Zion Mania? It’s only new by a matter of degree.
Before Zion Williamson, there was Allen Iverson, Grant Hill, Shaquille O’Neal, Patrick Ewing and...
Rex Chapman, coming out of Owensboro, Ky., to Kentucky’s campus and then to an NBA expansion team in Charlotte. That was back in the late 1980s before Twitter or Instagram, or the technology to record video of anything a fan saw, good or bad, with a cellphone.
But the outsized exposure and expectations Williamson has experienced as a Duke freshman — he will play Thursday in Charlotte in the ACC Tournament — is particularly familiar to Chapman from his time as a Wildcat and then as the first draft pick of a new NBA team.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The Charlotte Observer
Chapman spoke with the Observer about life on overdrive as a basketball prodigy at one of the country’s most prominent college basketball programs.
“It can screw with your mind. Everyone for the most part is slapping you on the back and telling you how great you are. You’re not! You’re decent, you’re a pretty good college player. But you have proven nothing yet,” Chapman described.
Williamson hasn’t played since Feb. 20, when he suffered a sprained knee early in a loss to North Carolina. He is medically cleared, according to Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski, for when the Blue Devils play Thursday at Spectrum Center against Syracuse.
A 6-foot-7 forward who grew up in Spartanburg, Williamson appears a prohibitive favorite to be the No. 1 overall pick assuming he turns pro this spring. Chapman, a shooting guard, went eighth overall in the 1988 draft following two seasons at Kentucky.
But the constant hype rotating around Williamson is very reminiscent of what Chapman experienced. It isn’t just seductive, Chapman observed, it’s distorting. He tried to tune out feedback from anyone but his coaches and his father. Hard as that was at the time, Chapman said it must be dramatically harder now in these social-media times.
“Everyone is now addicted to their phones,” said Chapman, 51, who now does television and radio for some Hornets and Kentucky broadcasts. “If someone said, ‘Don’t read the newspapers or listen to sports radio,’ I could do that... You cannot avoid seeing stuff that comes across your phone.
“You’re young and dumb and chasing girls and trying to go to class. And everyone is telling you how great you are on social media. All the trappings.”
Chapman spent two seasons at Kentucky before turning pro and now says a third college season would have been beneficial. The difference between him and Williamson in that regard is Chapman wasn’t as physically developed as a freshman. Chapman said his failures — a handful of games where he was so bad defensively it cost Kentucky victories — were far more constructive than his successes.
“Games where I didn’t think I could play,” Chapman described. “But you have to go through that”
I asked Chapman what advice he would give today’s prodigies about managing all this: the short stopovers in college basketball, the national attention and expectations and the dramatic shifts in lifestyle.
“When you come from close to nothing — where you’re just asking for an extra 50 cents for (high school) lunch because you’re hungry — and then you go to having everything you want? That is dangerous!” Chapman warned.
Chapman said prodigies’ greatest unfilled need is financial education, not just for these players but for everyone in their support systems.
“It will sound old and boring, but make sure to figure out some way for the young man and the parents to understand about finance: retirement and saving,” Chapman warned.
“They don’t take that in college, at least most guys don’t. It also needs to be your family and those one or two buddies (in your inner circle). People think that you’re made of money once you start making money, and the (requests) come from everywhere.
“It’s hard to say no!”