bAlmost 80 years since the death of Dr. James Naismith, the Canadian-American innovator might have felt gobsmacked at Thursday night in March 2019 in North Carolina, at the heights and eccentricities of the sport he hatched. First, people gasped at a futuristic marvel who returned from an interminable absence lasting 22 days, and who then shot 13 times and made 13 of the shots, 12 from within breathing distance of the rim. Next, they talked about his shoes and an impromptu trip across the United States and then to China to refine them.
"The shoes were incredible this game," Zion Williamson said near midnight.
Yes, what shoes.
Basketball, always apt to bolt into frontiers, presented once more a player born in the summer of 2000 who already has developed the knack of wowing witnesses. Barely had Magic Johnson, David Robinson and 19,689 other curiosity cases begun to watch the ACC tournament quarterfinal between Duke and Syracuse when, 126 seconds in, all saw how even after all the players in all the years, a player could turn up looking markedly different.
The score stood 3-2 for Syracuse, the Syracuse offense passed the ball around the exterior, Zion Williamson nimbly plucked it free for the first of the five steals that vied for his most impressive statistic, and then his 285-pound frame moved as 285 pounds never really have across the world's hardwood floors. By the time he dunked at the other end to christen the game as his and signal that his recovery from a knee sprain appeared complete, the trip across two-thirds of the court had required three dribbles and two steps.
By the end of the 29-point, 14-rebound, five-steal night, he had Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim repeatedly starting sentences, stopping them and then starting others.
"Well, he's a different player," Boeheim said. "There's not many, there hasn't been anybody, I've been coaching a long, I've been in this game over 50 years and I haven't seen, I've seen a lot of great players, I'm not saying he's better than those guys, but he's a different player. He can do things that nobody has done in this game. I mean Charles (Barkley), like I said, is, was close, but this guy's bigger, stronger. And I mean he's a crazy-different type of player, there's not guys like him."
Syracuse players would not express amazement, but maybe only because, as Frank Howard put it, "As a competitor you don't want to say 'amazed' because we still have to compete, but he's definitely a terrific talent, terrific athlete and he's showing that."
As Duke moved toward a delicious semifinal with North Carolina, which beat Duke twice during the aching 22 days of Williamson-lessness, Williamson looked like a 21st-century player who actually had turned up out of the 22nd. He dunked five times, three on stirring lobs from teammates, including one fast-break jaw-dropper from RJ Barrett, and he tried and made one soft 3-pointer from the left of the top of the arc. Twenty-two days after the early-game injury against North Carolina that tore apart his shoe and enthralled a nation, his return appeared perfect. "I wouldn't say 'perfect night,' " he said. "Like, couldn't really throw a tennis ball into the ocean with my free throws, so I don't consider that perfect."
He shot 2-for-9, making this one of the best 2-for-9-at-the-line nights since Dr. Naismith invented the game. The crowd got over that and demonstrated clearly how the human eye will always dart toward a sight not quite seen before.
Williamson said he had settled a few days ago on his return and thanked the Duke coaches for not pressuring him. After masses of strangers made recommendations for his life, such as closing down his college year and aiming toward the NBA without any March Madness, he said, "There was no question about it, I was going to be back. Everybody has their right to their own opinion, but I knew I was coming back the whole time." He said of the March Madness he always viewed as a kid in South Carolina, "It's real now."
He said, "I just wanted to play defense, get out in passing lanes and just apply pressure." He looked, from the opening tip he won, ravenous to do that.
Then, with the arena emptied and only clumps of its audience adjourned into the hallways and the locker rooms and the interview room, he visited the latter with Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski and fellow freshmen Barrett (23 points, six assists) and Tre Jones (15 points, eight assists) at the dais.
With shoe disintegration involving a shoe corporation established as an eccentric American horror in the year 2019, the time had come to talk shoes, the lengths to which shoe experts go to perfect them, and how shoe experts can bolster frequent-flier balances in that process.
First, Williamson said, "I couldn't really specifically tell you if I wanted to. I just know they're a little stronger than the regular Kyrie 4s, so I want to thank Nike for making these, but yeah, they felt very comfortable." Krzyzewski, who might not have imagined such a scenario when he took over Duke in 1980, helpfully added, "Also he alternates the shoes quicker, so you're not wearing them too many games because the wear and tear, I think contributed to that blowout."
Soon, Jonathan Jones of Sports Illustrated wondered about the shoe intricacies of the Duke-Nike marriage, and the world really had reached all the way to 2019.
"Yeah, well, we have a very close relationship with them," Krzyzewski said. "We think it's the best shoe or else we wouldn't be with them. And right after the event they sent their top people out here to figure out what went wrong, the next day. And then those people went to China to actually look at the making of a shoe that would be very supportive and then they came back within a week with different alternatives to make sure that it was done right. So their immediate, great response was appreciated and it was something that we have grown to expect from our relationship with them."
It did seem Dr. Naismith might deserve better royalties somehow.