College Basketball

Among all of Zion Williamson's incredible feats, making Duke likable might be his greatest

Zion Williamson reacts after scoring a basket and drawing a foul against North Dakota State in the first round of the 2019 NCAA tournament at Colonial Life Arena on March 22, 2019 in Columbia, S.C.

Washington — After Grant Hill graduated from Duke in 1994, he often heard the same thing from fans who rooted against the Blue Devils during his college career. Some of them were even North Carolina fans.

“I always kind of got, ‘I hate Duke, but I liked you,’ ” Hill, a Hall of Famer, said Thursday as he prepared in his role as a CBS analyst for Friday’s Sweet 16 game between the top-seeded Blue Devils and fourth-seeded Virginia Tech at Capital One Arena.


Current star Zion Williamson will likely hear the same thing after he leaves Duke for the NBA after his freshman year, if he hasn’t heard it already.

Williamson is not only the best player in college, but he’s also the most popular.


From his 28-point debut in Duke’s 34-point demolition of then-No. 2 Kentucky in November to the knee injury he suffered last month after blowing out his shoe in the first minute against the Tar Heels to his last-minute heroics Sunday to save the Blue Devils from a shocking Round of 32 elimination against Central Florida, Williamson is the biggest story in this year’s NCAA tournament.

If former Duke stars such as Christian Laettner, Bobby Hurley, JJ Reddick and Grayson Allen were considered lightning rods for the vitriol directed at legendary coach Mike Krzyzewski’s teams, the 6-foot-7, 285-pound manchild known simply by his first name has become a beacon for longstanding Duke haters to put aside decades of disdain — or worse.

From left, Duke teammates Zion Williamson, RJ Barrett, and Tre Jones react after defeating Florida State in the championship game of the 2019 ACC tournament on March 16, 2019 in Charlotte, N.C.

It’s almost the way he’s been marketed, the way he plays and the way the media has wrapped their arms around him, he almost transcends the game.

—  Hall of Famer Grant Hill on current Duke star Zion Williamson

“It’s almost the way he’s been marketed, the way he plays and the way the media has wrapped their arms around him, he almost transcends the game,” Hill said of Williamson. “Instead of watching what he does that might be controversial, you’ll watch him to see his greatness.

“That’s all you‘re being fed and you focus on the beauty of what he does and what his team does instead of a player taunting or a player doing something else. There’s none of that. … From the media’s perspective, there wasn’t that villain. It’s all been positive.”

Longtime college basketball columnist and best-selling author John Feinstein, a 1977 Duke graduate who has chronicled the program’s journey from an Atlantic Coast Conference power to a national brand, said fans are a bit confused about how to relate to the Blue Devils these days.

Speaking of Duke’s 77-76 win over UCF on Sunday — when the Knights, coached by former Blue Devils star Johnny Dawkins and led by Dawkins’ son, Aubrey, came within a tipped shot of beating the tournament favorite — Feinstein said, “When that ball hung on the rim, people had mixed emotions.”

“Part of them were saying, ‘We want Duke to lose!’ and part of them were saying, ‘We want Zion to play next week!’ ” Feinstein said. “I don’t think it’s because anyone’s come to like Duke any more. They still hate Duke. They might like him, because he’s unique. I don’t think they root for Duke.”

Said Hill: “There’s still people who don’t like Duke — like Carolina fans — but it’s almost this superhuman performance by this guy. What will be interesting is how people will feel about Duke next year, when the team will be very, very different. Will people have that same kind of excitement?”


Hill was a key figure in helping Duke end its run of frustration. After reaching the Final Four four times in a five-year stretch and failing to win a title, the Blue Devils won the national championship during Hill’s freshman and sophomore years in 1991 and 1992.

Along with getting the Blue Devils — and their future Hall of Fame coach — over the hump, Hill helped sway some of those whose rooting interests didn’t skew toward the Tar Heels or Maryland to want Duke to keep winning in March.

When Duke beat Kansas in the 1991 final — after upsetting defending champion and unbeaten UNLV in the semifinals a year after the Runnin’ Rebels beat the Blue Devils by 30 in the final — many college fans embraced Hill then as they do Williamson now.

“I was a 6-8 guy who could handle the ball and sometimes go above the rim. I wasn’t necessarily doing anything that hadn’t been done before,” Hill said. “You look at him, we’ve never seen a guy this big move like that. That sort of captivates everybody.”

Krzyzewski’s two associate head coaches, former Duke players Jon Scheyer and Nate James, have noticed a difference this season in the way fans of opposing teams view the Blue Devils.

“I think our players have a lot to do with it. It’s a fun group, very likable,” said Scheyer, who played for Duke from 2006 through 2010.


“Not to say we haven’t had likable groups in the past, but it’s been different. … You’ve got people coming up to you and saying, ‘I never wanted to root for Duke but I’m rooting for Duke this year.’ ”

To a point.

“I think after the game Sunday, it came back out, a lot of people always looking forward to Duke losing,” Scheyer said.

James, who played for the Blue Devils from 1996 through 2001 and has been on the staff since 2007-08, said there was a similar feeling around the team when it won the title in 2015, the year Allen was a freshman.

“That group made the world say, ‘These guys are a little different’ than what people typically thought what Duke players were,” James said. “They said it was not Duke-like, but it was because we still kicked everybody's butt.”

Allen helped the Blue Devils return to their role as the college team everyone loved to hate with three tripping incidents the next two years. Krzyzewski didn’t help the situation by waiting until the third trip to take action and then turning an indefinite suspension into a one-game ban.


But it was short-lived, mostly because Duke wasn’t exactly Duke after falling to fifth and tied for fifth, respectively, in the ACC in 2015-16 and 2016-17. The Blue Devils not making it past the Elite Eight each of the past three years. But the arrival of Williamson and fellow star freshmen Cam Reddish and RJ Barrett put the target back on their collective back.

Except these Blue Devils are not like the Laettner-Hurley teams that griped at each other and often played with more efficiency than effusiveness. And there is not a single player who has evoked memories of Reddick.

“I think it’s an usual team in that obviously they have tremendous talent and great players, but there’s a genuine authentic spirit that team has,” Hill said. “As Coach K always says, they’re secure in who they are, but they genuinely like each other and they genuinely kind of play for one another, and that’s endearing. You just appreciate that, and that’s not always the case.”

For their part, neither Krzyzewski nor Williamson seem too busy to notice this phenomenon.

While Krzyzewski said at his news conference Thursday that he doesn’t pay attention to fans booing or cheering his team, he acknowledged, “If you like basketball, you should like these kids. Whether or not you like me, that’s another question.”

As the media scrum surrounding Williamson in the team’s dressing room dispersed Thursday, the player who will likely win every national award and be the No. 1 pick in this year’s NBA draft was asked if he has a sense that fans were happy Duke has survived so they could see him play at least one more college game.


“I really wasn’t focused on all that. I was like, ‘I want to see the gym for practice.’ If that tip [by Central Florida] had rolled in, we would not be here right now,” Williamson said.

Williamson said he and his teammates are staying away from social media, focused instead “on making each other better and winning a national championship.”

But James recalled a recent photo on social media that spoke to how Williamson has changed the landscape of college basketball, even in that 11-mile space between the Duke and North Carolina campuses.

It was a picture of Williamson dunking on the Tar Heels during his team’s ACC title game victory.

“They panned the crowd and had it frozen on a Carolina fan cheering,” James said.