DURHAM, N.C. – All it took was 34 seconds on the brightest stage in college basketball for the debate about what it all means anyway to be lit on fire all anew.
The contrast was too rich.
On one hand you had Duke’s historic Cameron Indoor Stadium – one of the game’s true churches – packed to every corner for one of sports’ great rivalries, the energy so palpable you wondered if the nearly 80-year-old barn could stand it.
It was the 249th meeting of Duke and the University of North Carolina. What could be more exciting? President Barack Obama, the basketball-fan-in-chief, couldn’t miss it.
And on the other, rolling on the floor in pain and clutching his knee less than a minute into the game you had Duke’s Zion Williamson, college basketball’s brightest star, only months from a professional career and a treasure chest worth untold millions of dollars – providing he can stay healthy.
The early indications are his injury on Duke’s first offensive possession – which seemed to occur when his Nike sneaker split apart — won’t be long-term, even though he didn’t return to the game.
“We’re very concerned about Zion,” said Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski after the game. “It’s a mild knee sprain. We will know about length of time tomorrow. It’s stable. “
But just the image of Williamson writhing on the floor and leaving for the night was enough to send tremors through the foundation of the sport.
Tradition, pomp and pageantry are good for the soul, tremendous for TV ratings and can drive the secondary ticket market to unimaginable heights – reports were scalpers were asking and getting nearly $3,000 for a ticket at Cameron, which seats just 9,314; the lack of supply driving demand.
But it’s all depending on the best basketball talents in the world taking a one-year detour after high school before they can enter the NBA draft – a provision of the league’s collective bargaining agreement since 2005.
If they choose to play a season of college basketball, they can’t get paid. Everyone else does – Krzyzewski reportedly earns nearly $9 million a season to coach unpaid teenagers; the broadcasting rights for the NCAA tournament are worth nearly a billion dollars annually.
Still, when everything goes smoothly, the huge marketing push a college star can get at a successful major program can yield considerable benefits.
Williamson’s star has exploded at Duke. He has 2.4 million followers on Instagram and it is expected his social media reach, name recognition and endless collection of highlight reel dunks will put him in line for a massive shoe endorsement deal when he does turn professional – just maybe not with Nike.
But he’s got to get there in one piece.
The question now is about what he’s waiting for before cashing in. His performance for Duke this season already has him likely cemented as the No. 1 pick in this June’s NBA draft. If he left college tomorrow, he’d have shoe companies lining up to sign him by Friday, so why is he risking injury playing for free?
It was an awkward topic to contemplate in the swirl of college basketball’s beating heart but it will be front-and-centre the moment Williamson returns – if he returns — and for as long as he’s catapulting around the court for the love of his school alone.
Williamson’s injury sucked the spirit out of the game.
Duke came into the night ranked No. 1 and boasting one of the most impressive freshmen classes ever – co-headlined by the electric Williamson and his partner in crime, R.J. Barrett from Mississauga, Ont.
The Tar Heels were No. 8 and were looking to steal some of the Blue Devils’ Thunder.
The band was loud; the Cameron Crazies were roaring and Obama was in the house.
And then Williamson, the 6-foot-7, 285-pound phenom who in the space of a few short months has become as well-known as all but the NBA’s brightest stars, planted his left foot and tried to spin his right on Duke’s first offensive possession.
Instead of roaring down the lane for one of his jaw-dropping dunks Williamson fell awkwardly and his right knee collapsed inwardly at an uncomfortable angle.
Like almost everything Williamson does, however, it was a one-of-a-kind type slip-up.
On second look, Williamson’s Nike shoe seemed to explode under the strain of his change of direction. While it’s not completely unheard of for shoes to split where the uppers are stitched or glued to the sole, in Williamson’s case, the sole itself seemed to rupture.
“I’ve seen shoes break before,” said Duke upper-classman Jack White. “But not like that. The guy is unique.”
Williamson rolled onto his back and clutched his right knee in pain, just inside Duke’s three-point line as Cameron hushed for the first time since they opened the doors two hours before the 9 p.m. tip. He was able to walk off on his own – a good sign.
Said Barrett, Williamson’s roommate and co-star, who led all scorers with 33 points in Duke’s 88-72 loss, their third of the season against 23 wins:
“He’s feeling not great right now,” said Barrett. “I’m praying for him, I hope he gets better quick.”
Everyone is hoping he gets better quickly. Watching Williamson thunder down the floor with speed and grace that belies his size has become appointment viewing. He’s one of the biggest freshman stars the college game has ever seen.
But it took just one moment to put all of that in jeopardy and underline the question that college basketball and all its fans would like to avoid:
Sure, if he can come back and resume his wrecking ball ways and lead Duke to an NCAA title run, no one will be able to stop watching.
But at this point, what’s in it for him?