DURHAM, N.C. — The world’s most infamous pair of basketball shoes just sat there, tucked in purgatory beneath the Duke Blue Devils bench. The left sneaker, the one that had blown apart like an old trailer-tractor tire in just 36 seconds to injure the right knee of Zion Williamson, lay in a heap of material atop its righty partner, the one that had managed to keep it together.
Only a few feet away, college basketball’s greatest rivalry plowed ahead without college basketball’s greatest player. The reviled North Carolina Tar Heels were running away en route to a 88-72 road victory over Duke on Wednesday night. But the crowd of 9,314 at Cameron Indoor Stadium, from Williamson’s teammates to Barack Obama, spent the evening chattering not about the lopsided final score, but what they had witnessed in the opening moments of the contest.
That moment when the outlook of the 2019 college hoops season suddenly became as impossible to foresee as self-destructive footwear.
The incident happened innocently enough, as Williamson was just past the free throw line, back to the basket, and setting up his next move. When he planted his left foot, it came out from underneath his 6-foot-7, 285-pound frame and sent him into a split. He suffered what Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski described as a “mild right knee sprain” when that leg tried to find enough balance to counter the crumpling left. The reason he had lost grip with that left foot was that the shoe literally came apart at the seams.
When asked if he had ever seen that happen, Krzyzewski said he had seen plenty of basketball shoes fall apart, though not as dramatically as what he had seen on Wednesday night. Then he admitted he hadn’t yet watched the replay that already had been broken down by the outside world like it was the Zapruder film.
Krzyzewski did say that Williamson’s feet had been slipping in recent contests, which suggested that he puts a lot of wear and tear on his footgear via the same speed and power that most had come to Cameron Indoor Stadium hoping to witness.
“I was right there and I didn’t really see what happened,” explained fellow Duke freshman Tre Jones, who was next to Williamson on the court when the injury took place. “I just thought he’d twisted his ankle or his knee. But when he took his shoes off, I thought maybe something else was going on.”
Williamson jerked that left shoe, or what was left of it, off his foot after landing in a sitting position on the floor. When he made it to his feet, the freshman forward favored the right knee as he was helped to the bench by a Duke staffer. As the game resumed, Williamson chatted with medical staff as they tested that knee. After several minutes, Williamson retreated to locker room in his socks, the shoes having been stuffed under his seat by the staffer. As he rushed away, Obama shouted a word of encouragement.
The shoes became an instant internet sensation for all the wrong reasons. A rival even took a shot at the makers of the shoe, Nike, tweeting “Wouldn’t have happened in the pumas.” That tweet was deleted as snark turned to sympathy amid the reality that the details of the 18-year old’s injury and status for the remainder of the season remained unclear.
While the basketball world waited for an update on Williamson’s condition, his teammates struggled without him. They spent the first half firing up 3-pointers, 20 in all, and missed all but two. The Blue Devils spent the majority of the game facing a double-digit deficit.
“It put everyone in the position of having to figure it out, playing without him, while playing a really good team. It’s not a good situation,” Krzyzewski explained. “At halftime, the realization that he’s not there settled in. And we played horrible to start the second half. The final 16 minutes I thought we played really well, but it was too late.”
Another Duke freshman forward, Cam Reddish, offered his take on Williamson.
“It was the first time we’ve not played with him all season,” Reddish said. “We miss him as a player, but it’s not just that. He is also the source of our energy. So, without him on the floor, that energy is missing. We have to be back in the gym tomorrow, figuring out how to find that energy while he is gone. However long that is going to be.”
How long will Zion Williamson be gone? That’s the question that will hang over the remainder of the 2019 season like the fog that rolled in over Durham on Wednesday night. When Joe Lunardi posted his nightly ESPN.com Bracketology update, the opening headline read: “Not enough information yet on Zion Williamson to adjust Duke’s status” as a predicted top seed in next month’s NCAA tournament.
“We have to come up with a game plan without him and hope that he comes back soon,” Krzyzewski said before returning to his locker room, leaving to see Williamson, and then starting to strategize for a trip to Syracuse — the only other ACC team to defeat Duke this year — on Saturday. “When you lose the leading candidate for national player of the year, you have a lot of adjusting to do.”
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