LAS VEGAS — In this age of hyperbole, it would be apt to say the Thomas & Mack Center nearly exploded on Friday evening—even before considering an actual earthquake stopped live play. Five years ago, when Andrew Wiggins and Jabari Parker dueled across the concourse in the smaller Cox Pavilion, the venue buzzed with the energy of a sweaty AAU gym, when teams, spectators and college coaches all pack the Sunday night 17U championship bout. Zion Williamson’s NBA debut, a clash with the New York Knicks and his former college teammate R.J. Barrett, would have broken any barometer used to measure crowd hysteria in 2015.
Zion’s debut quickly morphed into a moment more than a meaningless July basketball game. Few sporting environments truly deserve to be described as palpable. Make no mistake this was one of them. The noise crescendoed and seemed inextinguishable, oddly reminiscent of the dosimeters in HBO’s recent portrayal of the Chernobyl disaster. Tracking unprecedented levels of radiation, the devices would click uncontrollably the deeper scientists and staffers waded towards the nuclear eruption.
An NBA dosimeter would have whirred to life the moment LeBron James took his seat courtside in Thomas & Mack for the Lakers-Bulls matchup that preceded Pelicans-Knicks. During one pause in that game’s sleepy fourth quarter, James turned around to scan the crowd. A young Lakers fan shrieked the moment their eyes locked and The King waved. With five minutes remaining in the opening act, Floyd Mayweather’s eight-person Money Team of absurdly large bodyguards strolled into the arena. Mayweather employs nearly as many security staffers for the number of dwindling hours that separate Zion’s Pelicans and Anthony Davis for good.
That impending trade is, of course, the backdrop for Friday’s radioactivity. We’ve known the particulars which will send Davis to Los Angeles since the terms were agreed upon on June 18. The trade will finally be ratified on Saturday when the NBA’s moratorium period mercifully ends. And so moments after Mayweather’s arrival, in poured Josh Hart and Lonzo Ball, younger brother LaMelo trailing shortly behind. It would be one thing for a veteran teammate of Ball’s celebrity to make a splashy courtside appearance in Las Vegas. But the dosimeter would have erupted once more as Ball and Hart first stopped to dap James, who ostensibly cast them aside as running mates in favor of a thinner roster that sported Davis … and maybe Kawhi Leonard as well. The imminent blockbuster and Finals MVP’s free agency looms over the entire NBA, yet here were Ball and James, in the flesh, laughing and dapping and … oh wait, there’s another spike in radioactivity on the other end of the floor.
Zion opted to end a turn in warmups with a layup instead of a dunk, eliciting a raucous jeer from the soldout crowd. More veterans streamed onto the floor. There was Jrue Holiday and Trae Young and DeMar DeRozan and PJ Tucker and Collin Sexton and Jaren Jackson and then Brandon Ingram, another Lakers trade castoff. If you follow a basketball person on Instagram, they were probably in attendance. Several of the many referees training for the winter season during these Summer League bouts sat on the ridge that separates the floor seats from Thomas & Mack’s lower bowl.
Then the actual basketball game ensued, beginning immediately with a lob pass to Williamson. Knicks sophomore Kevin Knox soared so ferociously to defend the dunk, both massive humans crashed painfully onto the floor. The magnetism appeared to hit Zion. He pressed early, air-balling a one-dribble pull-up over Knox after his foe poured a step-back three in his eye. Williamson shortly thereafter delivered out of a New Orleans timeout. He flushed consecutive two-handed jams and then skied to swat a Kadeem Allen floater. “Everything he does is so powerful,” said Pelicans point guard Frank Jackson. “We were talking on the bench. Those were light.” Zion rose and rose for that rejection, high enough to whistle a goaltend, but in the shocking fashion that would make a dosimeter chirp uncontrollably once more. The electricity kept bubbling. Fans raucously booed the Knicks fouling Zion after a steal, eliminating a potential runaway jam. Only Williamson answered those cries a few plays later, wrestling a rebound out of Knox’s grasp, spinning, slamming and flexing as he screamed.
What could possibly top that sequence? Davis himself strutted into the arena. The entire gym stood to catch a glimpse of The King and The Brow, appearing publicly for the first time as … almost-teammates. This week, this month, this summer, has been one of such positive momentum for the Pelicans. Members across the organization consistently repeated one word to describe their pregame feeling: overwhelmed. Only Davis could have interrupted New Orleans’ first Zion moment, like a human “That’s All Folks” t-shirt, so emphatically.
And yet. At some point during the second quarter, Williamson banged knees with another player and the Pelicans cautiously determined to rest the No. 1 pick for the remainder of the game. His obvious absence sparked a deafening “We want Zion!” chant with 7:11 left in the third quarter. Many of those fans raced for the exits with 7:53 remaining in the fourth quarter. The dosimeter had returned. Scoreboards and seats began to sway. Zion’s powerful dunk puns be damned, an actual earthquake rumbled underneath Las Vegas, as a 7.1-magnitude quake erupted in Ridgecrest, CA. The stadium’s public address announcer urged fans to remain calm and stay in their seats. Play halted. The surreal confusion left players and league officials alike standing on the hardwood, unsure of the evening’s fate.
Both teams retreated to the locker room. Several Pelicans players told SI.com the league insisted play would resume. A few players stretched, but most began changing. Nearly 30 minutes passed before official word came that the rest of Thomas & Mack’s schedule would be postponed. However, games at Cox Pavillion would continue as scheduled. The NBA will offer final say on Saturday whether the games at Thomas & Mack will resume as intended. Either way, Williamson won’t be playing. ESPN pushed for the Pelicans to appear on primetime both Friday and Saturday nights, creating a back-to-back New Orleans had no interest in exhibiting their franchise star, well before his minor knee injury in the first outing. Williamson may even sit the Pelicans' third game on Monday. The electricity will persist nonetheless. The animated clicking will only continue the further we explore Zion’s boom.