game, meanwhile, continued to grow. One summer, both daughters attended a basketball camp in Massachusetts where Cleone’s sister, Jenaire Hodge, lived with her daughter Kira Punter. Following the camp, the Bostons were left with a tough decision about the future of their children.
They knew better opportunities for growth of their daughters’ skills were a long way from home. Despite it being more than 1,700 miles away from them, the Bostons allowed Alexis and Boston to remain in Massachusetts with Hodge after their camp in summer 2014.
However, there was one key caveat.
“If it could help them develop their basketball skills to the point they could each get a college scholarship, nothing else,” Cleone says. “Not play in the pros, not play for [Team] USA, not get gold medals, not be a top player in the country.”
The Boston sisters swapped the pristine beaches and 70-to-80-degree year-round weather for extremely cold winters in Worcester, Mass., to live with Hodge and Kira.
Hodge immediately made sacrifices for both Boston and Alexis to feel at home, all while taking care of her own daughter. Occasionally, while working a busy schedule in the fast-food industry, she cooked some of Boston’s favorite foods like curry chicken, oxtails, fried plantains and potato stuffing. But more than anything, Boston gained a much greater value in responsibility from the experience. “She definitely made us do our chores,” Boston says of Hodge. “It also made me grow up faster than if I would have still been staying with my parents because they could have helped me with certain stuff.”
On the hardwood, it did not take Boston a long time to adjust. At Worcester Academy, coached by Sherry Levin, Boston changed the program forever. She became the school’s all-time leading scorer, led it to two consecutive New England Prep School Athletic Council Class AA championships and became a three-time Massachusetts Gatorade Player of the Year. She also played on the 2018 U-17 USA team that won a gold medal and was named a McDonald’s High School All-American and Jordan Brand Classic participant.
When Boston was not playing for the Academy, she was playing for the iExcel travel team in New York, and her parents would come up to watch her and her sister play during holiday tournaments.
Before Zia Cooke—a junior guard on the South Carolina women’s basketball team—became Boston’s teammate, she witnessed Boston’s dominance during the time when the two played in the Junior Olympics together. Their relationship, which spans a decade, also developed from being high school All-Americans together.
“I knew she was a dog,” Cooke says of her first impressions of Boston. “She has always been unstoppable but to think that I would play with her on the same college team has been special.”
Boston had more than 50 offers on the recruiting circuit before choosing South Carolina. But in choosing the Gamecocks over others like UConn, Notre Dame and Ohio State, she joined a dominant program but an ever greater coach in Dawn Staley. Al was in heaven about his daughter’s decision. “Dawn is a coach. When we met her, we had a connection and I knew Aliyah made the right decision,” he says.
Staley first met Boston while she was playing on AAU, and she felt the prospect was not getting enough touches on the court. It took just that first sighting of Boston’s skills and a follow-up conversation for Staley to know Boston would be special.
“She’s like an old soul, and she was not your average person,” Staley says. “She was inquisitive but comfortable in her skin. She was a priority for us because it was nothing like her in the country.”
Boston joined the Gamecocks’ program in 2019 along with fellow five-star recruits Cooke, Brea Beal and Laeticia Amihere. As a freshman, two seniors—Tyasha Harris and Mikiah “Kiki” Herbert Harrigan—helped Boston develop her leadership skills. Right away, she didn’t disappoint on the court, averaging 12.5 points and 9.4 rebounds in helping the Gamecocks to a 32–1 record. They won the regular season and conference tournament SEC championships before the COVID-19 pandemic swarmed the country on March 12 and shut down college basketball for the season.
But Boston had begun her ascension to becoming a household name, winning the SEC’s Freshman of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year, along with winning numerous All-American honors. It came as no surprise to Staley.
“She was pretty darn good her freshman season and I knew what I was getting in her as a basketball player,” Staley says. “But her work ethic paved the way for her success on the court. It was built on the work she puts in behind closed doors.”
Away from the hardwood, though, Boston was feeling the effects from issues taking place in society. As the pandemic swept through the country and Black Lives Matter protests took center stage following the police killing of George Floyd, Boston could not grasp the full magnitude of what was happening.
One restless night after the SEC tournament, she called her mother around 3 a.m. feeling afraid due to the uncertainty of the unprecedented times. But Cleone did not teach her daughters to have a spirit of fear. She immediately reminded Boston about her faith and her trust in God. More importantly, the exchange provided Cleone with the idea of starting daily family devotionals with her daughters and her husband using the Bible app.
“We pray for each other, ask God to help us walk through different seasons of our lives and include outside prayer requests,” Cleone says.
The devotional sessions—which take place every day, except for Saturdays and the Christmas holidays—have grown from the Bostons alone to as many as 20 people, emphasizing the importance of keeping God first no matter how difficult things get.
When Boston’s sophomore season rolled around, she picked up where she left off while carrying with her a new swagger and higher level of confidence. With Harris and Harrigan gone, Boston soared. She averaged a double double (13.7 ppg, 11.5 rpg) and led the Gamecocks to a 26–5 record and a spot in the 2021 Final Four, setting up what could have been the program’s second national title.
After rallying back in the Final Four game against Stanford, Boston missed on a critical last second put-back opportunity at the rim, resulting in a loss and sending the Cardinal to the national championship game. As Boston—filled with emotion and tears rolling down her face—walked off the court into the tunnel inside the Alamodome in San Antonio, she made eye contact with her father.
Cleone and Al could not hug their daughter immediately after due to COVID-19 social distancing rules. Later that night, Cleone texted Boston a scripture and reminded her of a book about NBA legend Michael Jordan that the two of them read together when she was a child concerning the number of shots he took, made and missed.
With sheer dedication in one hand, focus in the other and faith in her heart, Boston took the offseason to enhance her game.
“She told me she had to come back with her footwork in place, add a three-point shot and be more efficient,” Staley says. “Honestly, if she had gone to any other program, I don’t think she would be a three-point threat now … She’s everything you want as a coach with an insatiable desire to get better.”
That desire led Boston to work out with former Spurs legend and Naismith Hall of Famer Tim Duncan—a St. Croix, Virgin Islands native—to improve her conditioning, which included boxing and building on her overall skills during the summer. Through the intense summer workouts with the Big Fundamental, she lost 23 pounds.
When she was not conditioning or working out, Boston found herself making Instagram and TikTok videos of her dancing and declaring herself as the best dancer on the team.
“They [teammates] are not on my level with dancing,” Boston laughs. “If you’ve seen my TikToks, then you know I own it.”
A music fan, Boston likes throwback selections from the High School Musical album, R&B and the rapper Lil Baby.
Staley, meanwhile, is still shocked at the dancer her All-American forward has become. “When she was a freshman, we would do this little snake dance,” the coach says. “She helped me become a better dancer and now she is a TikTok star… but talk about doing an eight count… she couldn’t do a two count [as a freshman].”
Most people don’t often get to see Boston when she’s not dancing, watching YouTube videos of the opposing team or perfecting a new element in her craft. But Beal, her roommate, does.
“She’s probably watching Netflix or watching rerun episodes of Criminal Minds,” Beal laughs. “She’s probably watched them all. A perfect day for her is having no class, going to practice and coming back to the room.”
The two met during the 2019 Jordan Classic as roommates, when they were both McDonald’s All-Americans headed to South Carolina. Beal—known for her defense—pushes Boston to be better. “She does a great job of talking smack to me,” says Boston.
While South Carolina (23–1, 11-1 SEC) has only one loss this season, it has faced adversity while showing it can both win games in dominating fashion and overcome deficits, a testament to Staley’s coaching and Boston’s impact and leadership. When the Gamecocks suffered a 70–69 loss to Missouri on Dec. 30, it provided them with a lesson to always stay ready and never play conservative. For players like Boston, it was also a wake-up call to play smarter.
It is moments like the early-season defeat that allow teammates like Cooke to remind the star forward how dominant she is.
“When [Boston] feels like she is not doing enough, she will usually come to me in the locker room or on the court and we give each other this look … like we need each other,” Cooke says. “I used to tell her in a nice way, ‘Liyah, you know what to do. You know who you are’ … Now, I don’t give her too much of the softness, I just tell her to snap out of it.”
Over the last three seasons, the Gamecocks are 31–6 against ranked opponents, and a perfect 10–0 against top-25 opponents this season. The 2021–22 victories include NC State, Oregon, UConn, Maryland, Duke, Stanford, LSU, Kentucky, Ole Miss and Georgia.
It was in South Carolina’s victory against Ole Miss—a battle between Boston and Rebels standout Shakira Austin—when Boston notched her 13th consecutive double double, marking the longest streak in program history.
She recorded that feat in front of Al and Cleone—who was waving the St. Thomas flag in her white South Carolina long-sleeved shirt in celebration of her daughter’s milestone in the stands—and one of her greatest inspirations in former Gamecocks star and former WNBA MVP A’ja Wilson.
“She’s just killing it in her own fashion,” Wilson said of Boston during ESPN’s broadcast of the game. “I think she is a pro and she is so skillful.”
After adding four more double-double performances against Florida, Alabama, Kentucky and Georgia, Boston sits two away from tying the SEC single-season record for most consecutive double doubles (19), which was set by former LSU star and seven-time WNBA All-Star Sylvia Fowles during the 2005–06 season.
But for the woman who hates losing and wants to be dominant while being the best, she is not worried about that. She wants a national championship.
With four games left in the regular season and a conference tournament to tackle before the NCAA tournament begins in mid-March, the real work has begun and Boston and the Gamecocks are on the clock.
February is the time when programs separate themselves from the good and the elite. The little girl who was only coming to the U.S. to perfect her craft and increase her chances at earning a college scholarship now sits as a frontrunner for the Naismith Player of the Year, a TikTok star and a leader with the chance to bring South Carolina its second national title.
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Asked how special a player Boston is, Staley takes a long pause before staring into the camera at her desk.
“She’s going to be a WNBA star, an Olympian, go overseas, make a lot of money … the sky's the limit,” she says. “She is going to create generational wealth for her and her family.”
When rocky roads emerge on the road to greatness for Boston, Cleone will be there to keep pushing her daughter toward her dream, one that has led to an abundance of gifts that neither she nor Al never could have imagined.
“God doesn’t give you a dream to match your budget, he gives you a dream that matches your faith,” Cleone reminds Boston. It doesn’t matter where you start, you keep your trust in God.”
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