From the moment Zion Williamson’s left foot tore through the sole of his shoe, this became the Duke-North Carolina game no one expected, predicted or foresaw, played amid the ominous overtones of just how bad Williamson’s right knee injury might be and what not just Duke but college basketball would look like without him.
“His shoe broke,” President Obama pointed out from his seat at the opposite baseline in Cameron, and take a moment to consider the collision of circumstances that led to that sentence.
It might not be all that bad, but who really knows at this point?
“Mild knee sprain. The knee is stable. We don’t know how long he’ll be out. So that’s that,” Mike Krzyzewski said afterward.
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Williamson, Krzyzewski pointed out, slips often, perhaps a product of the inertia his mass and velocity generate. And less inertial players have blown the soles off shoes before, if not often. The combination of unusual player and unusual shoe failure, in this case, exceeded the tolerances of Williamson’s knee.
Duke might be just fine without Williamson with some time to process and adjust – it’s not like the Blue Devils are lacking in NBA-caliber talent – but the Blue Devils didn’t really regroup until halftime, not unexpectedly so, and certainly weren’t the same. North Carolina led by 10 at the half, ran the lead to 16 early in the second and kept it there through an even finish, 88-72.
For want of a shoe, and so on and so on.
Take nothing away from North Carolina, which played the way it had to play to win on a night neither team could hit a 3-pointer with any regularity, with or without Williamson, working the matchups to get big games from Luke Maye and Garrison Brooks inside, Cameron Johnson outside. But there’s no getting past what happened in the first 34 seconds, because it reverberates beyond even this rivalry.
“Be honest, everybody be honest: When the big fella goes out of the game, it changes a lot of stuff for them,” Roy Williams said, cutting to the point on a night his team went 2-for-20 from 3-point range – and won.
“Zion Williamson, I’ve never seen anything like him, and that was a huge blow for them and having that happen during the course of the game, you don’t have time to prepare for it. I hated that part of it, because I think he’s such a wonderful kid. That was a huge blow for them at that time, no question.”
Ignore for a moment the manufactured buzz about how much a ticket cost on the secondary market Wednesday night; it costs that much to see UNC play at Duke whether it’s Williamson or William Avery playing for Duke. That’s just how Cameron is. (Caveat: Barack Obama and Spike Lee? That is a little different.)
And sure, Williamson getting hurt while blowing through a shoe that comes to Duke via a Nike deal that players like Williamson make almost infinitely valuable but don’t see a penny from is indeed yet another example of the gross inequities of the college-athletic-industrial complex, but there are a million such examples of how a scholarship is penny-ante compensation for the revenue they generate.
It doesn’t take the most magnetic and enthralling player in the country suffering a bizarre injury in the first minute of the most anticipated game of the season to drive that home. A simple walk across Duke’s athletic campus, replete with state-of-the-art stadiums and training facilities for every sport that almost still smell of new paint does just as well as an example.
Nor should this strengthen the Scottie Pippen argument that Williamson should shut it down and wait for the draft. No one would begrudge him if he did, but Williamson wants to be here, wants to be a part of this team – and that’s his choice in the end. He doesn’t have a lot of control over his situation, but he does control that. It’s up to him.
So none of that is really the point in this specific instance, even if it’s all worth making at any time. We enjoy college sports despite the inherent economic injustice, some of us with more self-doubt than others, and if the NBA (and its union) are going to force basketball players to do this one-year unpaid internship we might as well make the most of seeing a phenomenon like Williamson up close. However long it does or doesn’t last.
Even the North Carolina players wanted him in this game, wanted to get Duke at its best. His absence doesn’t devalue they way they played, but they wanted their shot at Zion, too.
“I’m praying for him, by the way,” said Seventh Woods, a surprise UNC star off the bench. “Me being a competitor, I kind of wish he was there, just so we could get it out the way really. He’s got a chance to come back to Carolina. Hopefully he’s back.”
The concern, after Williamson left for the locker room and trainer Jose Fonseca came to get his stepfather out of the stands behind the Duke bench, is that he won’t be back. That this crazy Zion wave may have crested too soon, just as Main Street was coming to the awakening that there was really something special going on here, with a player whose charisma is sublime as his basketball ability.
There is an ecumenical pleasure in watching Williamson, the sense of seeing something unique and special whether you were a fan of Duke or anyone else or merely college basketball, and it’s impossible to know at this point whether that’s been lost or not.
It’s impossible not to wonder.