Being Zion

Magnetic rookie Zion Williamson is embracing NBA stardom thanks to lessons from the past. But as LeBron's former GM knows, the demands of being a face of the league can test one's joy for the game.
photo of Jonathan AbramsJonathan Abrams@jpdabramsSenior Writer, B/R MagFebruary 21, 2020

Lee Sartor watched Zion Williamson's long-awaited NBA debut with his family from his home in northwestern South Carolina. Sartor, Williamson's high school coach at Spartanburg Day School, knows the rookie star's game better than almost anyone. And so it was with a coach's eye that he took in those initial minutes of Williamson's first professional game against the Spurs. Sartor spotted the couple of rebounds he hoped his former player would have gone after and noted a missed opportunity to lunge for a steal and leap for a block.

Arguably the NBA's most anticipated arrival since LeBron James in 2003, Williamson's debut stood on hiatus for months as he sat out, healing from surgery on his right knee for a torn meniscus. He seemed to be taking the game in during those first few minutes, acclimating himself to the atmosphere. "We were all cheering for him to do Zion-like stuff, because we know what he can do," Sartor said.

Against San Antonio, Williamson quietly blended in for three quarters. Then, in the fourth, he erupted, converting four three-pointers and scoring 17 points in a blistering 188 seconds before being subbed out for the final time that night. OK, now that's the Zion we know, Sartor thought.

"Zion is such an efficient player, and he is not going to take shots that he can't make," Sartor said. "Once he made that first one, I think he was inclined to make the second one, and then the third and the fourth. And if he had got back in there, and the same scenario presented itself, he would have made a fifth one. That's just what type of player he is. I think if he had missed the shot, then he would have done something else to create efficiency so that he could help his team."

Indeed, Sartor knows the full breadth of Williamson's game. And while he's the coach who years ago instructed Williamson to dunk anytime he gathered himself near the paintso that the act would become a part of his muscle memorythere's more to Williamson than the monstrous jams that made his high school highlights go viral and prompted Drake to wear his Spartanburg jersey.

In his first few weeks as a pro, Williamson has combined sensational, highlight-worthy plays with a well-rounded game. Short-term, his arrival figures to give New Orleans a puncher's chance to slip into the Western Conference playoffs. But as the Pelicans themselves have made clear in easing Williamson through rehabilitation and monitoring his minutes since his return, it's the long term that really counts. And while the Zion era is finally, gingerly and sometimes spectacularly underway, it begins with expectations few, if any, rookies have ever faced. 

Williamson spent a large part of last summer acclimating himself to his new home.

"It's crazy. I just love talking to the people that have lived here their whole lives," Williamson said during the fall. "When they're describing the culture of the city, you almost feel like you're a part of the city. Walking the streets in New Orleans, you'll see the most creative things—like how people make music. They'll probably take a gallon of water and somehow use it as an instrument, and you're just in awe. That's all they had, and they made the most beautiful song."

Before the NBA season kicked off, Williamson visited the studio of visual artist Brandan "Bmike" Odums, who transformed a once-abandoned space in New Orleans' Bywater neighborhood, adorning the 35,000 square foot warehouse with colorful graffiti-style murals that showcase the struggles and successes of blacks from the Civil Rights era to the modern day as both a tribute to black culture and a testament to the city's post-Hurricane Katrina resilience.

On this day, a group of aspiring artists from area high schools had been invited by Jordan Brand to design a new shoe, the Air Jordan 34. Zion rotated from station to station, visiting with the kids who detailed the inspirations behind their designs. After a quick huddle among creative designers, a Mardi Gras-themed shoe with intertwining beads was announced as the winner. To cheers, Zionon-brand in a black Jordan shirt and Travis Scott's Air Jordan 6—announced he would wear the design during a game this season.

Zion Williamson checks in with one of the design teams Jordan Brand tasked with designing a new sneaker last summer in New Orleans.
Zion Williamson checks in with one of the design teams Jordan Brand tasked with designing a new sneaker last summer in New Orleans.Photo courtesy of Jordan Brand

After months of considering offers following his stellar lone season and one shoe malfunction at Duke, Williamson agreed to a multiyear shoe deal with Jordan Brand.

"My first pair of Jordans that I hooped in were the 'Cool Grey' 11s," Williamson said. "I got them when I was, like, nine. This is my first year playing recreational basketball, and ... every game we were undefeated, and I feel like those was like my good luck shoes.

"My father had a little saying, 'Think good, feel good, play good.' Whenever I wore those shoes, I felt good, and I felt like I looked good, too."

Soon he was ushered out to a waiting vehicle, along with his family and agent, Austin Brown, for his first glimpse at a sizable banner outside Smoothie King Center that features him celebrating in front of a second line scene.

As the car snaked past creamsicle-colored shotgun homes, outdoor murals and empty lots, Zion surveyed his new home, thinking about what the city is now, not how he might change it.

"[To] really appreciate things, you need to know the history," Williamson said.

"They embrace the scars of Katrina. It was devastating ... and I think that brought them together as a community. I hear those stories, and it really hits and I'm glad I can be a part of this community.

"When you hear about it on the news, you're like, 'Oh, it was crazy what happened.' When you actually drive through the city or some of these areas and see some of these buildings, they got these little marks on them, and if you know the history behind those marks, it'll give you a completely different perspective."

For a city that watched Chris Paul and Anthony Davis force trades out of town, Williamson offers yet another chance to embrace a superstar good enough to fuel a contender that, in turn, will be good enough to convince him to stay. Draft night alone created a jammed block party on Fulton Street Square.

The Pelicans sold 12,000 season tickets for the 2019-20 season, their most in more than a decade, according to the Times-Picayune. Though Williamson has maintained the sense of confidence, and ease, with which he arrived, losing half of the season to injury and an 11th straight year of home attendance among the bottom third of the NBA can have a way of ratcheting up the pressure to accelerate the process.

The Pelicans, for their part, have tried to keep a check on expectations. His minutes have been tightly monitored, and executive vice president of basketball operations David Griffin has been clear that the team's goal is to build toward a model of sustainable success, not a sprint deep into the playoffs in Year 1 of the Zion era.

"We feel a great responsibility to enable him to stay in that space of joy and gratitude for as long as possible," Griffin said before the season. "I hope it never goes away, and it doesn't necessarily have to, by the way."

Griffin approached the Williamson experience with a unique perspective. He joined the Pelicans last April after a two-year sabbatical, depleted after becoming consumed with winning a championship in his four years with LeBron James and the Cavaliers. In helping guide Cleveland to four straight Finals, Griffin felt he lost sight of appreciating the steps in the journey.

"That's one of the things for me that was a valuable lesson to learn and to watch happen is understanding some of the pitfalls that come from that much hype and that much fame," Griffin said. "The reality of who LeBron is is so much greater than the hype around him. ... They lose sight of what the man himself really cares about.

We feel a great responsibility to enable [Zion] to stay in that space of joy and gratitude for as long as possible.
— Pelicans executive vice president of basketball operations David Griffin

"Zion, he really cares about kids. He really cares about the community. But all anybody wants to talk about is, 'Put the ball between your legs, put it around your back, dunk.' That's daunting for those guys, and that makes it really hard because they don't get to live in gratitude and joy for what they love doing, right?

"One of the things that being in LeBron's space that really helped was learning how horrific that media scrutiny is and failing on my part to deal with it very well. It's going to help, I think, a lot organizationally as we try to deal with it better around Zion. Because I'll be honest with you, I failed miserably to deal with it well before."

Before he even finished his brief college career, Williamson was being judged against the NBA's best players. ESPN's Kevin Pelton projected he was the second-best NBA draft prospect (after Anthony Davis) since 2003. He checked in at No. 42 in ESPN's player rankings before the season, ahead of proven All-Stars like Kevin Love (No. 43), DeMar DeRozan (No. 46) and Klay Thompson (No. 49).

Williamson understands the connection to his predecessors—feels it—not because of the real possibility his career will be judged against theirs, but because those who realized what he could become suggested he watch and learn from them as a kid.

"Whenever I do my research on the game of basketball and see older people like Earl Monroe, or '90s babies like Michael Jordan, or early-2000s like LeBron, I like to break down their games," Williamson said, "and even though it's different decades, they all brought their own flavors to the game.

"I paid attention to the small things. Like when I'm in the barbershop or something and somebody would be like, 'You know who you really need to go watch is Magic Johnson. You don't know who that is.' Some kids are like, 'Alright, whatever.' [Me], I'm going to go watch full-game highlights on him, full clips of how he played the game. If you watched his highlights, Magic, before the ball is bouncing up in the air for that rebound, he already took his picture of the court. He gets that ball, takes one dribble and he already knows where that ball is going. He already knows where his teammates are going to be, and he sees the play before it happens. You watch that on film, it's crazy for somebody to have a mind like that and be a 6'9" point guard."

Growing up, Williamson studied the anticipation with which past NBA legends such as Magic Johnson played and grew to appreciate the physicality with which Johnson's Lakers, and their rivals, brought to each game.
Growing up, Williamson studied the anticipation with which past NBA legends such as Magic Johnson played and grew to appreciate the physicality with which Johnson's Lakers, and their rivals, brought to each game.Rusty Costanza/Associated Press/Associated Press/Associated Press

In those highlights, he also found an appreciation for an era all but legislated away in today's game.

"With the rivalry of the Lakers and the Celtics, also with the rivalry of the Pistons and the Bulls ... the physicality was different," Williamson said. "There was no going to the basket. They're fouling you intentionally, like, 'I'll take the foul.' For Jordan to win three championships in that era was incredible. For Larry Bird to win three MVPs in a row. Stuff like that, you don't see that anymore. That's what makes them legends in their own right, as well as Magic Johnson with his five rings, of course."

Whenever I do my research on the game of basketball and see older people like Earl Monroe, or '90s babies like Michael Jordan, or early-2000s like LeBron, I like to break down their games.
— Zion Williamson

Now, people are describing his game in the same awe-inspired tones. And while his explosive frame (he is listed at 6'6", 284 pounds) has a lot to do with the excitement, Williamson has arrived at this moment because of what he learned to do with that physicality while growing up with the game.

"Something about that game that just, I didn't want to stop. I didn't want to leave the gym and go home," Williamson said. "Spend all day in the gym, leave, go eat, just come right back. That was hanging out for me."

As Williamson's NBA career gains traction, Sartor thinks back to when he first started working with him shortly before he entered high school and how every moment led to now. Like how he drilled Williamson to be comfortable with the ball in his hands so that he could be a decision-maker rather than waiting for someone to give him the ball. Or the times they worked on swiping the ball through, pivoting and finishing at the basket, a move both came to realize Zion could finish most effectively with a dunk.

The superhero origin stories—the time Zion crushed a baseball 400 feet or tossed a football 70 yards—stick out, too, but the other telling, tender moments told Sartor more about Williamson's potential to impact others outside the game. The moments Williamson would pass around water to his younger teammates or shake his teammates' and coaches' hands before accepting an MVP trophy.

"I know that he's fulfilling his dream," said Sartor, now the head coach at Erskine College, which sits about 60 miles from Spartanburg. "It's great for him, and it's great for all of us who've known him and been a part of his life up until this point."

And while the NBA hopes it's also great for New Orleans and the league itself, the early reaction has been tentative. The Pelicans' struggles in the early season dampened summer expectations. In only his second home game, on a Friday night, empty seats dotted Smoothie King Center. And the Kobe Bryant tragedy has understandably cast a shadow over the league.

Still, there is time, provided Zion stays healthy. And while the Pelicans have deployed him mostly in bursts over his first 10 games, it's clear he is already figuring out how his game translates to the NBA, when best to jab and barrel to the rim. Imagine when he plays with no limitations. 


Jonathan Abrams is a senior writer for B/R Mag. A former staff writer at Grantland and sports reporter at the New York Times and Los Angeles Times, Abrams is also the bestselling author of All the Pieces Matter: The Inside Story of The Wire—available right here, right now. Follow him on Twitter, @jpdabrams.

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