When Zion Williamson went down, less than a minute into the Carolina game, we didn’t realize what had happened right away. Then we saw it on Twitter: he cut hard and his shoe exploded.
At first, we thought it was an ankle injury but later word filtered out that it was a knee. None of it looked good but knees are usually worse than feet, so we braced ourselves for bad news.
Fortunately, it’s been classified as a mild sprain and nothing worse, so that’s great news for Williamson. Assuming the initial diagnosis is correct he’ll make a full recovery.
Incidentally, it doesn’t come up that often as a general topic, but when Coach K and his staff go out and talk to recruits, especially the uber talented kids, we’re sure part of his pitch is Duke University Medical Center.
There are other schools with great medical centers and there are a lot of great basketball programs around. Few can offer the combination of immense skill and innovation that Duke does though, and for an athlete with professional aspirations, that must be huge. Who was the last Duke basketball player to have serious, long-term issues at Duke? Alex O’ Connell’s dad Dave? There may be someone since then; we just can’t think of who.
Look how many guys have had injuries, been treated and had long careers, notably Kyrie Irving: when he injured his toe at Duke, remember, it was described as unusual and tricky. He had no guarantees but he had superb medical care that gave him his health and immense mobility back.
Elton Brand had a serious foot injury at Duke, his fifth metarsal if we remember correctly. Like Williamson, Brand has a massive body and was very athletic. His recovery was a thing to marvel at because his injury was on the outside of his foot where you have to plant and push.
That’s good news for Williamson obviously. He’s in great hands.
For Nike, it’s not such great news.
Their image took a hit Wednesday night. Remember that they provide Duke athletics with shoes and apparel. It’s not like those guys are playing pickup ball in year old sneakers. They have more shoes than Imelda Marcos. That was a very new pair of shoes Williamson wore last night.
Puma pounced on Nike quickly, tweeting that it wouldn't have happened in their shoes (they later deleted the tweet).
Their best short term bet for Nike is to explain that guys with Zion’s size and power are so rare that they’ve never had to consider their needs. Shoes have been designed for lightness for decades but for a guy with Williamson’s mass and power, that may not be not the primary concern. From here on out, the integrity of the shoe trumps everything else for the super sized super athlete.
They could further explain that they have seen the light though, and that on Thursday they redesigned a shoe specifically to deal with his particular needs and it’s being overnighted to Duke and will never come apart again.
They can turn a PR disaster into a marketing opportunity and since they’re surely hoping to sign him this summer, it’d be a smart move to make him feel good about his shoes now.
But back to Williamson.
There have already been people urging him to stop now before he hurts himself again.
That would be his decision if he chose to do that and we’d all have to respect it.
To us it just seems unlikely.
First, he’s clearly enjoyed his time at Duke. Part of that is playing with his classmates RJ Barrett, with whom he’s especially tight, Cam Reddish and Tre Jones. It’s been a special group and he’s never been on a team quite like this. Who has? Can you imagine coming from a small high school to a team like the one he’s on? And what you’d be learning and experiencing every time out? This team is capable of greatness. Odds are his next team won’t be, at least not for a while.
And there’s also Coach K. Williamson has clearly learned a lot and values the growth he’s experienced.
Finally there’s this.
We knew a guy who played for Cal-Bakersfield who told us once that “you’d be surprised how many college players don't really love the game.”
That’s not an issue in Williamson’s case.
The guy clearly loves to play. We’ve never met him but our guess is that it would just kill him to sit and watch the NCAA tournament. He doesn’t dive on the floor and chase loose balls because he’s going through a boring work day.
He does it because he loves the game. He loves to compete. He enjoys testing himself at the highest level he can now before moving on to the NBA. And, we suspect, he would also love to get to the final Monday of the season and compete for a championship. People have looked for physical comparisons which is understandable but who should he emulate mentally? It’s a short list: Michael. Bird. Magic. Moses. Kobe. Curry.
Williamson’s talent is magnificent but he is driven by his desire for greatness and in the end, undeniably, desire is a bigger factor in greatness than talent. That’s why we talk about Magic and Bird and not Shawn Kemp and Chris Washburn, both of whom were vastly more gifted.
Of course we could be wrong and if we are we’d all have to respect Williamson’s decision.
He just doesn’t seem built that way.