The most-talked about and coveted young basketball phenom since LeBron James suddenly falls with an injured knee on Duke’s court because his Nike sneaker fell apart. It’s national TV. The camera shows former President Barack Obama, seated courtside, saying, “His shoe broke!”
That’s notable enough. But what happens next might be bigger:
Will Zion Williamson play another game for Duke?
Why should he?
Blue Devils coach Mike Krzyzewski called it “a mild right knee sprain,” but it feels like the consequences of this might be anything but mild.
Duke’s No. 1 ranking and favorite’s role to win the national championship might have just disappeared. Not because of of the 88-72 loss to rival North Carolina in the game of the year, but because of the much greater loss if Williamson decides to shut down his season and college career — as he has every right and so much reason to do.
How close did Williamson come to an injury that was not mild but very serious? With what’s at stake for him, the idea of not risking another injury must be weighing pretty heavily right now. He would be hugely criticized for selfishness if the sprain was indeed mild, and he was ready to play fairly soon but simply said nah. He also would be protecting his own extraordinary interests.
He would be putting his own financial security ahead of that of the university that does not pay him (except in an education he will leave behind in June’s NBA Draft). The same university that requires him to wear Nike sneakers because of the contract that enriches Duke without a cent trickling down to the likely national player of the year.
We saw mighty Nike scramble into damage-control mode Thursday night. A rival company quickly Tweeted out, “Wouldn’t have happened in the Pumas” — soon after deleting the snarky dig. All across social media, Nike’s iconic “Just Do It” slogan became “Just Blew It.” Nike stock dropped a ticker overnight.
All of this will be temporary for the company. What happened to Williamson will be seen as a freak occurrence that won’t happen again. Nothing dents Nike. Its controversial Colin Kaepernick ad last September was so polarizing it was supposed to hurt the company. Nike was so worried that it doubled down on Kaepernick just this week by issuing a new jersey in his honor.
That the broken shoe was being worn by the best player in the college game and caused an injury magnifies the embarrassment, but Nike will be fine. (Does Zion’s busted sneaker have its own Twitter site yet? Will the now-famous shoe be auctioned off for charity? Will an investigative team from ESPN’s “Outside The Lines” determine the infamous sneaker was assembled in China by an old woman making six yuan a day?)
The intrigue is whatever’s running through the mind of the 18-year-old Williamson and of the family and advisors around him.
Not since LeBron has a player this young created this much electricity in the sport.
He will be one and done at Duke and be the No. 1 overall selection in the June draft, barring a serious injury, of course. The Phoenix Suns and new York Knicks are trying to out-bad each other for the rights to draft Williamson. Their coaches and general managers were grasping rosary beads as their golden ticket fell to the floor Thursday night.
Put yourself in Williamson’s shoes (pun partly intended).
Your priority is either an allegiance to Duke and Krzyzewski, or to your family and future. You can have both, but not without risk.
If your “mild” sprain heals you can play Duke’s five remaining regular-season games (including March 2 vs. the Miami Hurricanes), and then in the ACC tournament, and then in March Madness.
You probably will. Maybe you should.
But I sure wouldn’t blame you if you didn’t.
“Mild” sprains can be finicky things, so who knows? Zion Williamson’s knee might not be fully healthy until the night he’s walking on stage as the NBA’s newest superstar in June.