Duke forward Zion Williamson holds his knee after injuring himself and damaging his shoe during the opening moments of the game in the first half on Wednesday, Feb. 20, 2019, at Cameron Indoor Stadium in Durham, N.C.
Photo: Chuck Liddy/Raleigh News & Observer
Photo: Chuck Liddy/Raleigh News & Observer

Zion blows a shoe. The world goes nuts

No harmonic convergence, this. On the contrary, it became an atonal aggregation of Talking Points — biggest game of the season, a former president in the cramped packed house, tickets going for more than the Pats-Rams Super Bowl, rights-holder ESPN in a full-blown ESPN lather, and then … Zion blows a shoe.

I feel fairly confident in saying that, no matter what madness arises in March/April, nothing will match what happened Wednesday night in Durham, N.C. Duke and North Carolina met for the thousandth time, and nobody will much remember the outcome, either. For the record, Carolina won big and looked great doing it. Then again, Duke’s best player lasted only 33 or 36 seconds, depending on your timing specifications. This will forever be the game in which … 

Zion blew a shoe.

Zion Williamson isn’t just the best collegiate player in the land. He’s the closest we’ve seen to LeBron James as a collegian. LeBron never played for or against Carolina/Duke, having entered the NBA straight from St. Vincent-St. Mary, his Akron high school. ESPN tried to latch onto him, airing several St. V-St. M games, but a 32-minute high school tilt in Greensboro on MLK Day 2003 — I attended that one — wasn’t the same as, in the famous words of Dean Smith, Duke at Duke.

With apologies to Anthony Davis and Kevin Durant, Zion Williamson is the biggest/best college player since LeBron entered the NBA. The Worldwide Leader glommed onto him before the season began — what a coincidence that it’s also airing a documentary series re: Duke 2018-19 — and we can’t say the freshman has wilted beneath the bright lights. He’s a tremendous talent who’s also tremendously skilled and who plays unbelievably hard. He’ll make some NBA team very lucky very soon.

Wednesday night had all the elements: Zion, Coach K, Ol’ Roy, Cameroon Indoor Stadium and its occupying Crazies, ESPN on the call and Barack Obama in the front row. Then, 33 or so seconds in, Zion blew a shoe.

In and of itself, that was an astonishing sight. Who rips through a (Nike-manufactured) sneaker just by stepping hard? Then it became clear that Zion wasn’t quite OK, and then the world went nuts. Because now every basketball Hot Button had been pushed.

College basketball’s best player had hurt himself. What would that mean for March Madness? What if he needs surgery and misses the Big Dance? What would that do for Duke? (Short answer: nothing good.) What about the rest of the field? (Short answer: much good.) What if Zion is only hurt a little but decides, college-football-bowl-style, to skip the NCAA tournament? What if NBA teams look hard at his knee and decide they don’t like what they see? What will this mean for Zion going forward, corporate-affiliation-wise? Will he ever again don a pair of Nikes? And was this some sort of karma for the havoc wrought on college hoops by, ahem, sneaker companies?

Afterward, Mike Krzyzewski announced that Williamson had sustained a mild knee sprain, prognosis to be announced today or whenever Coach K darned well feels like it. That suggested that Zion’s college season need not be over – unless he wants it to be. Which would be unprecedented in this sport. Nobody has ever chosen not to play in the NCAA tournament to safeguard his NBA stock, but Zion isn’t just anybody. He’s the best since LeBron, et cetera.

We’ll leave it there for now, but we’d be remiss if, for all the wonders Zion Williamson has worked, his greatest feat (pun semi-intended) might have been to leave the former leader of the free world almost awestruck. After the slip felt ’round the globe, ESPN’s cameras caught Barack Obama pointing and saying: “His shoe broke.” 

Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.

Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.

About the Author

Mark Bradley
Mark Bradley
Mark Bradley is a sports columnist and blogger for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. He has been with the AJC since 1984.