By now, everyone has read about Zion. This article is nothing new. Even the people who have written about Zion have, by now, read about Zion. Still, the timeline grows hazy.
Only a few days removed from his team’s loss to Michigan State, the exact details and sequence of even his most recent games start to fade. The spectacle, however, remains.
If you are like me, then you can still see Zion Williamson. The word Duke is printed across his chest, but, for once, the premier program in college basketball was overshadowed by the name on the back of the jersey. After all, anyone named Zion is supposed to outshine earthly institutions, but Zion could have been named Bob or Oliver and he still would have soared to impossible heights at unimaginable speeds to block shots no other player named Christian or Cherokee could ever think about reaching. Zion, in college, was never really about names or brands, but surviving Kryptonian suicides and exploding shoes. Then again, if his name had been Elton or Casey, none of this would have sounded so miraculously perfect:
What time does Zion play? I gotta see Zion score his first bucket. I gotta see him do whatever he’s going to do.
I still see his hand gesturing toward the rafters. I see the far flung orb of an orange ball. I think, no way!, and he’s doing this against the University of Virginia months ago and he’s doing this against Virginia Tech days ago and I’ve seen him do this before and still I doubt and I am always wrong and always astounded. After all, who jumps from inside the lane to block a corner 3? Or, who ventures across the lane and above the square? Here’s a hint: neither Grant Hill nor Corey Maggette and definitely not Shane Battier in all his cerebral intensity. Woj? You have got to be kidding me.
I watch Zion dunk the ball. Correction: we all watch Zion dunk the ball with the brutal force only the future can muster against the past. He is a Terminator, and I, for one, do not care whether his team performed a net-cutting ceremony or not. Something else is at stake here about human athletes and robots. Championships and banners are cool too, but something else is at stake here and I think it might be the fate of the planet. Then again, I’m just an English teacher and am prone to hyperbole. And yet, you’re also probably just a human being, and you very well know I have yet to accurately describe just how high Zion Williamson jumped all year. I guess he’s human too, but if you were a computer scientist doing some serious research into artificial intelligence and he showed up in your living room, wouldn’t you expect him to take a switchblade to his own arm, cut through the skin and flesh, bleed blood et al, only to reveal a mechanical non-CGI forearm and hand with something stronger than a Kung Fu grip?
Okay, maybe you’re not convinced by my hypotheticals. Here is the Zion Williamson quotation that was rolled out upon his return from injury at the ACC Tournament in Brooklyn. His exact words were, “I just go out and kill.” I. Just. Go. Out. And. Kill.
He averaged 27 points per game and 10 rebounds that weekend, shooting 77 percent from the field. He set records. He killed. His team cut down the nets. I only remember the bruising speed, the craters left in his footsteps, the hearts he ripped out of gaping chests, the fireworks, the punchlines.
Zion played four games in this year’s NCAA Tournament, averaging 26.0 points per game, 8.5 rebounds, 1.8 assists, 1.5 steals, and 1.8 blocks. He did all this while shooting 61.6 percent from the field. He is on repeat. He is a machine
Following Duke’s Elite Eight loss to Michigan State, The Ringer’s Jonathan Tjarks penned an article titled “Duke’s Greatest Recruiting Class Is Coach K’s Ultimate Failure.” The article is less about Zion Williamson than it is about Coach K’s attempts to keep pace with the times. The article is insightful (as just about everything Tjarks writes is), but the article is also rather hard-hitting in its final claim:
“This has been the least successful of any era of Duke basketball since [Coach K] took over in Durham, and a coach obsessed with legacy will be remembered by a generation of fans as someone who never got the most out of his players.”
While possibly correct, I think Tjarks may be missing the point here. Zion traveled back in time to save us from ourselves and our collective sense of Coach K legacy pretension. And true to blockbuster form he sacrificed himself in a vat of piping hot magma without even garnering an Oscar nomination. But, sure, Jeremy Irons in Reversal of Fortune is the real winner here. Hasta la vista, Zion.
The one-and-done era is a crapshoot. Coaches are playing Yahtzee with top recruiting classes. The tournament is single elimination. People win office pools by picking teams based on their dog’s favorite colors and mascots. Tom Izzo, Bruce Pearl, or Chris Beard could be victorious at the Final Four this weekend, and each would still boast a resume that pales in comparison with Coach K’s. Moreover, no future coach is probably ever going to amass the sort of success or build the type of legacy Coach K already has at Duke. The career paths of either Rick Pitino or Billy Donovan are much more likely. But this isn’t really meant to defend Coach K so much as to question just how relevant college coaching legacies are to the times in which we live.
Once upon a time, college teams had to win their conference tournaments to even qualify for the NCAA tournament. Prior to 1975 the tournament only fielded sixteen teams, and the NCAA expanded the field again in 1985. While at UCLA, John Wooden won nine of his ten championships prior to 1975, and his teams competed in a conference lacking in depth. He is an all-time winner, but he also coached Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Bill Walton, and Sidney Wicks. Did he get the most out of his teams’ talents? Ten titles in twelve years suggest that he did, but he also had more talent at his disposal than any other coach in his era. The talent also stayed.
Coaching legacies, as currently configured, require stable environments. Hence, college basketball can’t escape its blue-blooded hierarchy. The solar system consists of UCLA, Kansas, Kentucky, Duke, and North Carolina. Michigan State is the asteroid belt. Everyone else is Pluto.
Coaches thrive on the perceived health and happiness of the institution. Yet the athletic program requires a constant supply of young, athletic bodies. Like robots in a now twenty-year-old science fiction film starring Keanu Reeves, the institution needs a power supply.
While both The Terminator and The Matrix franchises feature wars between humans and machines, both also feature a co-opting of the opposition. In the first Terminator, John Connor sends his dad back in time to save his mom from the Terminator and to make sure his birth happens. He’s like the inverse of Oedipus. In the second film, the movie appears incredibly familiar, but now the robot played by Arnold Schwarzenegger is a force for good. He’s here not to hunt John Connor but to protect him. His would be killer is now his agent. In The Matrix, Neo must reenter the computer program to defeat the computer, but in the second film, he learns that he must reboot his enemy in order not to kill everyone he’s fighting to save.
Throughout Zion’s brief stint in college basketball, I wished he had played for anyone other than Duke. How cool would it have been to see him play the role of David instead of Goliath? By season’s end, however, I started to forget he played for Coach K’s Duke Blue Devils. As a player, Zion eclipsed everything from his legendary coach to the sport’s best conference. He was that big.
So let’s say Tjarks is right and Coach K’s most talented recruiting class is the biggest hole in the coach’s resume. But let’s also assume at the same time that Zion Williamson is the college basketball savior we all hoped and feared him to be. Winning would have been the traditional path to greatness. After all, Christian Laettner and Bobby Hurley managed to do it twice. Eroding Coach K’s legacy, on the other hand, while defying all the planet’s physical laws through flight, is something else entirely. It’s player-centered, and it’s an inside job to boot. Hasta la vista, the way it always was.