The viral thunder-dunks delivered by Zion Williamson don't merely demoralize opponents. They have made him better known than any prep star ever. (Yes, including LeBron.)
The obliteration was not an ad-lib. As the fast break unfolded, Zion Williamson watched the 6' 4" shooting guard on the team he was facing gather the ball near the free throw line. From just beyond midcourt Williamson darted toward the basket, shortened his stride and timed his approach before exploding off two feet, extending his arms like a volleyball player trying to block a spike at the net and swatting the ball off the glass. Witnesses would express concern for Williamson’s safety after he appeared to slam his head before landing with a thud, though not before wondering: Is the backboard O.K.?
The sequence on July 13 was recorded by many of those packed into the Upward Star Center, a 60-acre, multipurpose sports complex in Williamson’s hometown of Spartanburg, S.C., but the version captured by the app Overtime was retweeted and liked more than 16,000 times combined and served as the centerpiece for a handful of blog posts. “Check Out Zion Williamson Destroying This Wayward Dunk Attempt,” Deadspin urged readers. “Zion Williamson Is a Man Among Boys and This Block Proves It,” SB Nation proclaimed. Jerry Meyer, the basketball scouting director for 247Sports, jokingly tweeted that Williamson “could have easily been charged [with] attempted homicide.” The possibility that Williamson would pull off more plays like this kept fans around until the final buzzer, even as his South Carolina Supreme team was on its way to a 16-point loss in the Adidas Gauntlet Finale.
Afterward the 6' 7", 240-pound 17-year-old retreated to an enclave outside the main entrance to carve out a few minutes away from the intense spotlight he feels almost everywhere he goes. Despite the presence of a family friend serving as a de facto bodyguard—a 35-year-old former security guard with a shaved head and a thick red beard—Zion was intercepted over the course of the weekend by an autograph-seeker bearing a custom-made version of Williamson’s high school jersey, a man with a ponytail and a facial hair pattern reminiscent of a WWE heel and a giddy woman in a Mexico national soccer team jersey, which Williamson politely signed. Perhaps the only time he sat unbothered for more than a couple of minutes was when he scarfed down a plate of mini cheeseburgers, meatloaf and mashed potatoes at a nearby Golden Corral with his teammates.
The chase-down rejection was a viral hit, but Williamson is known primarily for his mind-blowing dunks. He has claimed the No. 1 play on SportsCenter’s Top 10, attracted interest from Good Morning America, received a Twitter shoutout from Steph Curry and struck up a texting relationship with Canadian rapper Drake. Among high school basketball players Williamson is a celebrity on a scale perhaps not seen since LeBron James. Other prep stars, such as John Wall, Thon Maker and Seventh Woods, have captivated millions of viewers with memorable mixtapes, and LaMelo Ball, the youngest brother in America’s most inescapable hoops family, has cultivated a vast online following, thanks mostly to his publicity-hungry father. But Williamson is unique in his capacity to consistently produce stunning plays that send tremors across basketball Twitter and serve as fodder for mesmerizing YouTube clips.
His exalted status almost obscures the fact that Williamson is rated no lower than No. 3 in the class of 2018 by any major recruiting service, including No. 1 by 247Sports. Although the lefty says he views himself as a two or a three, he seems like a cross between Larry Johnson and Blake Griffin. Williamson is a bouncy power player in a jumbo tight end’s body with a tight handle, the heft to bang in the low post and the quickness to fly by wings. One high-major assistant describes Williamson as a “freak of nature” and says, “You don’t see people his height play that high above the rim.” Adds Meyer, “He plays with a ferocity that you hardly ever see at this level.”
Williamson is the son of two former athletes—Sharonda Sampson, a 5' 10" sprinter, and Lateef Williamson, a 6' 4" defensive lineman—who both attended Division II Livingstone College in Salisbury, N.C. Sampson chose his first name as she was “thumbing through the Bible, but Zion just came to me.” When he was five, Zion remembers telling his stepdad, Lee Anderson, a former point guard at Clemson and the coach of Zion’s club team, that he wanted to play college basketball. He was waking up at 5 a.m. for workouts by the time he was nine, and he received his first scholarship offer in the ninth grade (from Wofford, a liberal arts school in Spartanburg). But there was little reason to suspect that Williamson would outshine other elite prospects.
For starters, he attends Spartanburg Day School, a private institution with 450 students and a strong academic reputation. It’s 75 miles southwest of Charlotte, in a part of the Palmetto State that a certain cutthroat Netflix politician calls home and where Friday night lights reign supreme. Spartanburg Day, however, does not field a football team—“We don’t have the numbers,” athletic director Rita Harrell says—but the basketball coach, Lee Sartor (also a sheriff’s deputy in Spartanburg County), has known Anderson for more than a decade. “We were looking for the school that would complement [Zion] and prepare him for college,” Anderson says.
Williamson dominated opponents in the South Carolina Independent School Association (SCISA) early in his career, but he needed to prove himself against better competition. The summer after his sophomore year he earned co-MVP awards at a pair of prestigious recruiting showcases: the National Basketball Players Association Top 100 camp and the Under Armour Elite 24. While those honors cemented Williamson’s status as a top-tier recruit, something else lifted his profile to the point where he’s even recognized on other continents: Kids approached him while he was in Italy for an Adidas basketball trip in June and asked, “Are you Zee-on Williamson?”
In January 2017, Drake posted a photo to his Instagram account of more than 37 million followers; himself wearing a Williamson Spartanburg Day jersey. (Giants wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. followed suit a few months later.) The post nudged Williamson’s level of fame into the mainstream, and the two stars now text each other periodically.
At Spartanburg Day last season, game times and venues were adjusted in anticipation of large crowds for Williamson, who then often hung around for 30 to 45 minutes for photo and autograph sessions. Fans with no connection to either team drove hours—from as far as Maine, according to an SCISA administrator—to see him up close, and big-name athletes like Falcons linebacker Vic Beasley and former Clemson quarterback Tajh Boyd made appearances. Spartanburg Day hired a professional-events staff to deal with the surge of Zion devotees trying to get into their home gym, which has a capacity of 1,000. People began sending items for Williamson to sign and calling Spartanburg Day asking to speak to him. Page views on the school’s athletics home page increased more than 350% during basketball season. Rachel Deems, the head of school, recalls a group of young men who drove from Florida hoping to secure a lunch meeting with Williamson. He wasn’t around. “They looked so downcast,” Deems says. Williamson may have a hard time going out without constantly drawing double takes, but he doesn’t resent the attention. “No part of this bothers me,” he says.
The crowds that cram into gyms for his games are usually treated to the sight of a teenager performing an in-air ballet before pulverizing the rim. There was the time when Williamson cupped the ball with his left hand, spun 360° and jammed during warmups. Or the game when he skied for an alley-oop and pulled off a one-handed windmill. These slams are catnip for mixtape outlets, which package highlights into short videos. Bryce Lanning of EliteMixtapes estimates that he went to about a dozen Spartanburg Day games last season, and Ballislife East had one of its videographers, Donnie Bui, relocate from Raleigh to Charlotte to be closer to Williamson. “As crazy as that sounds, my company literally moved me last year for four months because of a kid,” Bui says. The 11 Williamson videos Ballislife uploaded to its main YouTube channel had amassed more than four million views by mid-July.
When LeBron James blossomed into an A-list superstar at St. Vincent–St. Mary High in Akron, Ohio, more than 15 years ago, neither Twitter nor YouTube existed, and it was difficult to imagine a world in which network and cable television were not the dominant media for watching sports. An SI reporter noted in a February 2002 cover story on James that he “checked his two-way pager for messages from pals.” Now Amazon owns rights to stream NFL games, and Williamson, a player who’s often compared with James, can use a smartphone to upload a selfie for his more than 924,000 Instagram followers in less time than it takes to execute a self alley-oop dunk.
The widespread availability of Zion videos—whether for casual sports fans scrolling through their Twitter feeds or hardwood junkies embarking on a YouTube deep dive—has enabled him to develop a huge fan base even without heavy media coverage of his games or aggressive self-promotion. No background knowledge is required to delight in a future lottery pick yamming—that’s what the kids say—on a skinny 5' 8" point guard in rec specs. Ray Gamache, the author of the book A History of Sports Highlights: Replayed Plays from Edison to ESPN, terms this phenomenon the “de-contextualization of individual plays.” Gamache notes that Mike Eruzione’s game-deciding wrist-shot goal in the Miracle on Ice, one of the greatest sports moments ever, wasn’t a remarkable play by itself. “You need to know the context there,” Gamache says. By contrast, Williamson’s dunks are engrossing all on their own. No explanation needed.
Demographics make this virtual environment particularly fruitful for hoops highlights. Social media users skew young, and data from a study conducted for SportsBusiness Journal indicates that the median age of NBA television viewers in 2016 (42) was younger than all but one other major American sports league (Major League Soccer, 40) and that it has the second highest percentage (11) of viewers under 18. (MLS is first with 15.) NBA consumers naturally are more inclined to watch high school basketball clips, like ones featuring Williamson, than those showing other prep sports.
Social media offers a certain authenticity to consumers of sports videos that is missing from traditional broadcasts. Clicking on a low-grade clip of Williamson going off for 40 points inside a packed gym with rickety wooden bleachers is a completely different experience from tuning into a Monday Night Football game with 20 commercial breaks and lengthy pre- and postgame productions. “[These videos have] created some intimacy in the sense that I feel more connected because I’m closer to the action,” says Jimmy Sanderson, the president of the social media strategy consulting company Sanderson Media Group.
Some may wince at the ways mixtapes, complete with absurd comparisons in hyperbolic headlines, can breed unrealistic expectations for players a year or more away from picking out their prom suits, but any pushback against these videos should be tempered by the realization that they often perform a valuable service. The recognition that comes with being seen by hundreds of thousands, and sometimes millions, of people amounts to early-stage brand-building. “If managed correctly, that can be a long-term asset,” says Darin White, the chair of the entrepreneurship, management and marketing department at Samford. Sonny Vaccaro, an influential former marketing executive for major shoe companies, says that if players like Williamson go on to become high draft picks, the attention they’ve gained through mixtapes could add “millions of dollars to their value.” Adds Vaccaro, “If they can play, it’s money in the bank.”
It is hard to imagine that Williamson won’t finish his high school career as one of the top-ranked players in his recruiting class, but skeptics will continue to question whether he’s anything more than a dunkmaster. Williamson counters that the jams impact the game by energizing his teammates and demoralizing the opposition. The intricate choreography of a vintage Zion banger—the runup, the liftoff, the grip, the throw down—belies his simple mind-set when he’s gliding toward the basket. It is destruction, not showmanship, that consumes him in that split second before he brings the house down. “I’m thinking, I’m about to crush this dunk,” he says.
Williamson has not set a timetable for choosing a college, though he hopes to make the decision before his senior season. He plans to stay at Spartanburg Day despite attempts from other prep programs to poach him. Asked about the possibility of going one-and-done in college, Williamson says, “If the opportunity to go to the NBA is there, then I’m going to take it.” For now, he’ll keep trying to get better, although he isn’t focused on any one skill. “I’m still young,” he says. “I have a lot to learn, so I’m going to continue to work on everything.” Williamson’s time away from the court will include heavy doses of anime shows like Naruto and Dragon Ball Z, and maybe he’ll test his conviction that he’s an “unstoppable” Connect Four player. If nobody challenges Williamson, this will: keeping his daily life at least somewhat ordinary.
On a Tuesday night in mid-July, Williamson walked into a McDonald’s in Spartanburg for a quick meal following a South Carolina Supreme workout that concluded with a determined TV reporter doing several takes of a segment in which he tossed Williamson alley-oop passes. A woman in the restaurant got Williamson’s attention to tell him that she had seen videos of him and asked for a picture. He trudged over to the soda fountain, only to be confronted by a man who implored him to attend North Carolina. After Williamson sat down with his 20-piece Chicken McNuggets box and large fries, the man returned with a surprising request. “That’s a Bible,” Williamson said of the object the man wanted autographed. “I don’t know how I feel about signing that.” He obliged.
Less than a day later Williamson was back in the gym with teammates, pumping out five pushups as punishment for a missed free throw. Soon he was sprinting, backpedaling and pivoting—palms up, shoulders square—while grinding through a defensive shuffling drill. Anderson looked on, barking words of encouragement. “Good work, Z!” The squeaking sneakers, rim clanks and loud echoes provided a familiar sound track, but something felt off. There was a sense of calm that eludes Williamson in most public settings.
The workout took place at Spartanburg Day’s Stone Family Court, the same hardwood where, next winter, hundreds of Zion devotees will hoist their smartphones in unison. They won’t want to miss a moment of action before recording his dunks and posting them on the Internet.